Thursday, January 03, 2008

Leovy To Move On At LAT From Homicide Report

When I reported downtown to the City Room on Jan. 1, 1967, the L.A. Times had just one woman writer there, Dorothy Townsend.

That's hard to believe now when female reporters at the Times have become, it is not too much to say, one of the glories of American journalism. When one thinks of just some of the distinguished writers in Los Angeles and in the bureau system at home and abroad, it's inspiring: Megan Stack, Erika Hayasaki, Kim Murphy, Laura King, Robyn Dixon, Becky Trounson, Teresa Watanabe, Tami Abdollah, Sandy Banks, Stephanie Simon, Nancy Vogel, Lisa Girion and Sonni Efron. There are others, and I will not forget the New York Times' Somini Sengupta and Amy Harmon, both of whom started at the L.A. Times.

Today, I want to take special note, however, of Jill Leovy, a Metro reporter who will soon give up her outstanding blog, the Homicide Report, and move on, I understand, to a new assignment which may include, thankfully, some aspect of reporting crime in the minority districts of Los Angeles.

I say thankfully, not because I don't believe that any reporter is entitled to new assignments now and then, but because Leovy has displayed a social concern that is totally admirable in chronicling so many of the senseless gang and other killings on the south and east side, as well as other parts of Los Angeles County. She has been performing a public service above and beyond most L.A. Times reporters.

The germ of the idea for Homicide Report came probably in 2003 with the heavy Times coverage of the brutal kidnapping and murder of an Orange County five-year-old, Samantha Runnion. Runnion, an adorable white girl, was featured on Page 1.

At the time, Leovy told a fellow-reporter, she didn't think this was right. Had Runnion been a black or Latino girl, she suggested, she would not have been on Page one.

Leovy is a reporter who is passionately committed to justice, and the blog that grew out of this feeling was dedicated to reporting every homicide in Los Angeles County. It started on Jan. 31 of last year and drew an immense number of reader comments.

But Leovy is also a perfectionist, and, despite the cooperation of police agencies, she missed reporting about 10% of the homicides.

In a blog posted on New Year's Eve, and reported in Kevin Roderick's LA Observed yesterday, Leovy apologized.

"The Homicide Report endeavored to cover every homicide in Los Angeles County in 2007," she wrote. "It has failed to do so...Anyone tempted to use this list or the accompanying map for statistical purposes, please be aware this is not a comprehensive catalog of 2007 homicides...

"The relentless demands of this beat have at times exceeded the abilities of this reporter, and names have gone missing because (Homicide Report) is guilty of lapses in vigilance. Apologies to loved ones of those victims whose names were omitted..."

Pardon me, but I think Leovy is being too hard on herself. Journalists can almost never be perfect. To try to track hundreds of homicides in all the overlapping jurisdictions of L.A. County would be beyond the capacity of anyone.

The fact is that this blog focused attention on many, many crimes the Times had virtually ignored in the past. And in doing so, it took on one of the great evils in our community -- the wanton shootings and other murders that have senselessly disrupted so many lives, ripping families apart, aborting the lives of promising youths just as they began to flower, and tearing up our city in countless other ways.

It is not too much, I think, to say that the blog was partially responsible for a decline in the number of murders in 2007. In becoming more aware of something bad, we take more care to try and make sure it doesn't happen. If just one watchful citizen deprived a would-be killer of a gun or a knife, and averted a murder, then this blog was worthwhile.

Leovy says that Ruben Vives will take over the blog, which may be revised somewhat, with her help at first. That's good to hear, because this was a sacred project, and it definitely should go on.

Meanwhile, what can we say to Leovy other than "heartfelt thanks." Her devotion to reporting this issue is truly a wonder, and she should have all the good fortune, all the psychic rewards, that hopefully will come to anyone who endeavors so conscientiously to do the right thing.

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Steve Lopez, the distinguished Times columnist, also crusades for the right, as he sees it. His column yesterday about a 10-year-old Encino boy, a victim of cystic fibrosis, whose reimbursement for an essential drug has been cavalierly slashed by the inhumane Blue Cross insurance company, let citizens know of another insurance outrage. My own feeling, having covered insurers for some time at the Times, is that private medical insurance should be made a thing of the past, and replaced by a public medical insurance system covering everyone.

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Reading the memo from David Hiller, the publisher, to the L.A. Times staff, there're really no new revelations. What direction Sam Zell, the new owner, takes, has yet to be revealed. It's in the details, not the platitudes.

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