Skip to content
Home » Q&A: Andy Newman on the death of Jordan Neely and covering homelessness in New York City

Q&A: Andy Newman on the death of Jordan Neely and covering homelessness in New York City

Just after 2pm on Monday, May 1, Jordan Neely, a thirty-year-old who was experiencing homelessness and known for his subway dancing and impersonations of Michael Jackson, stepped onto an F train at the Second Avenue station in Manhattan. He was heard complaining that he was hungry, thirsty, and fed up. Neely shouted that he did not care if he went to jail or died, and threw a sweater on the floor. As the train shuttled northward, Daniel Penny, a fellow passenger and twenty-four-year-old former Marine, grabbed Neely in a choke hold, killing him.

Two days later, New York City’s medical examiner said that Neely was “choked to death” and ruled the incident a homicide. By then the killing had already become a flash point in a national reckoning over how society treats those experiencing homelessness, dividing people—often along political lines—over whose deaths matter, the ethics of vigilantism, and the failures of under-resourced and uncoordinated mental health and shelter systems. Protests followed; demonstrators held signs that read “Being homeless is not a crime.” In the right-wing media, by contrast, talking heads lionized Penny. On May 12, Penny was charged with second-degree manslaughter. He has said that he “never intended to harm” Neely and intends to fight the charges.

When the news of Neely’s death broke, Andy Newman, a New York Times metro reporter who covers social services and poverty in New York City, was closing out another big story. For seven months, on and off, he had shadowed the intensive mobile treatment teams that help some of the city’s most vulnerable people with complex homelessness cases, telling the story of a woman he referred to as “M.” “It was just an incredible gift to have that access,” Newman told me recently. “They didn’t try to sanitize anything.” He then covered the Neely story, in an article headlined, “How two men’s disparate paths crossed in a killing on the F train.” He has since covered other developments in the case. 

Last week, I spoke with Newman about his work on homelessness, Neely’s homicide, and the failure of institutions to catch people in distress. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


JB: You’ve been covering social services and poverty in New York for years. And then, after Jordan Neely’s homicide, everyone seems to be on the beat. What’s it like to be covering a topic for so long and then suddenly the whole media seems interested?

Sign up for CJR‘s daily email

AN: That’s sort of the nature of this beat. It’s really busy, and there’s just a million things happening. Unfortunately, every so often, there’s some really horrible thing that happens that includes violence, mental illness, and a homeless person in New York City. So I’m always in the background working on other longer-term stories about that subject and then, when some news breaks, I get recruited to join the coverage on that.

And broadly how have you found the coverage in recent weeks? Are there any things you’ve noticed that could have been done better by people who might not have that depth of context that you’ve built up?

One of the reasons that the intersection of homelessness and mental illness is so interesting and vexing to write about is that the solutions to it are never easy or simple. I think there’s a background feeling or assumption that a lot of readers have that, ‘Jeez, if we could just get these people to take their meds, and or just lock them away in a long term psychiatric institution, then everything would be fine.’ But what you find when you’re reporting on this stuff is that there are so many barriers to the system working correctly, even before you get into the whole ethical question of whether it’s okay to lock someone away for a long time. There’s a tendency in the coverage for it to villainize someone, or to present them as a victim, depending on which boxes they check. And it’s never that simple. You can only figure out at least some of the reasons that something terrible has happened once you actually dig into the details and the history, and that can be hard to do.

The journalist Errol Lewis wrote in New York magazine recently that “Jordan Neely was already dead.” He continued: “Modern America, including New York, designates some categories of people as socially dead—part of an underclass that is subject to exclusion, indifference, or even outright hatred and violence. To be Black, destitute, homeless, and mentally ill in our city is to be one of those outsiders, existing in a kind of internal exile from society’s circle of care and concern.” What do you make of those words?

Based on what I’ve observed on the streets and subways, just going about my life as a regular New Yorker, I think it’s a pretty accurate assessment. It’s unfortunately the case that there are people who the system seems to have a harder time helping, for just so many different reasons.

One of the things that struck me was that Jordan Neely had a long history of brushing up against institutions, but then slipping through the net. He’d gone to the Bowery Residents Committee, he’d gone to Bellevue Hospital, he’d been brought to shelters five times in 2020 by the Citywide Mobile Crisis Outreach Team, he’d been incarcerated. What do you think that says about the potential failure of these institutions?

Case after case seems to keep saying that coordination between all these different aid agencies and systems [is not working]. It’s just really hard to get people to cooperate and to share information in real time. It’s something that Mayor Eric Adams obviously gets a lot of criticism for: a lot of the ways he’s dealing with homelessness. But he’s trying to figure out ways to coordinate and make all the systems work together better.

Adams has been in office for almost eighteen months now, so we can get a sketch of how his policies are playing out. How has he attempted to tackle homelessness and mental illness differently from his predecessors?

I have a really hard time coming up with an intelligent-sounding answer to that one off the top of my head.

Is that because he’s not doing things differently?

The depressing thing about covering this stuff is that if you just look back at stories through the years, every single mayor has tried ways to fix this problem and to somehow prevent people who are severely mentally ill and maybe prone to violence from doing something terrible to other people or to themselves. And every mayor and every governor comes in with a bunch of plans and programs. And we write these stories about these plans and programs. And for one reason or another, it just always happens again. It’s something that defies easy fixing.

There were protests after Jordan Neely’s homicide, people shouting “housing is a human right,” and blocking the subway tracks. Some observers have made the comparison with the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in 2020. What do you make of these demonstrations—could they be the start of a movement?

They’ve already kind of died down, so I would say it doesn’t seem like it to me. The Jordan Neely case is such a horrific situation that it’s going to be something that people care about and follow the outcome of the criminal trial. He’s not going to be forgotten. It already seems like this is a case that people are going to be thinking about in years to come, because it raises these questions of, like, everything that people in New York are worrying about, with regard to sort of unhinged-seeming people in the subway system, but then also vigilantism and what is okay and what is not okay. It just seems to crystallize a lot of people’s fears and concerns, but as far as what happens in the future as a result of Jordan Neely’s death? I don’t know.

In 1964, a woman named Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death in New York. The Times reported that dozens of witnesses ignored her cries for help. That subsequently turned out not to be true, with the Times admitting its reporting was “flawed.” But the idea that the story fed—of uncaring New Yorkers ignoring the pain of others—has proved to be an enduring one, and it’s being resurrected now. How do you think that fits in here?

It’s really hard to imagine, for me anyway, what it would have been like to have been on that train. It’s very easy to look back and say, ‘Oh, these people should have stopped Daniel Penny from choking Jordan Neely.’ And you can hear on the video there are people saying, Hey, you’re gonna kill him, don’t do that. I imagine the whole thing must have seemed so completely surreal. Because I’ve never witnessed somebody being killed in front of my eyes, I can’t even imagine what it would be like to have been on that train, watching that happen.

After Jordan Neely’s death, there were some headlines that got a fair amount of criticism, including in the Times, which ran with, “Man dies on subway after another rider places him in chokehold.” I wanted to ask you what you thought about frustrations over that passive framing that we sometimes see?

What’s passive about somebody else placing somebody in a chokehold? I mean, he died after being placed in a chokehold. As opposed to, “he was killed?” I mean, what is the objection to that headline? I don’t get it.

As I understand it, it’s a very passive way of phrasing someone who has potentially been subjected to homicide or murder. So I wanted to ask your thoughts about that.

Is that the story from before the medical examiner declared it a homicide? That’s the first-day story?

Right, that’s the first-day story.

I mean, if there hasn’t been a homicide finding, the homicide finding is what allows you to say that the chokehold caused the death. We are taught to be very cautious about making causative statements. I know that sounds pretty obvious in retrospect, that he did die because he was choked. But we are taught, and our headline writers are taught, to try never to go beyond what has been officially confirmed, unless we’ve confirmed it ourselves. So to me, I don’t have a problem. The very first day, all we know is that a) he was placed in a chokehold, and b) he died. That headline doesn’t bother me. I’m sure there are other headlines that might.

Finally, you’ve likened your reporting to “making the invisible visible.” Can you say more about that philosophy and how you think about it?

I’ve been at the Times for twenty-five years, and I’ve been on the metro desk that whole time. I’ve never really tried to do anything else, because I feel like New York is a place where there are a million people’s stories that are crying out to be told. All I have always wanted to do is find ways to tell stories about people’s lives, preferably people who are not already famous or public figures or anything like that, but just to allow readers to understand the whole range of humanity that is embodied in the city. One day, I was walking down the street, and I found myself looking into the face of every person that I passed, and wondering, ‘Gosh, I wonder how this person makes a living? How are they getting by?’ Because I know that more than half of the population of the city is really living paycheck to paycheck. So I thought it’d be really interesting to write about jobs that people do, survival jobs. I know from having done this job for a long time that almost everybody, if you find a way to help them tell their story, has something to offer that’ll open people’s eyes and make them say, ‘Oh, shit, so that’s what it’s like.’

Other notable stories:

  • For CJR, Danny Funt profiled Defector, an outlet—founded by exiles from Deadspin, which all but imploded in 2019—that calls itself “the last good website.” “From the start, the group felt it wasn’t worth pursuing anything short of a journalists’ utopia,” Funt writes. “Every aspect of the business—from paying freelancers half of their rate after receiving a first draft to letting writers and podcasters own their intellectual property—would form a blueprint for a publication both ethical and profitable. The site would be worker-owned, with everyone getting an equitable stake. The hours would be humane. They chose a name, Defector, that was a wink at their origin story.”
  • With hurricane season in the US approaching, Evlondo Cooper, of Media Matters for America, called on national TV news shows to improve their coverage of extreme weather as a year-round, global phenomenon. Cooper notes that recent wildfires in Canada and record-breaking heatwaves in Asia have failed to cut through on US TV, and that a recent heatwave in the Pacific Northwest didn’t fare much better: “From May 13-15, broadcast and cable news shows aired a combined 9 minutes of coverage about the heat wave, and none of them mentioned climate change.”
  • Politico’s Kyle Cheney and Josh Gerstein report on the latest developments in a court case brought by Yanping Chen, a Chinese American scientist who was investigated—but not charged—in a federal counterintelligence probe and is now trying to force Fox News and Catherine Herridge, a former Fox reporter, to reveal the sources of stories that they published about the investigation. Fox and Herridge are now being represented in the case by a former top lawyer in Trump’s White House.
  • Hot Pod’s Amrita Khalid spoke with the founders of Good Tape, a forthcoming biannual print magazine that will aim to tell “untold stories” within the podcast industry. “Podcasting has such a profound impact in people’s lives—and it’s not always positive,” Dane Cardiel, the publisher, told Khalid. “I’d love to give a platform to these stories we aren’t seeing represented in mainstream media.”
  • And for Esquire, Ben Mack profiled the Antarctic Sun, Antarctica’s longest-running newspaper. “Extreme remoteness presents unique challenges to newsgathering,” Mack writes. “There are the banal obstacles, like often painfully slow Internet speeds. Then there are the uncommon dangers. Untimely deaths are rare these days, but frostbite has been known to claim a few fingers or toes.”

ICYMI: Circles within circles in coverage of the debt ceiling

Jem Bartholomew is a Reporting Fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. Jem’s work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Economist, Time, New York magazine, and others. In 2019, he was named Best Newcomer in the State Street press awards.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

error: Content is protected !!