Andrea McDaniels on Unseen Impacts of Urban Violence

Nkongho Beteck

Andrea K. McDaniels has always been a storyteller. A budding journalist from a young age, she worked for her high school paper, got a degree from the Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, and held internships throughout the East before landing a spot on the business desk of The Baltimore Sun. She carved out a special beat on business health reporting to pursue her interest in the impact of poverty, substandard housing, gangs and violence on urban health.

McDaniels calls the ability to help others through storytelling “social journalism,” and that was her approach in a three-part series, “Collateral Damage,” which won the Gold Award in the large newspaper category for the 2015 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards. Her series described in very personal terms the hidden health toll that violence can take on Baltimore’s young, the financial burdens it imposes on families and caretakers, and the long-term emotional costs of the grief, shame and stigma that often accompanies urban violence.

The series grew out of a year and half of reporting by McDaniels while she was a California Endowment Health Journalism Fellow. The program, administered by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center for Health Journalism, provides grants to reporters to underwrite substantive explanatory and investigative journalism.

In the course of her reporting, McDaniels was struck by the concern about urban violence expressed each year in reports by the Baltimore city health department. She wondered about the deeper implications of the problem, and started to amass a wealth of background material and many full reporter notebooks.

Diana Sugg, a Sun editor who won a 2003 Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting, was assigned as editor on the project. McDaniels had realized that the impact of violence on children was astonishing, and she and Sugg decided the focus of her reporting should be on the children, relatives and caregivers.  The stories – to be compelling – must bring those people to life, they agreed.

“For me the most important goal was to get people thinking of all the damage that occurred ─ psychological, human damage,” Sugg said. “The toll beyond what we had in a court story.”


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Andrea at her desk in the Baltimore Sun Newsroom.


McDaniels sought out contacts in government agencies, health departments and academic institutions who were studying urban violence. Just as importantly, she began to nurture sources close at hand to the daily toll of crime and violence in Baltimore neighborhoods.

“I find it best to find people who already have a connection in the neighborhood,” she said. “I went through nonprofits, groups that worked with ex-offenders.” The University of Maryland Medical Center had a program involving shock trauma patients, for example, that tried to get people off the streets.  McDaniels sought out victims of gunshot wounds who might be willing to talk, although the process was not easy. Many she approached did not want to be featured in the paper, and some feared that McDaniels was associated with the police. She needed to gain their trust.

“People don’t want to be exploited,” McDaniels said, “especially people in poor communities where researchers do research and leave but [the communities] are still stuck with the same problems. They know how they’re portrayed.”

Another challenge was approaching those traumatized by violence and asking them to share vivid details of their grief. One source was very cooperative in the beginning but shut down completely after McDaniels mentioned taking photos where the violence occurred. “She didn’t want me coming to the neighborhood because everybody knows everybody,” McDaniels said. In this case, a killer hadn’t been caught, and McDaniels had to make it clear that she did not want to endanger anybody.

“I just said ‘Tell me what’s going on’ and she opened back up,” McDaniels said.

In gaining the trust of interviewees, McDaniels believes it is appropriate for a reporter to show a humane, caring side. “It is okay to be your own person,” she said, “as long as you’re being clear about what you’re doing. I think people will open up to you more when you are human.”

Once she found her sources, McDaniels then dove into what she calls “free fall reporting,” doing as much reporting and data gathering as she can to further understand her topic. She hammers out key points she wishes to make in a story, and then “I just write,” McDaniels said. “My editor taught me to write in sections as well, writing 25 inches, little stories.”

The resulting three-part series grappled first with the effects of violence on the youngest members of the Upton/Druid Heights neighborhood of Baltimore. Children as young as two at the Little Flowers Child Development Center display extreme acts of violence: hitting, biting, throwing objects. Studies suggest these acts may be triggered by the stress of routine exposure to violence.

Some young children may be suffering the equivalent of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), McDaniels found, with potential effects on brain development. Promise Heights, a federally funded program, sends social workers to neighborhood schools to coach young children on stress management. City officials hope such initiatives will develop early ripple effects to reverse violent behavior through better mental health.

The second story shared the lives of two families, the Ropkas and the Dudleys, who must care for young men in their families with disabilities resulting from acts of violence. The financial burdens and rituals associated with performing daily caretaker tasks can cause high levels of stress detrimental to the families’ health.

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McDaniels' first place award from the Association of Health Care Journalists for her Collateral Damage series sits on her desk at The Baltimore Sun.

The final story told of the long-time grief affecting family members who experience violence and why this grief can be so devastating. The families feel shame and stigma because they must deal with the criminal justice system, a factor that can interfere with their bereavement, McDaniels found. Families also are at risk of developing PTSD and suffering biological changes such as weakening hearts that can lead to death. A study by professor, Tanya L. Sharpe of the University of Maryland’s School of Social Work found that African Americans as a group have experienced the homicide of loved ones much more often than other groups. She also noted that African Americans have a culture of suppressing their grief that contributes to a negative grieving cycle detrimental to their health. Grief groups like Roberta’s House and Survivors Against Violence Everywhere work to brings members of grieving families together to remind them they are not alone.


It is important to make stories simple and accessible to the reader without oversimplifying the science, McDaniels said, because “you want people to read it.”

In putting together a story, shes tries to ensure accuracy by reviewing recorded interviews and transcribing them to make sure she doesn’t miss anything. “You get better quotes,” she said. She added:  “I don’t have a problem with going back and reading certain parts of the story to researchers to make sure that I’m accurate [on the science]. I’ll go back and forth many times to make sure it’s right.”

Her main advice? “Talk to as many people as you can. You might not use half of the people you talk to, but the more reporting you do, the better understanding you have of the topic because you’ll be able to write with authority and expertise. Remind yourself that every interview adds to your knowledge.”

Constant changes, updates and last-minute plans were made right up to the deadline of the series. McDaniels had been trying to get into a grief counseling group since starting the project, and it wasn’t until a week before the third story was about to run that she was finally allowed in. By the end of her reporting, McDaniels was asking, “What can you do? Get a social worker for every child?” Though situations seemed dire, she was hopeful that telling the story through science would help raise awareness.

Her series has had impact. In June of last year, The Baltimore Sun reported that four Upton/Druid Heights community groups featured in “Collateral Damage” had won a $75,000 grant to develop a youth violence prevention plan in the neighborhood.

Sugg says a University of Southern California community storytelling grant will also loan cameras to African American high school boys to highlight their voices and document neighborhood activities. The neighborhood will review the videos created and meet for discussion on problems and solutions to help their community. It’s the ripple effects from McDaniels’ series that Sugg says will help paint a hopeful picture among the grief.

“The most important thing she had was the thing which every great journalist needs, she had the heart for the story,” Sugg said about McDaniels. “I don’t want anyone to ever think of that neighborhood the same way again…I don’t want people to just dismiss that neighborhood as a bad neighborhood. I want them to read the story and think about the children there.”