BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. In January of 2007, Los Angeles Times crime reporter Jill Leovy started a blog called the Homicide Report. Her goal was to chronicle every murder day by day in the county of Los Angeles, a region of 4,000 square miles where more than 1,100 people were killed in 2006. When we spoke with Leovy shortly after the beginning of the assignment, she had this to say. JILL LEOVY: You have to follow the pain. That's the number one rule of homicide reporting. You go for that. You chronicle people's pain. You talk about what this is like. BOB GARFIELD: After a year of chronicling people’s pain, Leovy will soon step down as author of the Homicide Report to take more general assignments. She joins us now to reflect on the previous year. Jill, welcome back to On the Media. JILL LEOVY: Thanks so much, Bob. BOB GARFIELD: On the subject of chronicling people’s pain, there is sometimes a thin line between chronicling it and exploiting it. What’s the trick to staying on the right side of that line? JILL LEOVY: I often say people do this only if you want to. Do this if you see a purpose in making people understand what this is like. Don't do it if you find it harmful to yourself in any way or if it feels exploitive to you. I really let my sources steer the ship to a great degree in that regard. BOB GARFIELD: Now, there is a difference between being on the police beat, covering cops and all that comes with it, and chronicling every murder every day for a year. I just can't imagine what kind of toll that takes on you emotionally. What has this exercise been like? JILL LEOVY: You know, it’s funny you should ask me that question about the toll it takes, because it’s not how I feel about it. I feel optimistic and hopeful about this problem, and I feel very energized about this last year. It’s been so gratifying to make people see this problem in a different way than I could do when I was just writing articles for the paper. And that seems to have worked a little bit in a small way that I hadn't seen it work before. BOB GARFIELD: I just want to reiterate why this basic, almost clerical job of recording the who, what, when, where and why makes a difference, particularly in minority communities. Can you tell me what had been missing and why this has made a difference? JILL LEOVY: Well, if you think about it the other way, if you think about these deaths going unreported – I was thinking this morning about a father who was telling me about how he had desperately tried to block the blood flow out of his son’s wound and it kept squeezing through his fingers, and that’s how he knew his son was going to die – stories like that, that are just shattering for the people involved with them, shattering for everybody around them in a big circle, and yet a complete silence on the level of public discourse about what happened.
It’s frightening to people. It’s creepy. I used to hear all the time it’s surreal how these homicides are not being covered. They are such enormous events in the communities they're happening in.
So the very small thing that I did, and really in some ways sort of sadly minimal thing that I did, which is simply to write down the names and record these and make a public record of them was something that people in the communities where the homicides are happening responded extremely strongly to. BOB GARFIELD: And along the way of doing that, you actually created something of a database of the almost 900 homicides in Los Angeles County. Looking at that data, what immediately jumps out at you? JILL LEOVY: I covered homicides in Los Angeles County, and Los Angeles County homicides are sharply down this year. We just did a story about L.A. City, which is within L.A. County, having the lowest homicide numbers since the late '60s, early '70s.
And yet, despite this, the distribution of homicide doesn't change. The homicide rate in America overall right now in the last few years has been five or six deaths per 100,000 people per year. In Los Angeles County, for black men in their 20s, it’s 176 deaths per 100,000 per year. This is not a small scale of difference that we're talking about. It is extraordinary.
I wonder if actually more important than the names on the Homicide Report was the decision to include the race of every victim. And in some ways I wonder if the response that the Homicide Report got was more because of that than anything else – not just the names, but seeing a 20-year-old black man, a 21-year-old black man, a 27-year-old black man, a 32-year-old Latino man, a 21-year-old Latino man, a 21-year-old Latino man, day after day, every day.
I think it allowed people to see what the statistics on paper actually mean in terms of a daily toll, and that may have been more of its power. BOB GARFIELD: In a couple of weeks, you’re going to hand over the reins of the Homicide Report to a colleague. Any words of wisdom? JILL LEOVY: [LAUGHS] Well, I'm actually training my replacement, and it’s his first job, actually, as a writer in the newsroom, [LAUGHS] which may say something about me or not. I think that affectionately one of my editors referred to me as an overpaid file clerk at some point when I was doing the Homicide Report.
But it really is more than that. It’s a lot of digging. There’s no way to get this information except to really, really work it and really dig, and he’s finding that already. He said to me today, he said, you know, I put out a dozen calls on these cases and none of these detectives have gotten back to me. And I said, well, welcome to the [LAUGHING] the Homicide Report. BOB GARFIELD: Thank you very much, and good luck on the new beat. JILL LEOVY: Thank you so much. BOB GARFIELD: Jill Leovy is a reporter for The Los Angeles Times. She will step down as author of the Homicide Report later this month.