A year ago, the Los Angeles Times Homicide Report was struggling for attention in an increasingly busy newsroom. Reporters continued to update the project, which began as a blog in 2007 and had grown into a database and map of all of the homicides in Los Angeles County. But with an average of almost two new killings a day, maintenance was getting harder to justify.
Ken Schwencke, a developer on the paper’s Data Desk, remembers the inevitable crossroads: “Our editor, Megan Garvey, came to the editor-in-chief and basically said, ‘Look, we either need to stop the report or start doing it right.'” Management doubled-down, hiring Nicole Santa Cruz as the beat’s full-time reporter while thinking about how best to continue covering homicides beyond just the stats.
Last week, the Times unveiled the latest iteration of the Homicide Report, now featuring improved maps, filters, and indexing that also groups stories related to each homicide. With the tagline “A Story for Every Victim,” the project aims to counterbalance the media’s focus on higher-profile killings.
“The homicides that aren’t covered are the stories that need to be,” Santa Cruz tells Co. Design. “You’re making these people more than a statistic, which is kind of what they’re reduced to in year-to-year homicide counts.”
The project begins with a map of L.A. covered in bubbles representing individual homicides. Users can zoom in on specific blocks to see where people were killed, as well as click each bubble to read stories the Times have published. Users can also hide the bubbles to show L.A. County neighborhoods, colored according to a ranking that factors in both homicide per capita and per square mile.
Expanding the map breaks down homicides by the victims’ race and how they died. The trends are brutal. Despite the fact that only 8% of L.A.’s population is black, 33% of the deaths since 2007 come from the African American community. Gun violence accounted for 74% of homicides, and 85% of victims were male.
Whereas other news organizations have published annual homicide maps as simple choropleths, Schwencke says the team used the bubbles and photos of the victims “to remind readers that this is about people. The navigation is built around that theory.”
On the map, 60 of those people dot a two-mile stretch of South Vermont Avenue between the city of Los Angeles and Inglewood. One detective calls it “death alley” in a Times story on the area. Santa Cruz says that for citizens along that corridor and in other high-crime neighborhoods, homicide has become a fact of life. They’re also the people who tell her how important the project is to them.
“We’re definitely known for paying attention to this sort of thing, especially in communities where it matters more,” says Santa Cruz.
Responses to the project have become a database itself, as the comment section of each story serves as a forum for community members to leave remembrances, ask for information about the killers, and sound off on how the city can turn crime rates around.
“People will say ‘Oh, I lost a brother’, and they’ll leave email addresses, which will help us contact them,” says Santa Cruz. “Or they’ll say there’s been an update in this case, and I can follow up with the D.A.”
The Times has created a home for the bereaved, serving the public in a way that wasn’t possible even a few years ago. And while the names are specific to L.A., the victim demographics and segregation of violence play out in cities across the nation.
“The face of homicide hasn’t changed in years,” says Santa Cruz. “The same people are being killed.”