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Covering Crime In Chicago

police tape
flickr/ Tony Webster

Peter Nickeas covers breaking news for the Chicago Tribune. He spent three years on the overnight shift and during that time went to the scenes of hundreds of shootings in the city.

Nickeas reflected on this time and the effect it’s had on his life in an essay for the September issue of Chicago Magazine, titled“Three Years of Nights.”

Illinois Issues editor Jamey Dunn talked with Nickeas about the essay and his time as an overnight reporter covering crime in Chicago. 

Nickeas on adjusting to covering violent crime:  “There’s been things overnight — it’s like they’re out of a movie or something. It’s not. It’s real. It’s just you don’t see it a lot during the day.”

“I realized that I had grown comfortable in this world by going to a lot of crime scenes and being tested, like having my emotions or physical response to stuff tested. And not knowing it was going to happen and being comfortable with how I reacted to those things — whether it’s the sight of grieving relatives over dead bodies, or guys getting worked on (by emergency responders) and then being pronounced (dead).”

“I think if you do anything long enough, you grow comfortable with it, and that’s probably just what happened. It doesn’t mean you’re not affected by it. But you can still carry stuff with you and be ok while it’s going on, you know?”  

On telling individual stories: “The most important thing, I think, is to keep an open mind so that when you get there you just start with a blank slate. And you say, ‘Ok what do I have before me. And who was here, and who can I talk to?’ And you just start from scratch with everyone.”

“There may be similarities and broad strokes, but every single murder is unique in some way, even if it has all the hallmarks of 100 other murders this year. They still leave behind families and affect neighbors. It’s more complicated than just a five paragraph story, but sometimes even with our best efforts that's all we can get.”

“When you write a story, and you’re only recounting where and when the people were shot, it can seem cold. And it is cold. But if you can show what a father’s grief looks like, that has the potential to be powerful if you do it right.”

On the ripple effect of violence: “You can’t be in the city and not have some understanding of it or some dealing with it, whether it’s on your block, in your neighborhood, or a colleague’s son. … It seems like everywhere you go, people have stories of ways that they’re touched by it.” 

“I think it’s counter productive to bring that mindset to the discussion: ‘ Well, it’s only between the guy who got shot and the guy who did the shooting. Those are the only two people affected by it.’ No. They both have families.”

“You have to recognize that the kids left behind — that’s a problem. Right? That’s something that as society we have to deal with is how children are exposed to gun violence.” 

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