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Their stories of gang violence were heartbreaking, but I couldn’t always tell them

Topics in Health: Lessons From The Field

Their stories of gang violence were heartbreaking, but I couldn’t always tell them

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(Photo: Mindy Schauer/Orange County Register)
Hugo Secundino displays a picture of his deceased son Angel, who was gunned down in gang violence at age 14 more than a decade ago. (Photo: Mindy Schauer/Orange County Register)

In December 2006, Hugo Secundino’s son, Angel, was gunned down by street gang enemies at the age of 14, eight months before his daughter was born. Secundino said that losing his son to gang violence “destroyed my heart,” and he is still struggling with the emotional wreckage and fear that come when loved ones become immersed in the gang lifestyle.

A little more than a decade later, makeshift memorials remain an enduring symbol of the violence that continues to plague children and families in countless working-class communities like Santa Ana, where more than three-fourths of the population is Latino.

For my 2017 California Fellowship project, I explored the direct and indirect effects that gang violence has on children and families by marrying a detailed narrative of the Secundino family’s experience with a larger examination of current research, best practices and forward-looking recommendations on attacking this multi-generational crisis.

My project required me to put a spotlight on private individuals like the Secundinos in order to show the mental and physical health effects generational gang violence has on children and families in urban communities. I had to earn the trust of the subjects in my stories before they allowed me to be present during some of the most difficult and personal moments of their lives. Building trust required a huge time commitment, compassion and understanding.

During my reporting, I had to make difficult decisions to respect the privacy of individuals who felt that their safety was at risk. For instance, Hugo Secundino opened up to me about the struggles he faced following his son’s death, including bouts of depression, thoughts of suicide and drug use. He introduced me to his 10-year-old granddaughter at the grave of her father. The fifth-grader became emotional while talking about the father she never met, but her mother said she did not feel comfortable talking on the record and did not want to relive the traumatizing experience. In the end, my editor and I decided not to use Secundino’s granddaughter’s name or photos in the story due to concern for her privacy and safety.

I encountered other roadblocks during the course of my reporting. At the onset of my project, I established a partnership with Santa Ana homicide detectives and Wayfinders, an Orange County-based nonprofit that provides assistance to youths, adults and families who have been touched by gang violence. The goal was to observe how gang victim advocates and homicide detectives work together to support families who have lost a loved one to gang warfare.

Shortly before sunrise in August, I got the call. A 22-year-old man had been shot and killed during a gang shooting. A photojournalist and I met his parents at the hospital, just hours after they had learned their son was dead. We were there with a gang victim advocate and homicide detectives.

The young man’s parents agreed to be interviewed and photographed in order to shed light on the impact losing a loved one to street violence has on families. In the chapel of an Orange County hospital, we documented the moment the gang victim advocate described how her program could help them and listened to the conversation with homicide detectives. We also accompanied the grieving parents to their apartment and saw their son’s room.

Several days later, through the gang victim advocate, I learned that the parents wanted to remain out of the spotlight and did not want their names or pictures to appear in the newspaper. I respected the wishes of the family and kept their names and photos out of the story. I eventually found another family willing to expose readers to the devastating impact gang violence has on the surviving family members.

As journalists, we meet people during unimaginable tragedies and ask them to open up to us about some of the most difficult and heart-wrenching moments of their lives. Over the years, I have been in similar situations where the subjects of a story changed their minds about allowing their stories to be told. It’s important to listen to people’s fears and concerns and to approach these situations with sensitivity, dignity and respect.

Here are some tips that could help journalists working on similar narrative and enterprise reporting projects:

  • Research: I set out to investigate how gang violence is damaging children like Angel’s daughter, who are exposed to gang-related violence in their communities. With a six-month deadline, one of the first things I did was request gang homicide statistics from the Santa Ana Police Department. The months-long process revealed Angel’s death came amid a spike of 18 gang-related homicides in 2005, which remains a 20-year high for Santa Ana. Gang homicides more than doubled — to 12 — between 2015 and 2016. I was able to get gang homicide statistics dating back to 2002 and the art director at The Orange County Register created a graphic to illustrate how many lives have been lost to gang violence.
  • Commitment: Sit down with your editor to map out the time that will be dedicated to the project. The best way to keep momentum is to work on the project full time, but that’s not always possible with the demands on reporters today. I spent countless hours, mostly on weekends, with the families I profiled in order to gain access to some of the most devastating moments of their lives.
  • Sensitivity: Treat the subjects of your stories the way you would want to be treated in a similar situation. Be aware of their emotions and give them time to think about your request for an interview. When possible, interview your subjects in the language they are most comfortable with. I conducted most of my interviews in Spanish, which helped the individuals feel a little bit more at ease.
  • Adaptability: Be prepared for changes that may affect your story. During my reporting, I discovered things that took me down different paths and led to difficult decisions, such as not including Angel’s daughter in the final project. The story did not turn out the way I envisioned, but protecting the identity of those who fear retaliation outweighed the value of having their picture and names published.
  • Communication: Keep your editor in the loop when you hit bumps in the road and focus on meeting your deadlines to get your project published.


Read Denisse Salazar's fellowship series here.


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