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The Emotional Toll Of Covering Violence In A Deadly Time

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others by police last year set off massive social justice protests around the country. As well, a spate of mass shootings at three Atlanta-area spas, at a grocery store in Boulder and at a FedEx warehouse in Indianapolis have been stark reminders of this country's deadly record of mass violence.

But these shocking and highly publicized events may be obscuring a deeper and more pervasive problem. Killings are on the rise in this country, and most of them are not the subject of hours of coverage by national news outlets. Most of them are the result of so-called street violence or between intimate partners, and the task of reporting on them day in and day out falls on local reporters like Shomari Stone.

Shomari is an award-winning reporter for the NBC affiliate in Washington, D.C., News4 (ph) Washington. And D.C., like most major cities, has been experiencing a surge of killings. So I wanted to ask him what this has been like for him, documenting all this in a town where he himself spent time growing up. And Shomari Stone is with us now. Shomari, thanks so much for joining us.

SHOMARI STONE: Thank you for having me. It's an honor to be here.

MARTIN: So, Shomari, when you decided to go into news, do you remember what you thought you'd be reporting on? Did you think it was going to be like this?

STONE: I thought that I would be reporting on, you know, things that relate to the community in terms of education, health, but also crime as well because that's part of, you know, being a local reporter in terms of relating to people and people who need help. And people want to know what's happening in their communities.

I did not know that it would come to a point where I'm averaging, you know, three - two to three murders every week. And as a reporter, it definitely weighs on you because I tell people, I'm not a reporter. I'm a regular guy who happens to be a reporter - a big difference because I care. I have feelings, empathy for these victims of crime, particularly the murders, the assaults, the domestic disputes that lead to violence as well. And when you go home, sometimes, you know, I may break down in tears because it really hurts me to see people going through such pain.

MARTIN: You know, Washington's not the only place going through this, as I see the numbers that homicides increased some, like, 36% last year nationally, and this at a time when other major crimes decreased. But D.C. is going through it. There have been some 62 homicides as of April 23, as of Friday, when we are speaking. That's compared to 44 at the same time last year. And it's my understanding that there's been kind of this slow build but that something kind of exploded last year. And I just wonder, was there a point yourself - do you remember the point at which you said to yourself, wait a minute; something's going on here? Like, what's going on?

STONE: In my, you know, truth, I'm seeing more young people committing these heinous crimes. And you have to ask yourself why. What is happening to society? And it's not just in D.C. It's around the - some parts of the country. And - for example, you had the 13-year-old and 15-year-old accused of carjacking a man, and the car flipped over, and the car owner died. And it's just a very sad, tragic moment in our nation's capital.

MARTIN: What are some of your sources saying about what they think is going on?

STONE: One of my top sources is saying that a lot of people are under a great deal of stress due to the pandemic. They're out of work. They're - some of them, you know, will - adults will have children who are hungry and need food. And what you're seeing is that some people are carjacking, doing anything to get money. And that's another thing. Carjackings are up as well. Just within the last 48 hours, there was a woman on the Beltway who stopped to help someone, and then the person jumped in her car and took off. And we're seeing this more and more - crimes of opportunity.

MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask, has this last year taken a toll on you? Because you can't turn it off. I mean, you know, often the mental health professionals will say, well, you know, take a break from the news if you find it stressful. Take a break from the news. You can't take a break from this. This is your job. Do you find it taking a toll?

STONE: I do find it taking a toll. It's tough when you work nightside, which is 3 to 11:30. I get off, I go home. Everyone's sleeping. It's dark outside, and you're just trying to decompress and process everything that you're seeing. And it does take a toll. I pray. I speak to my pastor. And I just pray for a better day because it's definitely emotional. And when you're dealing with people - I mean, there's reporters who I won't identify who are going through a lot right now just with their own lives. And it's a lot of stress, particularly during the pandemic, because we're reporting the news while at the same time trying to make sure that we don't get the coronavirus.

MARTIN: Well, before we let you go, is there anything else you would like people to know about particularly the communities that have been most touched by the kind of violence that you cover - that, you know, perhaps that people don't think about it every day or don't - aren't exposed to it?

STONE: I would like people to empathize. For example, in some communities, like maybe the South Side of Chicago or southeast D.C. and other areas of the country, some people who live in the suburbs and more affluent areas look at the people and say, oh, look at them, and - like, and look down on them.

But you've never lived the life that they live, the sense of hopelessness every day in, day out, interactions with the police, the lack of having adequate grocery stores and fruit and vegetables in your community. Look at some communities, and they just have corner stores with vegetables that, you know, are not fresh. Just try to have a compassionate heart. I mean, a lot of hearts are hardened towards different segments of our society, different people. But just try to show love and compassion because at the end of the day, we're all in this together.

MARTIN: Shomari Stone is an award-winning reporter for NBC4, for the NBC affiliate in Washington, D.C. Shomari, thanks so much for talking to us about your experiences.

STONE: Thanks for having me on your show. I appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRAKE FEAT. 2 CHAINZ AND YOUNG THUG SONG, "SACRIFICES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.