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Behind the story: The value of responding to angry readers

Sebastien Elkouby and a student in his hip-hop and music production class
Sebastien Elkouby, right, listens to a student’s beat during his advanced hip-hop and music production class. Elkouby also teaches global awareness through hip-hop culture, and Hussle’s influence is a big topic in the class.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Readers commonly criticize stories, and mine are no exception. Sometimes the notes are sexist or racist, and to those I usually don’t respond. Sometimes readers are misinformed, and I try to provide the right information. Sometimes readers’ criticism comes from a place of anger and pain directed more at the topic of the story than at me, and call out the paper for forgetting their voice. Those ones I try always to answer.

The Twitter direct message I got from Sebastien Elkouby in April was polite but terse (he agrees). He responded to a story I wrote about the immediate effects of Nipsey Hussle’s death on schools near the rapper and entrepreneur’s Marathon Clothing store, where he was killed. I wrote it on a short deadline, and I focused on students at Crenshaw High School, less than a mile from the store, and on a mental health worker who spent time at an elementary school where Hussle had a presence, about a mile from the Marathon Clothing.

It was a solid story that I reported and wrote from the newsroom, relying on phone interviews. If I had been one of our reporters in the field covering Hussle’s death, I might have seen that there was a high school almost directly across the street from the store. View Park Preparatory High, a charter school, did not come up when I spoke to Los Angeles Unified School District officials about the effects of Hussle’s death on the school community. Charter schools receive public funds and have government oversight but are run independently from school districts.

Elkouby is a teacher at View Park. Here’s part of the DM he sent me: “I sure wish you would have also talked to the students of View Park High School. I’m a teacher there and we can see Nipsey’s store looking out my classroom window. My campus has been devastated by the tragedy. Not to take away from other schools’ pain, Nipsey had fans everywhere, but it would have been nice to be included in your story since we’re located across the street from Marathon.”

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He was right, and I told him so. I apologized and asked if we could talk, because I might cover the topic again in the future. As an education reporter, I seize on opportunities to spend time in schools and seldom say no to a teacher who invites me to their classroom.

I found out that Elkouby was organizing a tribute to Hussle with his students and that he teaches a class on global awareness through hip-hop culture that includes lessons about Nipsey. I went to the tribute with a photographer, Dania Maxwell. That’s where we first saw student and aspiring rapper Kamryn Johnson perform, igniting the campus with the energy in her voice and lyrics. I returned a few weeks later to visit Elkouby’s hip-hop class.

I wasn’t sure what would come of these visits. In August, I brought up View Park during a discussion of potential back-to-school stories about the traumas that students face. My editor encouraged me to return to the school — so Dania and I did just that.

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This time, we spent more time with Kamryn and talked to students and teachers to understand the lasting consequences of Hussle’s death on campus.

I called Elkouby this week and asked what compelled him to send me that message last April.

“This was really in the midst of all the emotions,” he told me. “We were reeling.”

To see anguish in his students and school staff and then read a story that came so close to home but overlooked their voices tipped him over the edge. He had to say something.

I’m glad he did.


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