Gerber: The semantics and death and changes to The Toll

The Toll is a new, comprehensive online database covering all Chattanooga homicides since 2011.
photo Alison Gerber

A homicide is defined as the act of one person killing another, whether it's with a gun, knife, fist or something else. It's the word used by law enforcement across Tennessee to record such deaths.

So when the Times Free Press launched The Toll, a public database of Chattanooga homicides since 2011, we included all people who'd died at the hands of another - 119.

Some of our readers would prefer that we list only 118.

Many weighed in on the inclusion in The Toll of Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez, who killed five military members in Chattanooga in July. And some directed angry comments toward the paper:

"Absolutely unacceptable you put that coward terrorist that killed our brave servicemen in this."

"I am totally confused. It makes no sense to place victims in the same frame as their killers."

"Why do you have Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez on the toll? He is not a victim of anything."

After listening to readers' concerns, we made some changes to The Toll.

We separated the justified homicides - which include Abdulazeez and six others - from the rest of the homicides. That way, the deaths are still counted as homicides, but readers don't have to see Abdulazeez in the same frame as his victims.

We've also added an explanation of what justified homicide is: Cases where law enforcement officials have investigated and determined that the killing was justified: for instance, a police officer shooting someone who's aiming a gun at him or someone killing another in self-defense.

And we've altered the template of our database so the officers who killed Abdulazeez are not listed as suspects. Technically, they're considered suspects while the incident is being investigated, but it's clear they were doing their jobs when they killed him.

As members of the Chattanooga community, we were horrified and hurt by the July 16 attack; We can't imagine what the families of the victims are going through and, like everyone else in the city, we are affected. We live and work here, too, and it was a devastating day in our city's history.

We take very seriously our responsibility as journalists to record the tragedy and its aftermath. As a newspaper, we present information and facts; we chronicle the life of our city. And unfortunately, violent deaths are an issue confronting Chattanooga.

To get a handle on those deaths and find a way to put them in some sort of context, we developed The Toll, a searchable database that documents and centralizes information about homicides. It's worth noting that homicide does not mean the same thing as "murder," which is a legal charge.

We used homicide numbers and records from the Chattanooga Police Department, which follow classification standards set by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

So why did we include Abdulazeez? It's a question we've been asked since The Toll went online on Sunday.

There's no doubt that Abdulazeez's killing was justified; the officers involved have been praised for stopping him from harming even more people. But when someone dies at the hands of another, it's a homicide, and Abdulazeez's death is listed as a homicide in law enforcement records.

While we understand the instant revulsion of seeing his face in the same place as those of the people he killed, removing him from the database would make the data inaccurate and untruthful.

"Data is science and, if these deaths fit into the definition, they should be included in the database," Kelly McBride, an expert in media ethics and faculty member at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, said of justified homicides. "I don't think we want to be in the position of making value judgments about the data."

When the Chattanooga Police Department sends its homicide figures to the FBI, Abdulazeez's death will be included.

No matter how evil his crime, we cannot ignore it when documenting homicides.

One reader said that, by including Abdulazeez in the database, we were endorsing his act. Nothing could be further from the truth. Reporting on crimes or acts of hate - or anything tragic - doesn't mean we're in favor of them.

We are just as appalled by the July 16 tragedy as anyone else but, as journalists, we have to put that horror on the backburner while we report on the story. We may return to it, when we're home and off the clock, but that must come later, after the stories are done.

The same is true with The Toll. We were going by facts, figures and definitions. But, as this situation has reminded us, we also should remember that, when we present facts and numbers, there often are real people attached to them, real families affected by them. It's natural that readers will react with emotion. And that's why we altered the database.

In the end, we hope readers will focus less on Abdulazeez and more on the number of deaths in Chattanooga. As one reader commented: The Toll "really helps to connect citizens with the emotional reality of these horrific crimes."

That's what we are trying to do. Not to erase the evil of one person's horrible crimes, not to callously reject people's feelings, but to help all of us understand the effects that the homicides have on the city where we live and, hopefully, find ways to reduce those numbers.

Alison Gerber is editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Reach her at or 423- 757-6408 and @aligerb.