Secrets of Prize-Winning Journalism: This American Life's Harper High School
“This American Life” reporters Ben Calhoun, Alex Kotlowitz and Linda Lutton spent an entire semester embedded in Harper High School in Chicago -- where the previous school year, 29 former or current students were shot and eight died.
Working with producers Robyn Semien, Julie Snyder and Ira Glass, the team created two hour long documentaries that captured daily life in a school and neighborhood racked by gun violence.
The story earned a Peabody Award, the Jack R. Howard Award for Radio In-Depth coverage and the Dart Center prize for journalism and trauma. Peabody judges called the work “vivid, unblinking, poignant and sometimes gut-wrenching;” Dart judges said the story was “profoundly moving” and “extraordinarily comprehensive and compassionate.”
Shortly after “This American Life” aired the story, President Obama hosted Harper students at the White House and Michelle Obama spent an afternoon at the school.
In an interview with Poynter's Ellyn Angelotti Kamke for Poynter's e-book Secrets of Prize-Winning Journalism, Calhoun, Kotlowitz and Lutton discussed their extensive reporting process, and how they created a narrative that embraces an array of compelling personal perspectives. The following is an excerpt:
The characters drive many of the narratives in the story, especially social workers Crystal Smith and Anita Stewart, and students Thomas and Devonte. How did you develop these key relationships with both school administrators and students?
Calhoun: I was struck by [Alex’s] willingness to just be present for a huge amount of time. He would sit in an office for hours upon hours, day after day. This helped to break down all of the self-consciousness that existed in those relationships and replace it with trust. It speaks to his skills as a reporter and his compassion as a person.
Lutton: One of the key benefits of embedding in a school, or wherever you are, is that people forget about you. You become part of what they see everyday, and it's not weird to see somebody walking around with a big microphone and headphones on because they are here every day.
Kotlowitz: Linda’s original piece laid down the initial level of trust with the school. Principal Sanders graciously let us come into the school and essentially have free rein.
On the first day Ben, Linda and I really had no sense what the narratives were going to be. Then I ran into social worker Crystal Smith, who is this incredibly vivacious woman. She made me feel good. For me, it is instinctual. Are these people I am going to want to spend time with? Because if they are people I want to spend time with, they are going to be people the readers will want to spend time with as well.
So I embedded myself in this windowless office in the middle of the school.
In spending so much time in the social work office, you developed relationships with some of the students, like Thomas and Devonte.
Kotlowitz: Thomas and Devonte were just two of the many students who would pass through the office. And ultimately it was their story that most interested me, in part because it felt like there was still a lot at stake. Thomas was with Shakaki when she was killed in June. Social worker Anita Stewart knew that he was not the most loquacious of kids, but Anita could tell this was weighing on him. And Anita was trying to help Thomas get through that.
Devonte had just come back to school after the previous winter, when he had shot and killed his brother. He had gone to an alternative school and then was coming back to Harper. Devonte primarily worked with Crystal; Thomas primarily worked with Anita.
There is no way I would have gotten to know Thomas or Devonte the way I did if it wasn't for Anita and Crystal. They were my guides; they were my entree.
Why hadn’t this story been told before?
Lutton: Part of it is intentional. We have a very controlled press environment around Mayor Rahm Emanuel. When Arne Duncan was CEO here, the schools used to identify [students who had been shot]. Overnight you would get the report about who was shot and who was killed. If a CPS student was killed, then the school district would talk about that. They might put out a release, reporters could call and say, "We see a 16-year-old male was killed last night, was he a student? What school did he go to?"
That was all information that was shared with reporters, and none of that is being shared anymore.
Calhoun: Newsrooms are faced with real constraints of staffing and financing. The ability to take individual shootings and incidents of tragedy and put them into a larger context is not something that most newsrooms have built muscles to do. Their muscles are more equipped to churn out a metro brief about how there was a shooting, and these are the main details -- and then they forget about it. When it gets digested by the audience, it feels like chatter.
Lutton: Or just numbers.
You can read the entire interview with Calhoun, Kotlowitz and Lutton in the e-book Secrets of Prize-Winning Journalism. The e-book features interviews with creators of the year's award-winning work.