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What journalists covering Ferguson need to know about grand juries

A high school graduation photo of Michael Brown rests on top of a snow-covered memorial Monday, Nov. 17, 2014, more than three months after the black teen was shot and killed nearby by a white policeman in Ferguson, Mo. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency on Monday as a grand jury deliberates on whether to charge Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the death. (AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Robert Cohen)

A high school graduation photo of Michael Brown rests on top of a snow-covered memorial Monday, Nov. 17, 2014, more than three months after the black teen was shot and killed nearby by a white policeman in Ferguson, Mo. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency on Monday as a grand jury deliberates on whether to charge Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the death. (AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Robert Cohen)

While we await word from the St. Louis County, Missouri grand jury investigating the shooting death of Michael Brown, this would be a good time to remind the public how the grand jury system works, what grand juries are and what they are not.

  • Grand juries are usually not sequestered.
  • Grand jurors don’t have to swear they have no opinions about whatever they are investigating.
  • Defense lawyers and judges are not allowed in the grand jury room.
  • It is more difficult for a person being investigated to challenge or “strike” a grand juror from hearing a case.
  • Grand juries may take direction from a prosecutor or go out on their own to seek information and testimony.
  • Grand juries generally produce three kinds of reports:
    • a true bill, which is an indictment, which means the person goes to a trial hearing
    • a no true bill, which means the panel didn’t find enough evidence to move the case forward for prosecution
    • the grand juries sometimes write reports about what they have investigated, for instance, systematic problems in the justice system.
  • Hearsay evidence is allowed in grand jury testimony, unlike in open court.
  • Grand juries do not have to be in total agreement to return an indictment in a case.
  • Grand juries issue indictments based on whether there is probable cause to believe a person is guilty of a crime. That is a much lower level of proof than is required for a conviction.

Why do we have grand juries?
The notion of a citizen’s investigative panel has roots hundreds of years deep, stretching back to Old English law. The original idea was to have some way to keep the monarchy from being able to prosecute enemies for no good reason.

Grand juries are mentioned in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:

“No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

“Historically grand juries have been both a shield and a sword. They are a shield against politically driven prosecution and they are a sword when a prosecutor sticks his head in the sand and refuses to take on a case, like organized crime cases for example,” said Penny White, University of Tennessee law professor and former state Supreme Court Justice.

One of the early examples of how we use grand juries came in the case of John Peter Zenger in 1734. Zenger was a newspaper printer and the paper he printed was deeply critical of the Governor of New York.  The governor wanted to shut the paper down. Two grand juries refused to indict Zenger for sedition. The grand jury system acted as a shield protecting a free press from an angry governor.

Penny White,  Director of the Center for Advocacy and Elvin E. Overton Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of Tennessee, former Tennessee Supreme Court Justice

Penny White

Grand juries are, largely, investigative panels. Jurors are selected from the same pool of citizens as petit juries, but their duties and terms are very different. In most places, grand juries can meet for up to six months, but they do not usually meet every day, as juries do in criminal or civil trials.  

Unlike juries who hear cases in open court, grand juror names are kept secret. St. Louis County court officials did say the panelists include a black man, two black women, six white men and three white women.

Missouri Law for grand juries
In Missouri, the state law lays out some specific duties for grand juries:

Mo. Rev. Statutes Chapter 540.

540.031. A grand jury may make inquiry into and return indictments for all grades of crimes and shall make inquiry into all possible violations of the criminal laws as the court may direct. The grand jury may examine public buildings and report on their conditions.

Missouri’s law allows for there to be a court reporter in the grand jury room.

Reporter to record testimony–oath.

540.105. An official reporter of the circuit court, when directed by the judge thereof, shall take down and transcribe for the use of the prosecuting or circuit attorney any or all evidence given before the grand jury. Before taking down any such evidence, however, such reporter shall be sworn by the foreperson of such grand jury not to divulge any of the proceedings or testimony before the grand jury or the names of any witnesses except to the prosecuting or circuit attorney or to any attorney lawfully assisting him in the prosecution of an indictment brought by such grand jury.

And Missouri law makes it clear that what is said in the grand jury room is supposed to stay there:

Grand juror not to disclose evidence–penalty.

540.320. No grand juror shall disclose any evidence given before the grand jury, nor the name of any witness who appeared before them, except when lawfully required to testify as a witness in relation thereto; nor shall he disclose the fact of any indictment having been found against any person for a felony, not in actual confinement, until the defendant shall have been arrested thereon. Any juror violating the provisions of this section shall be deemed guilty of a class A misdemeanor.

And, Professor White tells me that the Missouri law includes one unusual provision. Grand jurors can be required to testify in a trial:

Grand jurors required to testify, when.

540.300. Members of the grand jury may be required by any court to testify whether the testimony of a witness examined before such jury is consistent with or different from the evidence given by such witness before such court. They may also be required to disclose the testimony given before them by any person, upon a complaint against such person for perjury, or upon his trial for such offense.

How grand juries are different from petit juries
Grand juries do not decide guilt or innocence. They listen to evidence and decide if somebody should be charged with a crime. Grand jurors can ask questions. “It is rare for a prosecutor to seek an indictment from a grand jury and not get one,” White said.

Grand jurors do not have to claim to be unbiased and defense lawyers do not have the ability to “strike” grand jurors from serving. The Cornell Legal Information Institute explains:

When a defendant makes a peremptory challenge, the judge must remove the juror without making any proof, but in the case of a grand juror challenge, the challenger must establish the cause of the challenge by meeting the same burden of proof as the establishment of any other fact would require.

Grand jury sessions are far less formal than open court sessions partly because there is no judge inside the grand jury room. The prosecutor for that jurisdiction is usually present and guides the grand jury through the law and the gathering of evidence. Still, grand juries can hear whomever they want and ask lots of questions.

Chris Hoyer, former federal and state prosecutor in Tampa, Florida. 40 years of experience practicing law.

Chris Hoyer

Chris Hoyer, who was a federal prosecutor for 10 years and state prosecutor in Tampa, Florida, for eight years says grand jury rooms feel a lot like a classroom. “There are lots of questions, a lot of conversation, lots of participation,” he said. Often, he says, an investigator from the prosecutor’s office will come to the grand jury with a thick file of evidence. “The case agent summarizes what police have found, what witnesses said and what tests have been done.” In open court, each person who did that work would have to personally testify as to what they discovered but in a grand jury hearsay evidence is allowed.

Grand Jury versus Preliminary Hearing
All 50 states allow grand juries but often court systems use preliminary hearings instead. Preliminary hearings are held in open court and defense lawyers can cross examine witnesses. “The trend toward preliminary hearings is largely driven by the perception that it saves money,” according to White. “Many defendants waive preliminary hearings and go straight to trail, so in that way, it saves money not to go through a grand jury process.” 

The advantage of a grand jury hearing is that the closed nature of the hearing protects the reputation of the person being investigated in case there is not enough evidence for a case to go forward.

On the other hand, defense attorneys often like preliminary hearings. White explained: “From a defense point of view that is the only time you will get a state’s case in advance of trial.”

Hoyer agreed, “As a defense attorney I would much rather have a preliminary hearing because you could discredit or intimidate a witness who might harm your client. But from a prosecutor’s point of view, a grand jury is better because some witnesses, especially informants, may not want to testify in public. They would not be willing to say what they know and be forthcoming like they would in a grand jury setting.”

The Burden of Proof
In criminal cases, grand jurors have to answer two key questions when they consider a case. (1) Is there probable cause to believe a crime was committed? (2) Is there some evidence to show that the accused person was involved in the crime?

For the grand jury to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, at least nine of the 12 jurors will have to say that it’s reasonable to believe he could be found guilty of crimes that could range from second degree murder to criminally negligent manslaughter. (The LA Times explains the range of possible charges in this story.) Remember that to convict a person of a crime, the burden of proof is much higher. An indictment requires establishing “probable cause,” a conviction requires the evidence to be proven true beyond a “reasonable doubt.”

The grand jurors vote in private, with no prosecutor present.

An Unusual Grand Jury Session
The St. Louis County grand jury session is highly unusual because Wilson himself testified without a lawyer present. It is rare for the main suspect in a case to appear before a grand jury.

“Most defense lawyers would not put their client through that,” White said. After a grand jury testimony, “They can’t shift their theory of defense.” And while the defendant cannot have a lawyer by his or her side, the defendant is allowed to come out after every question.

Hoyer said in some jurisdictions, if the target of a grand jury testifies, they can be given “targeted immunity” meaning what they say to the grand jury cannot be used against them in court.

St. Louis County prosecutor  Robert McCulloch said his office would hand over “absolutely everything” it had collected as evidence in the case so jurors could hear from eyewitnesses, forensic experts and police investigators who all appeared to have starkly different versions of what happened. The prosecutor’s office said it presented the grand jury with DNA information, ballistics information and heard from Dorian Johnson, the friend who was with Michael Brown at the shooting.

The Washington Post pointed out another unusual tactic in this grand jury investigation; the prosecutors say they are not telling jurors what charges they think Wilson should face, but instead are leaving the decision on whether to indict or not totally up to the panel.

“If you want to have a tough decision made for you, you take a case (like the Ferguson, Missouri case) to a grand jury rather than just bringing charges,” Hoyer said. “It is especially true in cases where you don’t know who to believe, where there is a high-stakes decision.”

What Happens After the Grand Jury Reports?
While grand jury testimony is usually secret, the prosecutor’s office has said if there is no indictment in the case, it will ask the court to allow the release of witness testimony without the witness’ names so the public can know as much as possible about what the grand jury heard. And the prosecutor’s spokesman said if the grand jury does not indict the officer, the county will not pursue charges on its own or seat a second grand jury unless significant new evidence came to light. Read more

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Monday, Oct. 13, 2014

dreamstime,bigstock,fotolia

Here’s what journalists miss when they don’t leave the office

Today let us pay tribute to reporters who, in their quest for a good daily story, boldly defy the Production gods and do the unthinkable: Hang up the telephone and leave the office.

Granted, doing a “phoner” often seems like the only recourse when your responsibilities for the day include preparing a story (or two or more) for multiple platforms, posting to social media, and any number of other special projects.

But rare is the story done by phone that successfully transports the viewer or reader to that place where they actually can experience something.

Joy. Pain. Anxiety. Relief.

The stories I remember best created an opportunity for me to experience an emotion, a realization, a sense that I was there. And the reporters who created those opportunities had one thing in common: they were there.

It was just before 2 p.m. on a recent Friday when Doreen Carvajal, a reporter based in Paris for the New York Times, received an email from the city of Paris. She immediately dropped the story she was working on.

She also left the office.

The email announced that the city of Paris was taking steps to unlock the hundreds of thousands of padlocks that lovers from all over the world have attached to the railings of the city’s famous Pont des Arts bridge.

“I headed to the bridge,” Carvajal wrote to me, “in search of brides in satin and lovers.”

Here’s the story she found. Take a read.

Carvajal, with whom I worked at the Inquirer, sent me her story after I invited reporters to send me stories they had reported and produced in a day.

“I wrote it at a cafe with wifi because I had no time to return to the office from the Pont des Arts,” Carvajal wrote. “I quickly settled on my characters (my favorite: a street cleaner with a green broom) and wrote.”

For me, Carvajal’s story was an invitation to remember the times I stood on the bridges that span the Seine. Her characters, the details she chose, the quotes she selected—all combined to take me to that bridge.

Her story apparently touched a lot of people. It climbed the Times Top 10 emailed list, and was shared more than 2,000 times through the NYT Facebook page.

Her decision to leave the office clearly paid off.

Kevin Jacobsen also left the office. He volunteered to cover the homecoming of the 114th Transportation Company from a nine-month deployment in Afghanistan. Jacobsen, an anchor and multimedia journalist for KBJR 6 and Range 11 in Duluth, MN, was working on three hours sleep (he had anchored the 10 p.m. newscast) when he made the three-hour drive to the reunion of a Twin Ports family just outside the Twin Cities.

“I arrived knowing who I would be focusing on,” Jacobsen wrote to me. “I also knew the framework: Morning can often come too soon, but it was clear, for these families, that being reunited with their loved ones couldn’t come soon enough.

“What would eventually happen though, no one could have planned for.”

And he wouldn’t have seen it if he’d reported the story on the phone.

“I mic’ed the mom of the returning soldier and asked her a couple of quick questions. I shot some b-roll while waiting for the arrival. I also made sure to roll on the mom to get little bits of (natural sound) as the anticipation grew.

“Once the troops arrived and were relieved of their duties, my story became even more clear. The mom had seen her daughter walk in, but lined up on the opposite side of the room. Once the troops scattered, the mom lost sight of her daughter.

“I managed to quickly catch up with the mom and follow her as she frantically searched for her soldier. Those last few seconds before the two were reunited seemed like hours. You could feel the anxiousness. My goal for the story was to try and let that ‘search’ video breathe.”

Here is Jacobsen’s story.

If Jacobsen’s goal was to make me feel the anticipation of the soldier’s mom, he succeeded. His video and audio captured moments we’ve all experienced—when the wait, even if it’s only a few minutes, can seem so much longer. We saw the mother wandering through the crowd and the jerk of her head toward a possible sighting. We heard her squeals when the soldiers arrived, her clipped, breathless voice during the search, her muffled gasps of joy when she pushed her face into her daughter’s arms.

And because Jacobsen helped me experience the wait — a wait he didn’t expect when he was planning his story — I found myself sharing the mother’s joy when the moment of reunion finally arrived.

Jacobsen said his story was “well received.” I guess that means I wasn’t the only viewer who got a bit emotional.

Here’s one last daily story that benefitted from leaving the office.

AJ Dome works for KVOE Radio in Emporia, KS. His news department consists of AJ and his news director. Dome decided this “fun” story — a journey with a local businessman across the Flint Hills in an electric golf cart — would brighten up the station’s newscast.

Here’s his story.

As I listened to Dome’s story, I imagined finding a story like this in a newspaper or on the evening news: a business or lifestyle feature about electric carts and the people who use them — away from the golf course. What I don’t know is how many reporters would take the time for a 35-mile ride in an electric golf cart over rough terrain to get that story.

Dome explained why he did it.

“I was taught by my high school newspaper teacher,” Dome wrote to me, “to appreciate getting out of your comfort zone, to actually go places and see things. It’s so easy to make phone calls or do a Google search, but much more meaningful if you set foot somewhere, and ask a person a question face-to-face. “

I told Dome I appreciated that he included details in the piece that helped me feel like I was on the ride with him — the unexpected road closings, the stares of passing motorists. I told him I could have used a few more details about what he saw and heard as they drove; and a mention of whether they successfully approached (as the story suggested they might) some unsuspecting wildlife.

But most of all, I told him I appreciated that he got in the cart and took the ride. He said he heard from a good number of listeners who appreciated his effort, too.

“When I talk with other young reporters,” he said, “I encourage them to get comfortable shoes, and wear them out by going where the story is.”

Great advice, Dome — who, by the way, is just 22 years old.

Here’s to you, and to a long career spent outside the office. Read more

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Monday, Sep. 29, 2014

memofmurder-front-100

CBC’s effort to uncover bodies in an alleged 58-year-old triple murder

On Wednesday, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s flagship evening newscast dedicated 15-and-a-half minutes to a single jaw-dropping story.  It is the story of a horror that a woman said she witnessed 58 years ago and spent decades trying to get someone to care.

Courtesy CBC

Courtesy CBC

Three years ago, my church pastor called to say he knew a woman who desperately needed a journalist to help her. The pastor said her story might seem to be outlandish and unbelievable, but asked me to give the woman a chance. He believed her, he said, beyond the shadow of a doubt. In more than 40 years of working in journalism I have come to understand that the most unbelievable stories can be true and when they are, they can be blockbusters.

Glenna Mae Breckenridge: From CBC

Glenna Mae Breckenridge: From CBC

 

So I sat down with Glenna Mae Breckenridge, who lives in Ontario during the summers and, like lots of Canadians, lives in St. Petersburg, Florida, during the winters. Breckenridge told me that in July 1955, somebody killed three Aboriginal teenage boys on a farm an hour north of Toronto. I asked her how she knew. She said she witnessed the murders herself when she was a young girl. She said she knew the killer and she knew where the bodies were. She told she had not been able to get authorities to believe her.

Breckenridge needed a journalist who would help her. Somebody who knew the Canadian legal and police system, somebody who could tell the story to the world, somebody who had the resources to stay on the story for however long it took to find the truth.

I called CBC correspondent Paul Hunter, who is one of the best journalists I know. Hunter is at home in war zones and earthquake debris. He travels the world reporting on the biggest stories and the worst of human misery.  And yet, even in the worst situations, I have always noticed his reporting reveals a heart that has not hardened.

“Cold case stories are almost always inherently fascinating,” Hunter told me.  “The very idea something could go unresolved for so long, while a key player in it had insisted for years that an answer was there for the finding is, in my books, journalistically irresistible. I also felt personally for Breckenridge. She seemed broken by her many years of not being heard. I thought spending a little time looking into it (largely on my own time) was the least I could do, given her sincerity and level of despair.”

For three years, he chipped away at the story between covering wars and politics and disasters. Paul Hunter and a producer, Ghazala Malik, combed government records, even found a video deposition from 1996 when Breckenridge, after years of therapy, was able to recall enough details that she told police her story of the killings.

“His first call when you directed me to him, my gut told me he was listening and hearing what I was saying,” Breckenridge told me about her first call from Hunter. “And there was a form of empathy that helped me relax and thus show some trust-not easy for me — but he never challenged me or pushed me beyond what I needed to say or what he apparently felt was enough for the moment. He  kept the conversation short and I knew he had heard all. For me, I usually was very careful when talking to a man especially a man in a powerful position. He said very little, and I knew he knew what I was saying.”

Hunter said Breckenridge told him the same shocking story she had told me.  She told him, on camera, that her father was the killer. And that her father buried the teens below the floor of a pig pen inside of what is now a large barn on the family farm. Breckenridge told the CBC the story of how, she said, her father had repeatedly sexually abused her and that during one attack a teenaged farm hand saw one of the assaults and tried to intervene. Breckenridge said her father killed the boy with a pitchfork.

She told Hunter that the next day, two more teens came looking for their friend and her father killed both boys with a shotgun. But claims are one thing, proving the claims would be much more difficult, maybe impossible.

The CBC's Paul Hunter listens to Glenna Mae's story.  (From CBC)

The CBC’s Paul Hunter listens to Breckenridge’s story. (From CBC)

Hunter explained the mountain of problems that he  faced: “The incident in question happened in 1955. No bodies were found by police. No boys were ever reported missing. There was only one witness [Breckenridge] and a father [now deceased] who had denied everything to police. Her family had sided with the father and was no help to us. Police we spoke with acknowledged their difficulties in the initial investigation, underlining a truth about police work in general – not all crimes can be solved. As well, access to the farm where it all happened was complicated. The family had sold it to a new owner who had no interest in Glenna Mae coming by and — potentially — discovering human remains on his land. For the longest time he refused to allow us on. At the point where I was beginning to suggest to Glenna Mae that she should prepare herself to abandon hope for finding answers, we made one last pitch to the current property owner and, long story short, he agreed to let us on, for a day.”

A ground penetrating radar machine records what is below the barn floor. (From CBC)

A ground penetrating radar machine records what is below the barn floor. (From CBC)

For that one and only chance to examine that barn floor, the CBC hired a ground-penetrating-radar operator to come to the pig barn. The operator, Hunter said was considered to be a world-class expert.  With Hunter by her side, she directed the GPR operator to the exact location where she said she witnessed the burials.

Breckenridge told me that after all these years, Paul Hunter was her only hope of finding the truth. “After 58 years of trying to be heard – no. It just didn’t seem to happen with all other avenues that I have tried. You guys listened and I knew I was being heard. A refreshing experience for me! You never showed aghast, you just asked more questions. It made me feel that I had the right to tell you my information that I had held secret for so long. Both you and Paul treated me as an intelligent, normal woman instead of being frowned upon as a dirty, little girl with a secret. Always respectful and that was new for me.”

The ground penetrating radar image of what may be three teenaged boys below the barn floor. (From CBC)

The ground penetrating radar image of what may be three teenaged boys below the barn floor. (From CBC)

After an hour of scanning the hard floor with his x-ray machine, the operator said he had found “three anomalies” about 5 feet in length a few feet below the floor. The images were consistent with human remains, the operator told Hunter. The anomalies showed up at exactly the location and depth Breckenridge insisted they would be. The images showed something where nothing but dirt should have been beneath that pig-pen floor. But while that’s compelling, it still leaves room for doubt.

“Did we find the truth? I think Glenna Mae found her truth,” Hunter told me. “As I underline in the piece, to be 100 percent certain there’d have to be a dig and DNA testing, and we didn’t do that. We felt we should report what we’ve found and, at least for now, leave it at that.”

Paul Hunter could have thrown up his hands years ago. But he told me early on he often found the best stories from the most unlikely witnesses that others ignored. This story, he said, taught even a veteran journalist like him lessons, “Don’t give up! Diligence pays! And a good story is a good story is a good story. And as well, it was a reminder that it pays to be upfront and fully transparent with people when it’s a long-term project. I give Glenna Mae credit for being patient with our logistical challenges and as well with the long-term nature of investigative pieces. It can be difficult explaining to those outside the industry why you can’t always ‘get it on tonight’ but the truth about process (boring as it may be to some!) has a funny way of easing the anxiety for those we involve in our stories. It was also instructive in finding ways to tell stories that are outside one’s comfort zone. This piece wasn’t so much about a potential crime, as it was about the idea of memory and truth.”

We don’t know if the police will ever reopen an investigation. Breckenridge’s father died five years ago. But when the CBC dedicates so much airtime and effort to gather and tell a story on the CBC’s main evening newscast, there could be enough attention on this case that the case cannot sit unresolved even if nobody could be held accountable if those anomalies are bodies beneath that floor. Since there were no missing person reports, and the new owner of the farm doesn’t want the disturbance of having his barn dug up, this story may be at an end.

But within minutes of the story airing, viewers took to Facebook demanding action.

This story cannot end like this,” a reader wrote CBC News’ Facebook page. “I was utterly shocked, and appalled at the way this story ended,” another said. “Thank you to Paul Hunter for the respectful reporting of the story,” wrote another.

The Follow-up

Within 24 hours of the story airing, police told Paul Hunter they wanted to see the CBC’s evidence and reminded Hunter that unsolved homicide cases are never closed. And, police insisted, they did take Breckenridge’s original report in the 1990s seriously. They generated a thick case file and police did search the farm and found no evidence of buried bodies. But they did not use ground x-ray.

photo of Hunter holding up police file - Caption: In a followup report, CBC's Paul Hunter shows that police did investigation the 1996 complaint and generated a thick investigation file. Photo From CBC: The National

Photo of Hunter holding up police file – Caption: In a followup report, CBC’s Paul Hunter shows that police did investigation the 1996 complaint and generated a thick investigation file. Photo From CBC: The National

Police asked Hunter for his evidence to compare it to where they looked years ago and “decide what steps to take.” Hunter said police told him that if they look at the x-ray evidence and become convinced the data shows bodies, they may restart their investigation. And, of course, there is still the chance the x-rays picked up soundings of something else, not human remains.

In his follow-up report, Paul Hunter said Aboriginal leaders responded to the story by issuing a recall for families and community leaders to “think hard” about old tales from decades ago about boys who may have disappeared in 1955 and “were never heard from again.” Hunter reminds viewers that it may be difficult to know for sure if there were missing teens because there were many stories from the 1950s about runaways from residential schools and often there were no records of their disappearance.

Despite the ambiguous ending, Breckenridge told me she got what she wanted. “I wanted this story told, first for the boys who were murdered, so that other people who have witnessed a murder like I did can be strong enough to tell their story too. My biggest reason is I want people to know that those of us that have been abused can talk about it and get help. In this fast moving world, with all it’s horrors, I wonder if my story can make a change. I was always told in teaching that if you can change the life of one child, it is worth it. I felt a deep sense of relief and let out a breath ‘finally.’ I finally knew that my voice had been heard for the boys. Thank God.” Read more

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Wednesday, Sep. 24, 2014

J.D. Salinger

For Banned Books Week: An X-ray reading from Catcher in the Rye

File photo of J.D. Salinger appears next to copies of his classic novel "The Catcher in the Rye" as well as his volume of short stories called "Nine Stories."  (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta, File)

File photo of J.D. Salinger appears next to copies of his classic novel “The Catcher in the Rye” as well as his volume of short stories called “Nine Stories.” (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta, File)

Earlier this year the editors of American Scholar published a dozen examples of “best sentences,” passages from classic literature worth saving and savoring. I was inspired by these and offered my own interpretation of what made them memorable. Now I’ve caught the bug and there appears to be no cure. With the blessing of Robert Wilson, editor of AS, I have chosen a number of sinewy or shapely sentences for X-ray reading, trying to understand what a writer can learn from each. (We’ll be publishing these exemplars occasion, highlighting the writing strategies that created them.)

Since this is also Banned Books Week, I begin with the first sentence of one of the most celebrated banned books of all time: The Catcher in the Rye, published by Little, Brown, which also, I’m proud to add, happens to be my publisher. (Also thinking of moving to Vermont to become a recluse.)

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. (63 words)
– J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

Following in the footsteps of Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn, J.D. Salinger sacrifices his own language and mature insights (sort of) to turn narration of his novel over to a prep school student, Holden Caulfield, who came to represent the alienation of the post-World War II generation.

This is a carefully constructed text, of course, but it doesn’t sound that way. That’s the magic of it. It sounds like someone talking. How do you do that? You use the second person (“you”), contractions (“you’ll,” “don’t”), slang (“lousy”), intensifiers (“really”), verbal punctuation (“and all”), and mild profanity (“crap”). The cumulative effect is informal and conversational.

Of all his literary gifts, Salinger had a great ear for the spoken word and captures the idioms of his time in phrases like “how my parents were occupied” and “if you want to know the truth.” A double-edged razor hides in both phrases. The first one could mean (“what my parents did for a living,”) but “occupied” carries with it some negative connotations, as in the word “pre-occupied,” that is, distracted.

The second phrase “if you want to know the truth” is used mostly as filler in conversation, and yet the key word “truth” comes at the end, inviting the question of whether Holden is a reliable narrator about his own life story.

My favorite phrase here is “and all that David Copperfield kind of crap.” This feels like a mature literary allusion rather than the ramblings of an alienated teenager. Note the alliteration, the repetition of hard “c” sounds: Copperfield, kind, crap. Perhaps Holden sees himself as a Dickensian character like David Copperfield who experiences an endless series of traumatic events in his young life. Or, perhaps, the reclusive author is sending a secret signal: Just as David Copperfield is considered Dickens’s most autobiographical novel, Catcher contains, we now know, many parallels to the young life of J.D. Salinger.

I must note that Catcher remains on many lists of banned books. However mild the word “crap” appears to us, it signals to the reader the rougher words to come, including some f-bombs that excited students, but traumatized some parents and School Board members.

By the end of the novel, Holden reveals that he is in therapy and repeats a key phrase from the beginning: “If you want to know the truth, I don’t know what I think about it, ” that is everything that he has told us. There is a kind of group therapy feel to the language from the beginning, as if he’s answered a question from a shrink about his childhood and parents: “If you really want to hear about it….”

In summary, it takes skill to create prose that sounds like someone speaking directly to the reader. We have a name for that effect: voice. It’s hard enough to achieve when the narrator is the author. It’s even more challenging when the author turns over that task to a teenage boy who likes to wear a red hunting cap. Read more

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Monday, Sep. 22, 2014

A call for really good daily stories

Daily news concept.Earlier this month I offered some ideas for how journalists can produce better daily stories.

The need is obvious. Thanks to the production demands confronting understaffed newsrooms, reporters and editors are increasingly favoring stories that can be done in a day (or less.)

But that doesn’t mean those stories need to be thin, predictable or boring. They don’t have to be kiss-offs.

Daily stories can be good stories. Sometimes, they can be great stories.

I’d like you to send me a daily story that you’re proud of.

Send me a daily story that you took beyond the routine. Maybe you elevated a straightforward assignment with a great interview, a vivid scene or strong character development. Maybe you offered your audience thoughtful analysis of an important issue. Maybe you told you story from an unusual point of view. Maybe you effectively used multimedia.

The only requirement is that you reported, wrote and produced the story in one day.

In addition to a link to the story, send me a paragraph explaining how you approached the story. Did you take a risk? Try something new? Mimic a device you saw elsewhere?

How did you do it?

Send links to your stories to bward@poynter.org. I’ll share them in the coming days. Let’s help each other do better daily stories. Read more

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Wednesday, Sep. 10, 2014

Janay Rice

Diverse voices are missing from the debate over showing the Rice video

Once TMZ posted its video of “the punch” — the blow Ray Rice dealt his then fiancée and now wife, Janay Palmer Rice, knocking her unconscious and igniting controversy about how the NFL deals with domestic violence — editors throughout the country faced a single question of journalism ethics: Do we post the video?

Poynter’s resident writing coach, Roy Peter Clark, argues that such violent videos need to be made public because they create “the public outrage and outcry that pierces the shield of even such impenetrable institutions of the NFL.”

Janay Palmer Rice in May.  (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

Janay Palmer Rice in May. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

His reasoning points to a growing chasm of compassion, dignity and empathy in U.S. media that has grown from our fault lines of race, class and gender.

What Clark implies is that it’s OK to use a person’s private experience — in this case, one that Janay Rice did not consent to or have knowledge of — if it serves a greater good. I take issue with his failure to mention how media routinely ignore the voices of women of color, especially those who are victims of intimate partner violence — until it happens that one of those women is a public figure.

“The sad part is … We do need the narratives,” said Kimberly Ellis, an independent social media scholar and the author of a forthcoming book called “The Bombastic Brilliance of Black Twitter.” “For the sake of preventing additional instances of domestic violence, it’s the black woman’s body that is put on the altar for sacrifice.”

Having diverse voices in the conversation around this video is necessary to contextualize media management decisions on whether to re-post it. As sociologist Patricia Hill Collins writes about the forces of race, class and gender that minimize the experiences of black women, “the same situation can look quite different depending on the consciousness one brings to interpret it.”

Using the video without consent violates our ethical obligation to treat Janay Rice and other survivors of intimate partner violence as people rather than vehicles for social change. Their stories — especially the ones from women of color who have been historically overlooked or shamed into silence — need to be told. But how to do so is a complicated question, and one that requires diverse voices as part of formulating an answer.

I’m troubled by Clark’s rationale, and the argument by Poynter’s resident ethicist Kelly McBride makes in his piece, because neither acknowledges any context of the black experience in arguing that this video should be made public.

For people of color in the United States, whether victims of police brutality or intimate partner violence, the moral outrage that greets the release of “gotcha” surveillance videos and photographs peters out often before we are afforded legal redress.

The names of women like Marlene Pinnock, who was repeatedly punched by a California Highway Patrol officer during an arrest, and Jada, the 17-year-old Texas student whose naked, drugged body became the Internet meme #JadaPose come to mind.

Remember them? Their images became public. There was outcry. They’re still waiting for justice.

It’s been 31 days since an unarmed black teen was shot to death by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. And to date, despite local, national and international outrage and outcry, no one has been indicted. No one has been arrested. The Ferguson Police Department has yet to announce a change in its policy on use of force.

Some good the video, pictures, ongoing media coverage and prolonged moral outrage surrounding Mike Brown’s death have done. Why should we expect that video of a woman being punched by her partner will effect greater social change?

Objectifying Janay Rice and recasting her experiences to serve the interests of elite white men who make the decision to publish and repost the video, to paraphrase Collins, means subordinating a black woman’s humanity in the name of journalism.

It is a misguided and unethical practice.

In the media ethics class I taught as a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill, I emphasized ethical news values that accompany our traditional values of timeliness, prominence, and conflict.

Those values include empathy and dignity. Students learn to question whether their actions will send the victim into further trauma, and if they, as media workers, are acting with compassion. The video footage of Janay Rice being posted to news websites and shown via broadcast is a violation of her most intimately held territory — her body.

“You know what bothered me most? Her lying there on the floor, exposed,” said Rebeccah Lutz, managing editor of the Tallahassee Democrat, a survivor of intimate partner abuse (and in the interest of full disclosure, my best friend).
“The violent act itself was difficult enough to watch, but seeing her exposed and vulnerable, not even able to cover herself, crushed me. She was powerless in that moment, and now the world has seen it.”

Janay Rice was robbed her of her humanity once when Ray Rice hit her. She was victimized a second time when the NFL delayed in taking decisive action. The assault continues each time the tape of her fiancé hitting her is presented as news.

Meredith D. Clark is an assistant professor of digital and print news in the Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas. She’s worked as a copy editor, reporter, columnist and community news editor at newspapers including the Raleigh News & Observer and the Tallahassee Democrat. Read more

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Monday, Sep. 08, 2014

Fast Food Restaurant

Three ways to serve up better dailies

Back when I was doing my communications gig for Independence Blue Cross in Philadelphia, I received a phone call one morning from a reporter who was playing catch-up on a new state insurance regulation.

“I’ll be happy to explain it to you,” I said, “but be patient. It’s a little involved.”

About two minutes into my explanation, the reporter interrupted me.

“That’s okay,” he said. “That’s way too complicated. I’ll get something else for tomorrow.”

Another story falls victim to media bias.

No, not the liberal political bias that journalists so often are accused of having. This was another, perhaps more disturbing bias. It’s called:Production Bias.

Simply defined, Production Bias holds that if a story can’t be done in a day, we won’t do it.

I first heard the concept of Production Bias in 2001 when I was working with Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach, authors of The Elements of Journalism, and they were developing a newsroom curriculum based on the book. Production Bias was among a number of terms identified to help journalists understand that the first step in mitigating a bias is to acknowledge its existence.

I joined them in a number of newsrooms where we asked the staff if Production Bias existed. Without fail, the journalists said yes.

And let’s be honest: it’s more prevalent today than when I got that impatient reporter’s call more than a decade ago. In fact, in some newsrooms it’s mutated: If the story can’t be done in two hours, we won’t do it.

Am I exaggerating? Sure. But spend a few hours scanning the web sites of news organizations around the country, and tell me how many meaty profiles, in-depth analyses and just plain surprising stories you find.

Clearly, a whole lot of good stories are not being done.

Could this have anything to do with our disappearing audiences?

We’re all familiar with the changes that have contributed to the spread of Production Bias. Less staff to do more work. The 24/7 news cycle. Publishing on multiple platforms. The demands of multimedia.

But the biggest reason, I’d suggest, dates back to a notion that held forth long before we were tweeting or blogging or gathering multimedia.

Our newsrooms are preoccupied with filling.

Fill the show. Fill the book. We can’t do that story because we need everyone to help us fill.

One newspaper editor told me that several years ago, he flat-out told his staff to stop worrying about filling the book. “I want everyone, every day, to write for the front page,” he said. “If we do that, we’ll have plenty of good stories left over to fill the book.”

I asked him how it’s going. Slowly, he said. A few more good stories are getting done each day. “Everyone says they want to take risks, but they don’t,” the editor said. “They find a great deal of safety from filling the book.”

Filling is a hard habit to break.

But we’ve got to get started. How about this modest goal: if our news reports are going to be dominated by one-day stories, let’s make them better. Even memorable.

How?

Here are three ideas, inspired by a handful of print and broadcast stories that were reported, written and produced in one day.

The first story was reported in 2009 by Boyd Huppert at KARE in Minneapolis. Watch and then we’ll talk.

Idea Number 1. Frame the story tightly. Think about where this story was reported and during what time frame. One Checkers, one shift. I can think of many similar, but less powerful, stories done by reporters who visited multiple businesses over several days. Stories, no matter how quickly they are reported, benefit from a well-defined, tight frame.

David Barstow, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter at the New York Times, says that the tighter the frame you put on your exploration of an issue or event, the deeper you can go. His tick-tock on nine crucial minutes aboard the burning Deepwater Horizon is a classic example of tight framing. (And no, it was not done in one day.)

But Huppert’s Checkers story shows that it’s just as important to place a tight frame around your daily story. The frame helps the writer decide what pieces of reporting to put in and what to leave out. It helps you identify your lead and your ending. And it can help you choose your story structure.

So when you embark on a story, don’t just think about the issue or event you’re covering. Spend some extra time thinking about how you’ll tell that story—how you’ll frame it. And remember: the sooner you identify the frame, the sooner you can zero in on the reporting you need to do.

Here’s another daily story that teaches a great lesson. It’s by Lane DeGregory of the Tampa Bay Times. Have a read.

Idea Number 2. Do some planning. Often we know in advance—sometimes weeks in advance—that that we will be doing a daily story on some event or issue. Thinking about the story ahead of time (and how we might tell it) affords us the chance to identify reporting opportunities, set up some interviews. DeGregory had covered Officer Yaslowitz’s funeral, and knew that at some point, she wanted to follow up with the policeman’s widow. Once she decided to tell the story through the frame of Mrs. Yaslowitz’s first day back at kindergarten, she could make the calls necessary to give her access.

When our daily stories involve breaking news, we’re left to scramble to find sources and arrange interviews. But many of our best one-day stories don’t involve breaking news—they involve the community’s ongoing life. If we can identify more of those stories, and plan in advance how we’ll do them, we’ll have more time during our one-day window to devote to reporting and writing.

Now here’s a story by Diane Tennant of the Virginia-Pilot that was done in a day and takes some creative risks. Have a look.

Idea Number 3. Ask yourself, “What’s this story’s purpose?”

Some stories are meant to expose wrongdoing. Others aim to inform. Some help members of a community better understand each other.

And some just plain entertain.

Along the way, Tennant’s story also demonstrated to readers of the Virginian-Pilot the role that social media is playing in their community. But at its heart is a cute story that caused one reader to say in an email: “Thank you, what a pleasant surprise to read such a tender story in the paper this morning!”

One of my former editors used to say that every day’s news report should include a surprise—a story that readers and viewers would find nowhere else, and which would remind them why they valued us. Tennant’s story was a surprise.

I asked her about her story’s purpose, and she said she had not thought much about that.

“When I saw Binky’s picture on Facebook, I called my family’s attention to it, and then it kind of struck me that if Binky’s story amused me and my family, and had amused the restaurant’s followers on FB, then it would probably resonate with The Pilot’s readers, too.”

Her answer made me think she knew exactly what she wanted her story to accomplish. She wanted it to amuse me. It did.

Oh, and just to make sure no one thinks the Virginian-Pilot has eschewed serious journalism, “Binky’s Big Adventure” ran in a paper whose front page featured the “Defiant Governor” vowing to expand Medicaid over the legislature’s objections; and an enterprise story on how the history of accidents involving military drones raises questions about the possibility of increased drone traffic.

Bonus time. Back to Lane DeGregory for a story that puts this all together. Take a read.

Did this story make use of all three ideas?

Tight frame: The focus was on one woman, returning to confession on one night, at one church.

Advance planning: DeGregory obtained advance permission for a reporter and photographer to attend the service and approach attendees. (She avoided wasting half her evening wandering from church to church in search of someone she could interview—and photograph.)

Purpose: The story explored a question as old as the human race—what propels a person to seek forgiveness from God?

DeGregory explains her process:

“I had seen an ad on TV about the Catholic Church opening its doors for people to come ‘home.’ My husband is a recovering Catholic, as he calls it, and I was interested in who might return, and why they left, and what they hoped to get out of it. I called a couple different churches, mostly ones where I knew people who attended so I could drop names, and got that one to agree to let me in. We weren’t allowed to go into the confessional, which was a bummer, especially for the photographer. But we came early, not knowing who—if anyone—we would find, and the line stretched around the church. We approached probably 20 people who didn’t want to talk before finding this one sweet woman who was hesitant, but willing.

“I left about 8 p.m., I think, and wrote it by 10 p.m. for the next day.”

Lane said she was attracted to this story by plain old curiosity.

“I was brought up being made to go to Methodist church, where we didn’t confess. And I’ve never gotten why anyone would want to spill their sins. But I just thought something powerful must be happening to draw someone back to the church after all these years, not to go to a Sunday service but to confess something. I knew there would be drama and mystery and God and sorrow and regret there. And a quiet, reverent scene.”

For me, these three ideas add up to a sound strategy for writing better daily stories. Start by choosing stories with the potential to be memorable. Yes, cover breaking news—but stop chasing it to the exclusion of stories that readers and viewers might, just might, consume in their entirety—and remember.

There is much about the disruption of the media landscape that individual editors and reporters cannot control. What you can control are the stories you choose to do.

Let’s not squander that opportunity.

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Monday, Aug. 25, 2014

Calendar Pages and Clock

Want to avoid procrastination? Impose an early deadline on yourself

When I wrote “The Glamour of Grammar,” I turned in the manuscript about three months late. Not a good feeling.

Friday morning, I turned in a finished draft of my next book, “The Art of X-ray Reading,” three months early. A very good feeling.

The key part of the word deadline, remember, is not the “line” part, but the “dead” part.

Now solve this riddle: When does a deadline become a lifeline?

The answer: When it is self-imposed.

I describe the process in my book Help! For Writers:

Many writers procrastinate until the deadline roars toward them like a train, the writer standing on the tracks. Pressing a deadline is a devil-may-care form of exhibitionism, a Houdini escape from a straitjacket, just in the nick of time, fueled by adrenaline. The literary daredevil may self-medicate with caffeine or nicotine to stimulate the writing, but adrenaline remains the writer’s little helper – and the drug of choice.

Spitting in the eye of a deadline is risky business for any writer. Beyond the dangers of self-medication, the writer can 1) have an anxiety attack, 2) be punished for getting the work in late, 3) leave no time for revision, and 4) leave no time for editors and other collaborators to do their best work. Not one of these comes into play when the writer sets an artificial deadline.

Author Jaipi Sixbear describes how writers working online can be both productive and punctual:

Remember to write your assignments two days ahead of their due date whenever possible. You can even trick yourself into meeting deadlines easily. Put an earlier due date on your outline. Chances are, you won’t have time to look up the actual date due. Your editor will be impressed with your promptness.

This process can work by the year, the week, or the day. If it is noon and your story is due at 6 p.m., impose a 4 p.m. deadline on yourself and use the extra two hours to improve the story.

For a big project, I like to use holidays as time targets. For “Help! For Writers,” I had a deadline around Christmastime, so I imposed a fake deadline on myself for Labor Day.

When the draft started to flow, I told myself, “You know, Roy, you could finish this by your wedding anniversary, Aug. 7.” I shipped out a completed draft just after the Fourth of July weekend, almost six months ahead of contract deadline. It may have set a Little, Brown record. Take that, Emily Dickinson and J.D. Salinger! You slackers. Read more

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Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014

ron1

Veteran photojournalist talks about going into hotspots

Photojournalist Ron Haviv

Photojournalist Ron Haviv

“The entire world is appalled by the brutal murder of Jim Foley by the terrorist group, ISIL,” President Barack Obama said on Wednesday. “He reported from difficult and dangerous places, bearing witness to the lives of people a world away.”

Around the time of the speech, I was discussing the impact of honest photographic reporting on an Associated Press Photo Managers’ online panel. One the many takeaways from the panel: The role of the photojournalist is often misunderstood. These women and men see themselves as the eyes and ears of the community. One just needs to ponder the disconcerting experience of seeing this focused group of individuals who rush to the epicenter of drama and trauma while others flee for safety.

Take Ron Haviv, co-owner of VII Photo, whom I spoke with this week. He has been taken hostage three times.

He said contrary to popular opinions, all photographers covering conflict zones are not adrenaline junkies solely out to make a name for themselves.

“I say this out of experience,” Haviv said. “To some degree, going back to the war in Yugoslavia, more magazines and agencies are hesitant to put you on full assignment because the responsibility for your safety is become so great.”

“In the case of Syria it is all across the board. Some places are refusing to take work from freelancers in order to discourage them from taking such risks, some places will not look at your work until you are safely out of that region and then there are places like the GlobalPost, they will take your work and do what they can to support you, like they did for James,” referring to Foley.

No doubt the risk appears to be greater than the reward for the photojournalist, which is why Haviv and others now strongly encourage journalists be required to complete some sort of hostile environment training course or preparation.

“Seeing amazing things, and witnessing historical times and seeing the impact on different human situations is why I did what I did” for the first five years of covering conflict areas, said Haviv, who said he has documented three genocides.

Now, he said, it is about “raising awareness, moving people to action” and creating a “body of evidence” to hold people accountable.

“Through the work of credible journalists, the world is witnessing this live,” he said, “not allowing the excuse, ‘we did not know.’” Read more

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Monday, Aug. 11, 2014

Robin Williams

How to cover the Robin Williams story responsibly

The suspected suicide of comedian Robin Williams is an opportunity for journalists to give more coverage to a topic that deserves it. Suicide rates in the United States rose between 2000 and 2007.

But screaming headlines, speculation and images of crying fans could do a lot of harm. Journalists have to cover such high-profile deaths — the key question is how.

The CDC reported last year that in 2009, more people died from suicide than from car accidents. It also found “substantial increases in suicide rates among middle-aged adults in the United States.”

Baby Boomers “who have faced years of economic worry and easy access to prescription painkillers may be particularly vulnerable to self-inflicted harm,” Tara Parker-Pope wrote in a New York Times article about the CDC’s findings.

From 1999 to 2010, the suicide rate among Americans ages 35 to 64 rose by nearly 30 percent, to 17.6 deaths per 100,000 people, up from 13.7. Although suicide rates are growing among both middle-aged men and women, far more men take their own lives. The suicide rate for middle-aged men was 27.3 deaths per 100,000, while for women it was 8.1 deaths per 100,000.

Coverage Guidelines

The American Association of Suicidology has this collection of recommendations for journalists who cover the issue.

The AAS makes three big points:

  • More than 50 research studies worldwide have found that certain types of news coverage can increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals. The magnitude of the increase is related to the amount,  duration and prominence of coverage.

  • Risk of additional suicides increases when the story explicitly describes the suicide method, uses dramatic/ graphic headlines or images, and repeated/extensive coverage sensationalizes or glamorizes a death.

  • Covering suicide carefully, even briefly, can change public misperceptions and correct myths, which can encourage those who are vulnerable or at risk to seek help.

One of the most common mistakes that journalists can make in covering suicide is to advance the notion that one big thing caused someone to take their life.  Suicide is a complex response that usually involves lots of factors including mental illness. In fact, suicide experts estimate 90 percent of suicides have some connection to mental illness and/or substance abuse. Both are treatable.

A couple of years ago I helped teach a workshop for journalists who cover suicides. The Dart Foundation pulled together tons of resources that will help you, including these:

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