Talking to a Chicago Crime Reporter About Covering the City's Murders
In early June, Michael Lansu was laid off from the <i>Chicago Sun-Times</i> after almost two years keeping tabs on the Windy City's notorious gun violence.
For almost two years, Michael Lansu's days began with a quick tally of the times and locations of deadly overnight shootings in Chicago. From there, the 32-year-old native of the city's North Side would cull more information from police—names, dates of birth, addresses—and get to work reporting on many of the men, women and children murdered in Chicago each year. As editor and reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times' Homicide Watch, Lansu told stories of death. In the case of Lil Durk's manager, Uchenna Agina, whose death came just hours after meeting with Chicago Bulls Center Joakim Noah at an anti-violence event, Lansu combined his deep police sources and in-depth knowledge of the city's rap scene to tell a story steeped in tragic irony.
But in early June, Lansu was laid off from the Sun-Times after a decade at the paper. The newspaper, like many of its brethren across the country in both small towns and big cities, has struggled in recent years to keep up with online competition. In 2013, theSun-Times famously—or infamously if you're a journalist—laid off its entire photo staff. Late last year, the newspaper's parent company announced a series of websites aimed at covering other metropolitan areas—not by staffing newsrooms in other cities, but by aggregating content provided by local news sources.
We recently caught up with Lansu to talk about his time as one of Chicago's preeminent murder reporters, and what his future holds.
VICE: Give us an idea what a typical shift on the Homicide Watch desk looked like for you.
Michael Lansu: A typical day as editor of Homicide Watch started with checking on the overnight violence first thing in the morning. How many people were shot? How many people were killed?
This was done in a variety of ways, including reading news briefs written by overnight reporters, contacting police sources, and checking social media. The next step was to post brief news stories on the night's killings. From there, I would either go to the scene to try and talk to friends and family or, if there were numerous murders, try to contact friends and family via phone and social media.
Other regular tasks included going to court for bond hearings, creating databases, searching for trends, running social media, and assigning stories to interns and freelancers.
There is no blanket solution for the entire city.
A lot of people try to make sense of the violence in Chicago, like there's a single reason for it or some sort of moment of enlightenment to be gleaned from the mayhem. What did you learn during your time covering the city's murders?
Just like everywhere else, from big city to small town, there is not one single reason for violence. Some of the shootings stem from gang or drug disputes, others from taunts over social media, and yet others start from disputes among people who have been drinking or doing drugs at a party. Chicago also has its share of domestic killings that stem from family disputes.
The perception that all of Chicago's violence comes from gang members standing on corners and fighting over territory is just not right. It is a very complex problem that includes illegal guns, a culture of violence, and sometimes a lack of problem solving skills.
If you had to choose, what is the single greatest reason that so many people in Chicago die from gun violence?
There is no single reason because every neighborhood is different. Parts of the West Side have long been known for open air drug markets and disputes of drug sales. In recent years, much of the South Side violence has stemmed from gang disputes that start as social media taunts. There is no blanket solution for the entire city.
Is there any way to stop it?
The Chicago Police Department often talks about the easy access to illegal guns, and what they claim is insufficient punishment for those arrested with those guns. And while that is part of the problem, there is clearly a culture of violence in some Chicago neighborhoods where shootings are a daily occurrence. Many people have spent their entire lives in these neighborhoods... In recent years, the police department has worked closely with the community to try and stop conflicts before shootings (or retaliation) happens.
...police definitely know who the gang members are, and anyone with even basic internet skills can find YouTube and Instagram accounts with photos of guns and drugs.
Local favorite Young Pappy was killed last month, marking just the latest in a line of rappers who were making waves online only to be gunned down. Where did Pappy fit in Chicago's rap hierarchy, and was he as much of a gangbanger as the cops say?
Young Pappy had been growing in popularity recently, in part because of several YouTube videos that got lots of views. In recent years, Chicago has produced a lot of rappers that have had national success. Just like other types of music, there are those who have big-money record deals, those with smaller record deals, and up-and-comers releasing their own music. At the time of his death, Young Pappy was gaining in popularity, but still releasing his own music.
Young Pappy had lyrics that taunted rival gangs. He had been the target of at least two other shootings that left bystanders dead.
It seems like you listen to hip-hop artists in Chicago's scene for different reasons than the average music consumer. What have you learned from these artists about life in Chicago?
When drill music became popular a few years ago, a lot of Chicago rappers had success with the more aggressive songs that sounded like the violent streets where they grew up. But not every Chicago rapper is making songs about violence. Those who are often have lyrics that include references to local gangs or areas. Learning what the references mean can be helpful in understanding specific areas in specific neighborhoods.
How much do police focus on the online flame wars and music videos coming out of the city?
Chicago Police pay a lot of attention to social media conflicts. The police department has made a lot of changes in recent years toward more modern police tactics. Some people think it has worked, others believe the old way was better. But police definitely know who the gang members are, and anyone with even basic internet skills can find YouTube and Instagram accounts with photos of guns and drugs.
It seems like there's a lot of grumbling among Chicago media folks when reporters or outlets from outside the city cover it. I'm thinking specifically about the Guardian's pieces on the police detention facility at Homan Square. Can you explain why this is?
I don't think local media grumbling about national media is unique to Chicago. Every reporter takes pride in knowing their city and gets upset when outsiders come in.
In regards to Homan Square, the initial Guardian story rubbed many Chicago reporters the wrong way. Lots of reporters got hung up on the term "black site," since they had known that the building was CPD[Chicago Police Department]-operated for years.
The initial story left a lot of local reporters and editors asking questions like: "Why didn't they file a lawsuit?" "Had the suspect ever been arrested before, and what is he comparing the experience to—this is Chicago after all?" and "I could have gotten comment from police through my sources."
Some people came out and criticized local media for not covering the story because the media is too close to the police department. I don't think this is true. Obviously some reporters have more police sources than others, but if it was deemed to be an important story, it would have been assigned.
I really do believe the reason it didn't get more coverage is because this is a big city with lots of people making accusations every day. Most media outlets have a policy where they don't write about accusations or threats of lawsuits. They will cover the story when a lawsuit is filed, and I think that policy dictated a lot of the local coverage.
Along those lines, how much do you hate the term "Chiraq?" It seems to be a favorite among media outside the city, but Chicago rappers like Montana of 300 seem to have taken to it too, and Spike Lee is currently filming a movie in Englewood called Chiraq.
I don't hate the term, [but] I see it as another nickname that gives the city a bad name. "Chiraq" was just as likely to catch on as "Killinois." I chuckle [about how] the nickname has caught on and some days gets as much media attention as the violence problem it is supposed to represent. Other cities have unflattering nicknames as well (Cleveland has long been known as "The Mistake By The Lake"), but arguing over nicknames instead of focusing on the problems that prompted the nickname seems silly to me.
What do you miss most about the job? Least?
I am going to miss the Homicide Watch project. I really believe that local media should cover every murder and not pick-and-choose based on the staff available or the neighborhood where the killing happened. I hope Chicago media is able to find a way to constantly improve on its murder coverage.
You now join the distinguished ranks of journalists let go because of the difficult economics the industry. What are your plans for the future?
I enjoyed a little bit of time off from the daily grind that was 24/7 murder coverage in Chicago. Like all reporters, it is hard to stay away for too long and I am ready to get back to work. I have some stories that I am working on while I look for my next project.
Follow Michael Lansu on Twitter.
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