How to Report a Story that Happened Decades Before You Were Born

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Troubled youth who were sent to the Florida School for Boys in Marianna, Fla., decades ago say they remember being beaten by a one-armed man with a leather strap. The boys, now men, all share similar memories and scars — emotional and physical markings that remind them of a time in their lives that is painful to remember, but too difficult to forget.

Several news organizations have reported on the abuse at the state reform school, but a recent St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times project takes a more rigorous look at the history of the school and at the boys whose lives were forever changed by going there.

Poynter’s St. Petersburg Times reporters Ben Montgomery and Waveney Ann Moore, and photographer Edmund Fountain, spent six months working on the project, which culminated in a 6,300-word narrative that ran as a six-page, ad-free spread in the paper’s April 22 Sunday features section. The online presentation of the story features a video and a gallery of 23 portraits of the men.

These days, having the luxury to spend six months on a project isn’t realistic for most newsrooms. The takeaways from the Times‘ “For Their Own Good” project, though, can be applied to everyday stories, particularly those that are rooted in the past.

One of the many challenges Moore, Fountain and Montgomery faced was figuring out how to best capture the former students’ stories from 40, 50 years ago and make them relevant to the present day. I talked with them about this, and what they learned from the experience, in the edited Q&A below.

Memories can be tough to verify. How did old stories, public documents, records, etc., help you to support what the men you interviewed were saying?

Montgomery: Some of those memories were 50 years old, and inside the minds of bandits and hoodlums and drunks. Some of those sources were hidden well. Some of that truth was fuzzy.

Moore: What’s astounding is that the stories the men told were simply part of a pattern of abuse at the school [now called the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys], documented from its very beginning by official investigations, legislative hearings, newspaper articles and court documents. Some mentioned the same type of strap the men said was used for their flogging.

Based on the work you did for this project, what advice do you have when it comes to reporting on a story that happened when you were young, or decades before you were born?

Montgomery: Be a skeptic. Scrutinize the victim’s statements just like you would the defendants’. Check their memories against other sources. On that note, get the other sources.

We pulled huge amounts of newspaper clippings, court documents, archival photographs, maps — anything we could find that would dispute or lend credence to the victims’ memories. I spent not a small amount of time tracking down the transcript of a Senate subcommittee hearing from 1958 that wound up being a tiny piece of the story.

And slow things down. We knew we wanted to go deep with the main character, Bill Haynes, so we could let him take readers on the campus. So I interviewed him three times, going over the same material. I wanted to see if his memory changed at all. I also wanted to add texture to his account.

So in the first interview he might have told me he rode in a state car from Tampa to Marianna and I’d let that go. In the second, I’d ask: What kind of car? What were you wearing? What did you see out the window? Were the men up front making small talk? Was the radio on? Did you stop to use the bathroom? By the third, I’d ask: What were you feeling when you pulled onto the campus? What was the temperature? Were the birds singing?

Sometimes you can get a little closer to the truth if you wait for the dust to settle. When this story broke in October, we naturally wanted to jump into the mix. Some thought that because the St. Petersburg Times is Florida’s biggest paper, it was our obligation to cover every twist and turn of the story. Other news organizations, such as CNN and the Florida Times-Union, did this. We decided to hold off, dig deeper and report broadly, and I think it helped.

Moore: I think one brings the same approach to reporting a story that happened a week ago to one dating back several decades. In some ways, there might even be an advantage to pursuing a story from years gone by. In the case of Dozier, for instance, newspaper clips and other documents ably demonstrated the school’s persistent problems and provided a gold mine of names of people who might provide answers we so badly wanted.

Of course, the problem with pursuing a story from such distance was that many of these folks were long since dead. Still, with help from our research library and dozens of random phone calls later, we managed to snag a few important players in the proverbial haystack.

Tenacity is key. Sometimes, it’s just plain luck, like picking up the phone and calling a well-known expert who, in our case, just happened to be not only familiar with the back story, but inextricably linked to it.

What was most difficult about photographing this story, especially given that so much of it happened in the past?

Fountain: As a photojournalist, I am most commonly photographing events as they take place in front of my camera. The major events in this story happened decades before I was born. Starting out, I was constantly asking myself “How are you going to do this?”

As I began making photographs of the men I started noticing that they all had a certain hollowness to their expressions, like something that should have been there was missing. In talking with them it became apparent that many of them really were missing things: the ability to love, trust others, have close relationships with their children and lead a normal, productive life. I began latching onto that as a thread to help tie things together.

Another aspect of this story that I needed to capture was the enormity of it. Close to 200 men have stepped forward since October. In photographing this, that became huge for me. By the end of this, my goal was to photograph as many of the men as I possibly could. As we continue to follow this story, I hope to keep making portraits of them.

I also took on the role of a photo researcher for this project. Since there were a lot of things that I could not photograph, I combed the state archives and our archives, as well as family photo albums.

We ran an exposé on the school in 1968 and after much searching I was able to locate the original photographic prints from that story. I felt like I had won the lottery that day. The historical images provide context to this that I never could have done on my own.

One of the happiest moments I had while working on this was when I found a 1968 photo essay from the Florida School for Boys in our archive. These images displaced pictures that I had shot for the print layout and the online presentation, but that doesn’t matter. They told a part of the story that my pictures could not. That is the point.

When it came to the multimedia, how did you balance that tension of trying to capture both the past and the present?

Fountain: Initially, the only material I had was portraits and video interviews. This was not enough to tell the story properly because the entire piece would have been nothing but edited interviews strung together. This would not have been very interesting to a viewer, but initially we had no other material. Again, it begs the question “How do you show something that happened 50 years ago in a unique and interesting manner?”

As I continued gathering I discovered old newspaper clippings and photographs from our archive, historical photographs from private individuals, as well as photographs in the state archive. As I was discovering all of this stuff, Video Producer Catriona Stuart and I began incorporating it into the audio narrative we had built.

It seems many of the men’s problems stemmed from their time at the school. Were you able to get a sense, though, of the extent to which the problems they now face related to problems they had before going to the school? I would think this would be difficult to determine given that any childhood issues, or offenses they may have committed, would have happened so long ago.

Moore: It would be disingenuous to say that all the problems faced by the men we interviewed stem only from their stay at Marianna, though the brutal treatment and inhumane conditions certainly led to feelings of hostility and alienation.

Since the project ran, families have called to say that their relatives returned from Marianna emotionally damaged. Some turned to drugs. Others committed suicide. Some, as our story stated, committed murder.

It was obvious that for many of the men, their childhoods were far from idyllic. Many spoke of broken homes, abusive and neglectful parents and step parents and of poverty.

Child advocates interviewed for the story reiterated the now commonly accepted correlation between a traumatic youth and a difficult adulthood.

Montgomery: We didn’t want to slow the story down with experts talking about the long-term effects of childhood trauma, or try to prove that what happened at the school is what screwed these men up. Instead, we wanted to be transparent. We turned it over to the former superintendent, as is evident in this passage:

“What is the cost to society of such a place? It’s hard to know whether trauma at the Florida School for Boys set children on a course for violence. But one man knew that the school was harming kids: Lenox Williams, who took over as superintendent in 1966.

“The St. Petersburg Times interviewed Williams for a 1968 story, ‘Hell’s 1,400 Acres.’ He acknowledged the school was so understaffed that kids were learning how to sniff glue, break into groceries, or sodomize other kids.

“‘I know some children are harmed by their experience here,’ Williams told the reporter. ‘But what can we do?’”

Then we turned on the faucet and let the bathtub fill, then run over. [In other words], we let the evidence flow until it was overwhelming.

So far, Montgomery said, the project has generated more than 200 online comments and several letters to the editor. One reader, Larry Polivka of Tampa, Fla., wrote that the story is “journalism at its best.” Others, including Theressa Placke of Tampa, said, “Your article is the reason that newspapers must keep publishing.”

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