10-Year-Old Shames the Globe into Updating Its Database of Murder Victims

Associated Press

Associated Press

Kristen Lartey was a 22-year-old recent graduate of St. John’s University, active in youth ministries and running her own nail design business when she and two friends were shot to death on a Sunday evening in August 2012. That’s according to a story in the Boston Globe a few days after the tragic murder.

But according to a database of homicide victims on BostonGlobe.com that the paper promoted on the last day of 2014, she was nameless—simply “unknown.”

That day, the Globe touted its homicide database on Twitter, and linked to it alongside the newspaper’s annual homicide-data wrap up article.

But the Globe’s database—covering all the city’s murders since 2008—was missing dozens of victims’ names, in addition to other absent or incorrect information that is publicly available.

I tried in vain to get the Globe to update its pathetically out-of-date listings, but those running the site wouldn’t talk about what went wrong, didn’t seem to understand why it was a big deal, and were not in a hurry to update the errors and omissions in the database.

I spent years maintaining a Boston homicide database at the Boston Phoenix, so I know that A) with very, very rare exceptions, homicide victims’ names are public record, and not “unknown”; and B) people rightly expect the media to show some dignity and respect regarding information about their loved ones who died tragically and young.

Or, as Cecelia Faller puts it, by not bothering to include some of the victims’ names, “you make it seem like some people’s lives matter more than others. And that’s not true.”

Faller is 10 years old. She lives in the North End, and has no particularly close ties to any of the victims—but she understood the problem better than anyone at BostonGlobe.com seemed to.

And it was Faller’s investigative work, published over the course of several days on her mother’s Twitter account, that finally shamed the Globe into publishing a massive update to its database—although the newspaper has yet to acknowledge Faller’s work. Nor has it published a correction or even a notification that the database has been fixed.

When I spoke with her by phone the other day, Faller told me that she was perplexed by tweets from Globe staffers—including the Globe’s Digital Advisor and former Nieman Foundation fellow David Skok—that seemed to suggest that the incomplete database list was a technology problem, and that it would take some time to resolve.

The 5th grader, who has no prior reporting experience, was smarter than that. “I knew you could just Google it,” she tells me.

And Google she did. Using the paltry information in the database, Faller found one “unknown” name after another, which her mother tweeted out with under hashtag #GlobeUpdate.

Some of those missing names were difficult to find, but most were not. Some, like Lartey, had been reported in the Globe. Others were never mentioned by name in the Globe but were written about elsewhere. Those included Ernest Likely, a mentor to basketball star Shabazz Napier. In several cases, the killers have even been caught and prosecuted: such was the case for 18-year-old Shawnray Taylor, whose killer pled guilty just three months ago; and 22-year-old Deandre Russ, whose killer was convicted by a jury last summer.

Another listed as “unknown” was Tyrus Elijah Sanders, who is commemorated at Boston’s Garden of Peace Memorial. Sanders, known as Nitty to his friends, according to a Facebook memorial page with 221 members, was a graduate of Boston Arts Academy. Anne R. Clark, the school’s headmaster, thanked me by email for drawing attention to his name’s absence from the Globe listings. “Tyrus is certainly not ‘unknown.’ I knew him well,” Clark wrote to me. “He was a talented actor, a young man full of ambition, intelligent, warm, with an engaging smile. He deserves a name.”

Homicide databases have become powerful tools to document ongoing developments in murders that the media too often ignores. The most famous of these, Washington D.C.’s “Homicide Watch,” also became a place for remembrance of the victims, and the hub of an online community for survivors. That is, until it ceased operations—at the stroke of midnight on January 1, 2015. Ironically, the Globe hired the site’s founder, Laura Amico, last summer, although she is not among those listed as working on the Globe’s homicide database project.

After several days of comments and tweets from me and others, Globe Digital Advisor David Skok responded on Twitter:

“These are valid criticisms and we’ll work to get them updated, thank you. The next step is to work within the CMS to build an auto update to the info based on story metadata.”

I am not being snarky when I say: I have no idea what that means.

I do know, having personally maintained a Boston homicide database for years, that you don’t have to get a complete one through some sort of auto-updating from news reports. Getting the correct basic information for the Globe listings—name, age, location, and weapon—is not especially difficult, but it does require a certain amount of journalism. Albeit the kind of journalism that even a 10-year-old can accomplish, to some extent.

I attempted to interview Jason Tuohey, editor of BostonGlobe.com, about these homicide listings. He declined to speak to me, or to provide someone else to speak to me, or even to explain why he wouldn’t speak to me. The Globe, which squawks whenever a public official declines to address the media, has denied every interview request I have made to the company over the past several weeks. I honestly don’t know if it’s personal at this point. But it’s certainly unprofessional and unbecoming of any serious news outlet.

Tuohey instead sent me the following statement:

The Globe aggressively covers crime—especially homicides—in the city, both online and in print. It’s an essential part of what we do, and a vital aspect of covering any community.

As one of many facets of our coverage, we’ve maintained a homicide database for Boston over the past several years. The updated 2014 version that we launched last week included links to entries for previous years, some of which were out of date. After receiving feedback from readers, we updated the entries for those previous years.

You’ll notice there’s no apology in there, or sense of culpability, but at least I kind of know what it means. Nevertheless, it doesn’t match up to what actually happened.

Tuohey’s statement seems to suggest that the 2014 information was fine; that was not the case. Several of those names were also missing; they were added after the first few days of public complaints. It took several more days, and 20 #GlobeUpdate tweets from Faller, before the remaining missing names were posted, without comment, sometime Monday afternoon. The site also removed a 2012 listing about which Faller had tweeted: “Very sad, but wasn’t a homicide; please delete.”

And yet errors persist: while the missing names have been updated, other “unknown” and simply incorrect information remains. For example, the site currently says the murder weapon is “unknown” for four 2014 homicides. That information is not unknown: all four deaths were by gun shot.

Then take the example of the “unknown” victim from July 26, 2009. The updated listing now gives his name as Jose Ramirez Mejia, age 27. I don’t know where that information may have originally come from—as with many of the listings, the links to articles and police blog posts are no longer active. But much of what’s in the Globe database seems to have come from the initial reports of the murders, which, unsurprisingly, do not always turn out to be accurate. I do know that the Boston Police Department and Suffolk County District Attorney agree that this victim was Jose Joaquin Ramirez, age 33; his roommate pleaded guilty in 2012 to slashing Ramirez’s throat.

I am left with plenty of questions. How did the Globe launch a public resource—let alone something as sensitive as murder victim identifications—without checking to see whether the information being published was up to date? Or did editors know, but didn’t think it was worth fixing until “receiving feedback from readers”? Why update just the missing names, but not the other missing (or erroneous) info? How did they update the missing information? Why was there no note of correction or update posted?

But above all, I want to know whether anybody over at the Globe recognizes what a fifth grader gets. “In the future they should keep the whole database updated,” Faller says, “or people might not trust the Globe.”