By Sandy K. Johnson
New Orleans is a proud city pockmarked with areas of poverty and crime. When reporters Jonathan Bullington and Richard Webster received a journalism grant to describe how children in New Orleans were affected by community violence, the next step was selecting which neighborhood to focus on.
Statistics pointed to Central City. The neighborhood was chosen in part because of high unemployment, low graduation rates, high crime and unusually high levels of violence; one in five children, for example, had witnessed a murder and half knew someone who had been murdered, a survey showed. (Central City has a long cultural history tied to music and Mardi Gras.)
Then came the dilemma of reporting a story for NOLA.com and The Times-Picayune through a health lens while not demonizing the community.
Bullington and Webster found their pivot point in the A.L. Davis Park Panthers, a youth football team long coached by Jerome Temple, who had seen all four of his brothers go to prison. Temple’s goal was to give the young kids the same athletic outlet he benefited from as a child, as well as a brief refuge each day from bad influences.
With their visual storytelling colleagues Brett Duke and Emma Scott, Bullington and Webster spent weeks building rapport with the community – no notebooks or cameras.
“The first thing we needed to do was gain the trust of the community,” Bullington said. Added Duke: “We began attending all the practices and every game. There were times where I couldn’t go to the whole game, but I would show up for five minutes to build a rapport.”
They also reported on the health impact of constant long-term exposure to violence – how children physically react and how their bodies are affected. The trauma literally affects the development of children’s’ brains as their bodies react to fear and stress by releasing hormones and jacking up heart rates and blood pressure – a version of survival mode. Witnessing criminal behavior and violence can trigger symptoms; police flashing lights and sirens can also be triggers.
After reporting for 10 months, the journalists had an avalanche of material. How did they edit it down to the project that became “The Children of Central City”?
- Duke, the photographer, tried to do daily edits of his photos while the shoots were fresh in his mind.
- Bullington and Webster kept a running Google doc to track their interviews and a list of sources/contacts.
- Scott, the videographer, was responsible for distilling weeks of video into an 18-minute documentary, which she did with a laborious storyboard.
The project had instant impact. The New Orleans City Council passed a resolution mandating funding for trauma-informed teacher training, which is now underway in five New Orleans schools, and appointed a task force to make further recommendations.
One final bit of advice from Duke: Don’t be afraid to throw out your preconceived notions.
The full team – Jonathan Bullington, Richard Webster, Brett Duke, Emma Scott and digital strategist Haley Correll – won the Carolyn C. Mattingly Award for Mental Health Reporting.