2015 Breaking News, Medium Newsroom winner

Baltimore Riots and the Freddie Gray Case


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As thousands of Freddie Gray’s family, friends and strangers packed a West Baltimore church for his funeral service on Monday, April 27, word spread throughout city high schools that a “purge” was coming to several nearby locations once classes let out for the day. The city had been on edge since Gray died on April 19, one week after sustaining a severe spinal injury during his arrest by Baltimore police. Part of the arrest was captured on cellphone video by a resident and widely shared on social media, sparking emotional reactions in Baltimore and beyond, and triggering daily protests in the city. That Monday, years of frustrations of many city residents manifested into Baltimore’s first riots since 1968.

Violence and looting overtook much of West Baltimore that night as fires raged throughout the city. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency and deployed the National Guard, while Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake ordered a citywide curfew, starting the next day.

All told, 235 people were arrested, 20 police officers were injured, hundreds of businesses were damaged and 144 vehicles and 15 buildings were set on fire during the chaos that Monday evening.

The Sun had covered the story including events leading up to that day. On Friday, April 24, we launched a live blog to capture updates from our reporters during a Baltimore Police news conference addressing details of Gray’s death and preparations for protests the next day.

Our staff kept that blog running through the night and into Saturday, when the peaceful protests turned destructive downtown in the early evening as the Orioles finished up a game and fans were held by police inside Camden Yards until the unrest settled.

The live blog continued overnight and into the cleanup Sunday and Gray’s funeral Monday. Tensions throughout the city remained high.

Green and other Sun reporters aggressively followed the news, converging on several areas in West Baltimore and downtown, immediately posting updates to Twitter that fed into our live blog. Reporter Carrie Wells provided context for readers by sharing the Instagram image referencing the “purge.”

Reporters Colin Campbell and Justin Fenton, meanwhile, were dispatched to nearby areas on the west side and provided photos, video and live reporting from the scene as police clashed with school-age children and adults. Campbell also made good use of Periscope, live streaming the scene.

Throughout the rest of the night, as the National Guard was deployed and a citywide curfew announced, The Sun sought to provide comprehensive coverage across platforms that was fair, balanced and accurate.

We had 14 reporters contribute to the mainbar on our website, and about 60 journalists overall who added in some way to our ongoing coverage during the next week. A few of our journalists were hit by rocks, maced or pushed around by looters. No one was seriously injured, but the incidents underscored the challenges of covering this ever-evolving story.

Each staff member played an integral role in emerging as the go-to destination for live coverage/breaking news, in-depth/explanatory reporting, commentary, visuals and information on the affected communities.

Among the featured work:
  • The mainbar that outlined the violence, how police were outnumbered by rioters and officials dealt with the fallout. The mayor called it “one of our darkest days as a city.”
  • A tick-tock story describing how the unrest emerged from social media chatter and how police advised downtown businesses and institutions to close early to avoid problems.
  • The emotion from friends and family at Freddie Gray’s funeral.
  • Dozens of photographs and videos of the destruction from throughout the city.

We continued to update the live blog through May 3, two days after charges were announced against the six officers who arrested Gray. It received more than 1.3 million total page views, with readers spending an average of 17 minutes per visit. The live blog ended up with 97 pages of updates over the ten days we staffed it, including several 24-7 shifts.

The main story, meanwhile, generated more than 1.7 million page views and 960,000 unique visitors.
As a public service to the community, we turned off our digital subscription meter Monday night and left our website and apps open to all for the next week.

To keep readers abreast of all riot-related details in addition to what we pulled together in our main story and live blog, our interactive design team created a map showing locations affected by the unrest. Each pin was a confirmed incident of violence or damage, with pictures added as they became available.

The map provided utility for local residents wondering how close the destruction was to their homes, and it provided context to out-of-area followers curious about the scope of the unrest.

Meanwhile, members of our audience engagement team worked overnight providing updates on our Facebook, Twitter and Instragram accounts. As fires were put out and the streets were cleared of rioters, our job shifted from breaking news to assessing the damage and providing as much context as possible.

The fallout from April 27 was substantial. The rioting and unrest in Baltimore will cost the city an estimated $20 million, according to city officials, though this figure does not include the cost to businesses. Damages to 285 Baltimore businesses were estimated at $9 million, but officials say they are still working to develop a final tally of the destruction. Numerous pharmacies were looted that night, with prescription medications stolen disrupting the city’s drug trade, police say. Homicides and nonfatal shootings spiked while arrests fell significantly after the riots, as May 2015 registered as Baltimore’s most violent month in 43 years.

The events of that Monday afternoon and night have changed this city forever.