Since he started working at The Trace, Chicago engagement reporter Justin Agrelo has been exploring what it means to survive gun violence by speaking with survivors themselves. One common theme that emerged: Media coverage can compound the trauma of a shooting. “Episodic crime stories are published every day in Chicago,” Agrelo recently wrote. “In their attempt to cover nearly every homicide, reporters often boil people’s lives down to just a few details, often defining them by their deaths.”
Agrelo has spent the past year on a project to help survivors take control of their own narratives. The result, the inaugural edition of “Chicago Stories of Survival,” was published late last month. The collection features essays from a cohort of Chicagoans — Aja Johnson, Carla Johnson, Eroica Del Real, Jaree Noel, and Marlon English — that each offers a glimpse into the different ways gun violence rearranges a life. It also includes reported stories and a guide to having better conversations with survivors of gun violence, which also functions more broadly as a guide to talking about grief and loss.
I spoke with Agrelo about how this project came into being, the perils of poor media coverage of gun violence, and how his reporting role differs from others’ in the newsroom. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Sunny: In your introduction to the collection, you wrote that it was the result of the team asking what the story of gun violence in Chicago would look like if survivors got to lead the way. Can you tell me a little more about the genesis of the project?
Justin: In my first six months at The Trace, I was tasked with speaking with as many people as possible who have been affected by gun violence or who are working in the violence prevention space. Through those conversations, it became clear very fast that a lot of people are frustrated with the overall reporting on gun violence in Chicago — and that existing coverage too often fails to center the experiences of survivors and the lives of victims.
There’s a lot that gets left out of a story when its main focus is shooting numbers and death tolls. Many survivors I spoke with felt that the story of gun violence in Chicago wasn’t being told fully, and that their loved ones were being defined by their deaths when they were full people who had lived full lives. Others said news coverage depicts Black and brown communities as inherently violent, and doesn’t offer much context about why shootings happen where they do.
As a result, many survivors said, not only were their collective experiences as survivors being misrepresented in the news, but also Chicago itself wasn’t being fairly portrayed. So we thought, what would these stories be if we helped survivors tell them on their own terms? What would the narrative be if we as journalists passed the mic, so to speak, to the people closest to the issue? And so we created this program where we could help mentor survivors in that process.
The collection is a result of a year-long process in which I imagine you got to know the cohort pretty well. Tell me more about working with the group.
We met as a group three times for about four hours. Those meetings were often emotional, but also filled with a lot of laughter and joy. I received some important advice early on from Edwin Martinez, the executive director at Centro Sanar, a local nonprofit that works with survivors of community violence. He said that when working with people who’ve experienced trauma, it’s important to find ways to bring joy into the space. A small but powerful way I think we did that was by ending each in-person meeting with a meal, where the conversations were a lot lighter and we could just hang out and get to know one another.
At our second in-person meeting, we looked at the news coverage of gun violence in Chicago, and mapped out how each writer’s story would add nuance to the issue. That meeting was really eye-opening. I got to witness how deeply the group had thought about the news, and see firsthand how the stories journalists write actually affect people.
I often hear other reporters wondering if we’re just writing for other journalists — if our stories are actually reaching the communities we’re writing for — so it was really captivating to see how personal the coverage of gun violence is to people who’ve experienced loss, even when those stories aren’t directly about them. And it was a powerful reminder for me to continue approaching this work with a lot of care.
Engagement reporting is a unique and relatively new position within journalism. How does this role differ from other positions within the newsroom? What does it look like on a day-to-day basis, on the ground?
My role is a bit more fluid than a traditional beat reporter. While I still write some stories, I’m not on the grind. My work is mostly about being in constant conversation with communities in Chicago where shootings are common. And that can look like many different things. Sometimes it looks like traditional sourcing — calling people or attending public events. But instead of talking to folks for a specific story, I’m really trying to learn what people are looking for. What information do people need that they maybe can’t find or want more of? How are people consuming news, and what are their perceptions of the coverage? How do they want reporters to interact with them? What stories aren’t being told that they would want to see more coverage of? Open-ended questions like that, among other things.
This work is really about building community trust and relationships that are less transactional and less extractive — not just speaking with people when we need them for a story. It’s about bringing folks into our decision-making processes, listening to their feedback and ideas, so that our coverage reflects their needs and accurately reports on their experiences. Community engagement is about creating pathways for people to not feel like subjects being written about, but active collaborators in shaping the stories about them and their communities — ultimately, the stories that are their own.
From The Trace
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What to Know This Week
A number of gun safety laws across the U.S. went into effect on Monday. Among them: a ban on the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines in Illinois; Minnesota’s extreme risk protection order law; Colorado’s ghost gun ban; reforms in Washington state that impose a 10-day waiting period for firearm purchases and require gun buyers to take safety training; and a contentious California law prohibiting gun carrying in many public places. [The Guardian/KQED]
At a middle and high school in Perry, Iowa, a mass shooter killed one sixth-grade student and wounded five other victims, including an administrator, shortly before school was scheduled to start on Thursday morning. The suspect, a 17-year-old, died from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. [Des Moine Register]
In November, the Supreme Court agreed to hear NRA v. Vullo, the gun group’s case against New York’s former top financial regulator, whom the NRA alleges violated its free speech rights. On its face, the case is about First Amendment rights, but it may have greater implications for the way regulators alert financial institutions about potential risks. [Slate]
Denver Police arrested a man who reportedly broke into the Colorado Supreme Court building by shooting out a window and, once inside, fired multiple shots and held a security guard at gunpoint. No one was injured during the break-in. [Colorado Public Radio/USA TODAY]
There are no agreed-upon national standards for “after-action” reports analyzing police responses to mass shootings, meaning that the level of detail included in these reviews is highly variable. An analysis of reports released to the public shows that some of them excluded key details about officers’ actions or failed to fully explore other missteps. [ProPublica, The Texas Tribune, and FRONTLINE]
An imam, Hassan Sharif, was shot and killed outside his mosque in Newark, New Jersey, just after pre-dawn prayers on Wednesday. While police say the shooter’s motive is not yet clear, the killing comes amid a surge in antisemitic and Islamophobic episodes across the U.S. since the start of Israel-Hamas war. [NBC]
Cherelle Parker was sworn in as Philadelphia’s 100th mayor, pledging in an inauguration speech to improve public safety with community policing. During her campaign, Parker embraced ramping up the use of stop-and-frisk — a move her critics and supporters began debating long before she took office. [WHYY/Billy Penn]
Political violence is reshaping American politics, perhaps most significantly within the GOP. Many Republicans admit that — amid an escalation in threats against public officials, most frequently and most credibly from the far right — they’ve chosen to fall in line with Donald Trump rather than risk being targeted by his fanatical, and often gun-toting, followers. [Vox]
Guns procured in the U.S. are fueling the gang violence crisis in Haiti, according to a United Nations report. In turn, the terror in Haiti has led thousands of refugees to flee to the American border — and there’s no end to the cycle in sight. [Rolling Stone]
Chicago, like most of the country, experienced a decline in gun violence in 2023. But robberies in the city surged, with 40 percent more victims than the year before — and according to the University of Chicago Crime Lab, the number of robbers carrying guns surged, too. [Chicago Sun-Times]
James Carter, 84, was known as the “godfather of Norfolk,” the Virginia city where he was the longtime proprietor of a small neighborhood convenience store. He was also known as “Pops,” the kind of figure you could rely on to listen to your troubles and lend a hand when you needed it most. Carter was shot and killed outside his business last month. Perhaps above all, community members told The Virginian-Pilot, he was compassionate: He opened a line of credit for someone who was low on cash; made sure a family had something to eat when they ran out of food; gave money and a gas can to a person who didn’t have the means to fill up his car. “You could come in and say, ‘I’m a dollar short,’ and he’d say, ‘OK, baby, it’s all right,’” one of his regulars remembered. Carter took care of people everywhere he went, his son said. “He was a genuine guy,” said another mourner. “Everyone loved him.”
The Covenant Parents Aren’t Going to Keep Quiet on Guns: “Ms. Joyce and other Covenant parents felt they stood a better chance than anyone at cutting through the divisions on gun control. Among them were former Republican aides, gun owners and lifelong conservatives who could afford to spend days at the legislature. … But the Tennessee legislature proved more hostile than the Covenant parents imagined. And when Ms. Joyce heard just one more gun rights supporter dismiss the parents’ concerns after days of restraint, her patience snapped.” [The New York Times]
“I just ran into one of the first guys I worked with. He told me how we held him accountable. We used everyone as a support group to get to him.”
— Jonas Jacox, a street outreach worker and the director of the violence prevention group Seeds of Roseland, on measuring success on the individual level, to the Chicago Sun-Times