Each year, the Oakland Tribune publishes a special section dedicated to the city’s homicides. It’s a familiar, macabre tradition known to urban newsrooms throughout the country: Compile the names of victims, locations of murders, and some testimonials from friends and families of the slain; then create a map to show the most problematic areas, send it to press, and move on to less disheartening news.
But this year, two Oakland Tribune staffers had a different idea. As the newsroom was preparing its annual homicide package, Web producers Katy Newton and Sean Connelley began preparing their own homicide map, tweaking the existing format to make it more interactive and personal. In an interview with the Annenberg Online Journalism Review, Newton and Connelley explain that their idea wasn’t to just change the way the paper covered homicides, but to change the way readers read and reacted to them. Every victim would have a face, a family, a personal history. No mug shots would be used as memorial photos. The dead would be remembered as their families remember them, not by an impassive description from a police report.
Their efforts brought about the Online Journalism Award-winning project Not Just A Number, which combines by-the-facts news reporting with social networking and activism to foster dialogue between Oakland residents. Victims’ families can connect with one another. The dead can be remembered and honored, instead of simply documented. And there are happy, personal photos instead of mug shots.
The map portion of Not Just A Number looks like an ordinary satellite photo of Oakland, but it’s dotted with numbers marking the locations of each of the city’s murders. Visitors can click on each one to learn about the person who was killed in that spot. In an especially poignant audio memorial to Morris McCall, the city’s 10th murder victim of the year, Carmelita King tells of her son’s exceptional energy, how his presence lit up their home, switching back and forth between present and past tense. It’s impossible not to feel something, looking at Carmelita’s photo on the computer screen, listening to a mother’s memory of dancing with her dead son.
Not Just A Number may not change the murder rate in Oakland. But at least the sadly common practice of mapping our dead has taken on a more a human dimension. Check out the project and the map on the Not Just A Number homepage.