Men were dying. Homeless, indigent, alone, often asleep on city streets or in subway cars. No one knew when the next death might occur. The locations were adding up, too: Washington, then New York. Was Boston next? Baltimore? Fear gripped the eastern seaboard, especially among those with nowhere to go but the subways and streets. A serial killer was on the loose. Why homeless men were the target, no one knew.
It was up to the daily crime reporters in New York and Washington to report these deaths, to follow the story as it developed. We all relied on those reports. They gave us the news practically in real time. They let us know when the killing in one city seemed to abate, only to resume in another a few hours away by train. To those old enough to have lived through past killing sprees, like that of the DC sniper in 2002 or those of the Son of Sam in 1976-77, the first two weeks of March 2022 felt terrifyingly familiar.
That’s the news. It gives us essential information. Often that information gets richer as the story develops. By March 15th, a suspect had been arrested: Gerald Brevard III. We learned details about his life, his past arrests, his history of mental illness. More news, more context. The story grew.
By March 21st, we knew more about two of the men Brevard allegedly killed. The story evolved from being about a serial killer on the loose to one about a suspect in custody to one about the scourge of mental illness. The two victims suffered from delusions. Brevard was not homeless or indigent, but he too suffered from mental anguish. The reporting became less alarming and more humane. A search of Brevard’s apartment uncovered writings by the suspect that suggest a loosening grip on reality: “I write a poem, now I’m a poet. Can’t kill her I love her, she’ll never know it. Even when guilty I’m innocent.”
The story isn’t over; Brevard has yet to stand trial. Nevertheless, we can begin to look at the big picture: How and why does our society continue to fail the mentally ill? Answering that will take time, and it will demand a lot more than beat reporters telling us know about the latest death in a major American city. It will require a long, hard look at an inconvenient truth about this country: For all its prosperity, America does not take sufficient care of its most vulnerable. Sometimes, as the March killings suggest, this has tragic consequences.
In 2003, Brent Cunningham wrote an essay for the Columbia Journalism Review titled Re-thinking Objectivity. In it, he argues that journalistic “objectivity” is not only a myth, but a dangerous one that leads us into situations like the war in Iraq. In the lead-up to that war, Cunningham notes that very few publications spent any time addressing the ramifications of invading Iraq. Instead, they focused on the tick-tock of what the Bush administration was doing and saying about its plans to invade. There was scant analysis, zero speculation. Only the official word from the White House. This makes sense: Unless they’re commentators, journalists are not supposed to speculate, but to report the news. If the president says something, they report it.
But in fixating so much on the facts of the present, Cunningham writes, they failed to address the inevitable truth of the future: Invading Iraq would create a quagmire from which we might never emerge. “Our pursuit of objectivity can trip us up on the way to ‘truth,'” Cunningham writes. “Objectivity excuses lazy reporting. If you’re on deadline and all you have is ‘both sides of the story,’ that’s often good enough.”
He continues: “It’s not that such stories laying out the parameters of a debate have no value for readers, but too often, in our obsession with, as The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward puts it, ‘the latest,’ we fail to push the story, incrementally, toward a deeper understanding of what is true and what is false.”
What does this have to do with Gerald Brevard and the men he is accused of having killed? Surely we would not want to dispense with the daily reporting that began on March 3rd and ended on March 12th, the dates that bookend his killing spree in New York and Washington. We needed that coverage. It was the news. But if we stop there, we ignore the systemic problems that led to those deaths. We pretend that events happen in a vacuum. We ignore the truth.
To be sure, grappling with the Truth (capital T) is not the job of daily journalists. After all, truth is complex, debatable, and often subjective. But, as Cunningham argues, the most seasoned journalists can bring their expertise and analysis to the table, let it inform their reporting, and inch us toward a deeper understanding of important social and political issues like mental illness, poverty, drug addiction, and war. Otherwise, all we’ve got is the news.