3 GREAT STORIES: Starring the Marshall Project

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

The death row basketball league (3/16/17, The Marshall Project): This week, in this segment, each piece comes from the same source.

I have gradually become a big fan of The Marshall Project, which bills itself as “a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization that seeks to create and sustain a sense of national urgency about the U.S. criminal justice system.” Its editors and writers consistently contribute insightful, revelatory journalism, often partnering with other news agencies. That’s what they do here, presenting a first-hand account of life at a death row prison through a collaboration with Vice.

Writer Lyle May is incarcerated at Central Prison in Raleigh, N.C. He discusses the prison’s basketball league, weaving details of games with reminders of life on death row. The reader does not learn what crimes May committed … until the very end, when this humanizing portrait receives a hammering reminder of what leads to such a sentence.

Surviving foster care: 2 brothers, 2 different paths (3/13/17, The Marshall Project): While first-hand accounts like the one above can be extremely effective, I typically value The Marshall Project for its stories like this: a look into an issue that provides a human backdrop while discussing a meaty topic.

In this article, the topic is foster care.

Celina Fang pens this piece about two brothers who received differing levels of attention and benefits after entering the foster care system. I won’t reveal too much, but Fang sets the scene in two early paragraphs:

Although child-care officials had promised to keep them together, they were separated and ended up in a series of foster families or group homes. At 17, Terrick, demoralized and unruly, “made the stupid decision of stealing a group home car,” was arrested and sentenced to juvenile detention for 11 months. Adrift upon release and without financial or personal support, he ended up homeless and addicted to crystal meth.

Joseph was in seven different foster homes, but his path out of childhood turned out to be far smoother. He became valedictorian of a high school that pushed him to excel and was admitted to the University of California, Berkeley.

How we crunched California’s pay-to-stay data (3/9/17, The Marshall Project): Earlier this month, The Marshall Project published a stunning story about a collection of California jails where defendants can pay $100 a night to stay in private prisons.

What did they find? “What started out as an antidote to overcrowding has evolved into a two-tiered justice system that allows people convicted of serious crimes to buy their way into safer and more comfortable jail stays.”

The piece, done in partnership with the Los Angeles Times, was plenty powerful. But The Marshall Project included another nugget: this breakdown of how they obtained the information they used. Reporter Anna Flagg describes the methodology of a year-long search into the “pay-to-stay” system.

This seems like such a great way to build a relationship with one’s readers. It shows transparency while providing a look behind the scenes, and it develops The Marshall Project’s identity as a journalistic powerhouse.

Have a suggestion for “3 Great Stories of the Week”? E-mail me at matt@tellingthestoryblog.com.

Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Feel free to comment below or e-mail Matt at matt@tellingthestoryblog.com. You can also follow Matt on Facebook and Twitter.

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