When The Chicago Defender put Zack Stoner on its cover in early April, the 113-year-old newspaper portrayed the YouTube vlogger as a modern offshoot of its legacy covering the city’s black community. “The Hood CNN,” as the headline described him.
“Most of the time we gotta do a crime to hit the front page but it’s extremely rare that we get noticed for the positive that’s we do within our communities,” Stoner wrote in a Facebook post sharing the Defender story. “I’m taking journalism to the next level.”
The 30-year-old didn’t fit the mold of a legacy reporter. But through numerous interviews with rising stars in Chicago hip hop—streamed to more than 180,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel zacktv1—he dove deep into local culture, poverty, and gun violence in simply produced videos that took viewers far closer to street-level than more traditional media. Taking a tour of the southwest Chicago neighborhood of Englewood last year, Stoner asked the rapper Drake of Chiraq how he responded to a friend’s death, eliciting the type of resignation not typically heard in his music. “Can’t really do shit,” he replied. “Motherfuckers just tired of losing people. Period.”
“When I do these interviews, I literally pop up in their hood,” Stoner told another vlogger of his process. “I go to their trap. I go to their block. I’m in there.”
“This is Chicago—it’s a beautiful place—but there’s crime,” Stoner continued. “It’s overwhelming to people outside the city of Chicago. And there’s a lot of people inside the city of Chicago that’s like, I want to leave this motherfucker. This ain’t where it’s at no more.”
His work turned out to be sadly prescient. On May 30, about seven weeks after Stoner proudly shared The Chicago Defender cover, attackers in a passing car fired multiple shots at him as he was driving away from an early morning rap concert in Chicago’s South Loop. A witness captured the harrowing moments afterward as Stoner’s assailants sped away, leaving him dying in the street.
In many ways Stoner’s story is disturbingly normal: He was the 200th person murdered in the city this year, according to a tally by the Chicago Sun-Times. But as the Chicago Police Department continues to search for answers—the vast majority of murder cases it opens go unsolved—Stoner’s friends and fans, as well as press freedom advocates, have raised questions over whether he was killed in response to his reporting.
Ranging from plausible to conspiratorial, these theories have swept across social media to fill the vacuum of hard facts about Stoner’s death. If any prove to be true, he could have been among a relatively small group of American journalists killed for their work on U.S. soil. As this story was preparing to go to press, news broke of a shooting at the Capital Gazette, a small newspaper outside of Annapolis, Maryland. Five journalists were killed by a lone gunman, who was allegedly angered by their reporting. The suspect was immediately taken into custody. Until these recent events, such killings have been far more common in countries engulfed in domestic military conflicts or non-state violence.
The nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists counted six such deaths last year in Mexico—where reporters are targeted for asking the wrong questions about the drug trade—and eight apiece in Syria and Iraq, countries racked by civil war and sectarian bloodshed, respectively. Murders of journalists in countries with robust free-speech protections have been, by comparison, rare; the 2015 terrorist attack on the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo shocked the media world nearly as much for its location as for its intensity. Nine journalists were killed.
The American press was similarly horrified in 2015, when two journalists from a Virginia CBS affiliate were gunned down by a disgruntled former colleague as they filmed a live segment. But observers tend to peg 2007 as the last time, until this week’s tragedy in Annapolis, that an American journalist was murdered for domestic reporting. Oakland Post Editor Chauncey Bailey was assassinated that August while investigating corruption at a local bakery and associated religious group. In response to his killing, more than two dozen journalists from Bay Area news organizations came together to investigate his death, publishing numerous stories and likely helping law enforcement find and eventually convict the bakery’s leader for murder in 2011.
“From the beginning the Chauncey Bailey Project wanted to send the message that when a journalist is killed because of their work, other journalists will step forward and make sure there is accountability,” Robert Rosenthal, head of the Center for Investigative Reporting and director of the Chauncey Bailey Project, wrote in 2011.
In Chicago, local newspapers and TV outlets covered the news of Stoner’s death, pointing out his prominence in local hip hop circles and the way he reported from at-times opposing sides of gang violence. “I’m hearing stories like they may have been mad at him because he did interviews with certain rappers,” Stoner friend Phor Robinson told WGN following his death. Still, there has been no broader movement pushing for accountability like there was with Bailey’s killing, even as national media projects toughness and sorrow in the face of recent threats to more mainstream journalists.
Reporters at large institutions like The New York Times, CNN, and even The Chicago Tribune are aided by their organizations’ political power, staffers’ shared social capital, and in-house legal teams. Stoner, on the other hand, ventured alone into some of the poorest neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side and elsewhere to both showcase musical talent and explore what it took to survive. He explained to viewers in one video that he carried a handgun as protection during nearly all of his interviews.
“Without a doubt, the type of independent journalism that Zack was doing put him a greater risk than if he were working at a mainstream outlet,” Alexandra Ellerbeck, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ North America program coordinator, added to Splinter.
CPJ has called on Chicago police to investigate whether Stoner’s murder came in response to his work. A spokesman for the department has not responded to Splinter’s questions of whether it had made any progress on pinpointing a suspect. Stoner’s mother could not be reached for this story.
But in the weeks since his death, as new information from official sources and mainstream outlets has dried up, competing rumors regarding the motivation for the crime have flown across YouTube. By one telling, Stoner was killed because he gave a platform to people in opposing gangs, some of whom made threats during his videos. He may also have been killed for interviewing a friend of Kenneka Jenkins—a Chicago woman who died mysteriously in the freezer of a hotel kitchen—work for which Stoner said he was previously threatened. A third theory suggests the passenger in Stoner’s car, who testified in a 2011 murder case, was the actual target. Or Stoner was murdered for hooking up with someone else’s girlfriend. Or out of jealousy for his burgeoning fame. One YouTuber even made a bizarre connection between Stoner’s death and a cryptic tweet by the Chicago rapper Common. Others have attempted to break down the footage from the scene of the crime and compare it against Stoner’s final Instagram videos.
It’s a tangled mess of grief, speculation, and bomb-throwing. And in the neighborhoods where Stoner told stories—and where violence is often understood as a product of decisions as opposed to circumstances—maybe the mix of emotions isn’t all that unique. What’s jarring is to see it play out on YouTube, the place Stoner created a brand as an independent vlogger while more traditional media continued to atrophy. It reopens all the routine arguments over who counts as a journalist, and who doesn’t. And Stoner himself probably wouldn’t have been surprised at all the confusion following his death.
“I read each and every YouTube comment, believe it or not,” he said at one point. “Some of the shit, I look at and laugh. I don’t understand how motherfuckers can think the way that they think.”
“But I guess that’s the internet for you,” he added.