A smiley-face emoji. It was one of the compelling details Chicago legal affairs writer Michael Tarm uncovered for a story on how social media is transforming the city’s street-gang culture with deadly consequences. Gang member Lamanta Reese posted the emoji on Facebook in response to an off-color joke about the mother of a rival gang member, Quinton Gates. Days later, Gates crossed the street that demarcates the turf border between their gang factions, sneaked up on Reese and fatally shot him.
Tarm obtained exclusive access to new law enforcement gang intelligence before its official release. He spent weeks going through police and court records to find a gang-related killing to serve as a narrative to walk readers through findings. Police and federal agencies give gang data about every six years to the Chicago Crime Commission, which compiles it in a 400-page guide for police. Tarm touched base with the commission every few months for years, asking for advanced access to the documents. And it paid off.
The materials included newly updated color-coded maps pinpointing gang and gang-faction turf for 59 gangs down to individual blocks. They included a 75-page list of factions within those gangs and which blocks each controls. Tarm used the maps to help illustrate the connection between Reese and Gates, and their factions. Working sources, he tracked down two ex-gang members who stay in touch with members of both Reese's and Gate's factions, and who knew details about their social media taunts that contributed to Reese’s demise. One of the former gang members also knew Reese's father and persuaded him to speak with Tarm, to provide additional details and to provide a photo of his son.
It was one of several visual elements used to tell the story. While the focus was social media, maps and turf boundaries were essential to understanding what had happened to Reese. Tarm's access to the commission data included pages of detailed maps. It also included descriptions of which blocks Reese's Black Disciple faction controlled and which block Gates’ faction controlled. Drawing on those maps, Central multimedia editor Shawn Chen and AP global interactive artist Francois Duckett developed a graphic highlighting which gangs were present in and around their neighborhood, as well as the precise blocks where their warring factions are located.
Central photo editor Kii Sato went through images Tarm saved from Facebook, Twitter and YouTube of posts by Reese and other Chicago gang members as they taunted each other online. Reese tweeted 28,000 times in just the few years before his death. Tarm went through most of them. Like many gang members, Reese sought on social media to appear as menacing as possible. It also typically involved expletives and hard-to-decipher gang-emoji codes, so finding suitable posts to run as visuals wasn't easy. One image used was a Reese tweet about his fear of dying young next to a Twitter profile picture of him posing with a gun in each hand.
Every few months, Tarm asked for advanced access to the gang report. When he got it, he spent weeks going through records to find a gang-related killing to serve as a narrative.
The story got strong play, with more than 10,000 page views on AP’s site the first day – almost 17,000 overall. Readers spent nearly 50 seconds on it, meaning most read to the end. The main story was published by 220 sites, including The New York Times and Washington Post, and social influencers – a good number on the day the Trump-Kim summit began.
The AP’s exclusive access to the new data helped The AP drive coverage of the gang report’s official unveiling, with many local TV stations crediting the AP. The hometown Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times posted the AP story on their websites. The Sun-Times and Daily Herald also ran it in their papers.
For obtaining exclusive access to law enforcement gang intelligence before its official release, poring over police and court records, and drawing on in-depth sourcing to produce a multiformat, compelling narrative on how social media is transforming street-gang culture in Chicago, Tarm wins this week’s Best of the States award.