death row

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.

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PODCAST EPISODE #35: Jeff Hullinger, WXIA-TV, on witnessing an execution

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This is one of the more difficult interviews I have ever conducted.

But for journalists — and, truly, anyone — it is an important interview to hear.

For three years I have come to know my co-worker Jeff Hullinger as verbose, eloquent, wry, and sardonic. Starting a conversation with Hullinger means beginning a singular journey of quips, observations, and insights that can only come from someone of his experience and expressiveness. He has spent three decades as a broadcaster in Atlanta; he has won 19 regional Emmys, interviewed everyone from John Elway to Mikhail Gorbachev, and called the play-by-play on the radio for a Super Bowl.

Last week Hullinger did something he — and 99.9% of journalists — had never done: he witnessed an execution.

The state of Georgia had scheduled the death of Kelly Gissendaner, who had been convicted of orchestrating the murder of her husband, Doug. About a week before the execution, Hullinger learned he had been named of five area journalists who would serve as witnesses.

He did not back away from the assignment.

“I think, sitting in an anchor chair, I have a responsibility to represent this station publicly,” Hullinger told me, “and I take that very seriously. You have a responsibility to both yourself and your co-workers. I think word in action becomes significant.”

He added, “This is something that no one wants to do, from an intellectual standpoint. [But] it’s something I have to do.”

Hullinger joins me on this episode of the Telling the Story podcast.

I honestly would not have normally felt comfortable asking someone in his situation to speak about what he experienced. I felt compelled here by two factors. First, Hullinger had already done a beautiful job of recounting the evening, through Twitter and then on the air. He seemed willing, in that window, to speak about it, although he later told me he would not do so after this podcast. He did not want, I think, to feel bound to the experience for the rest of his career, constantly asked to re-tell his story.

“I can’t tell you how many requests I’ve had to come speak, and I’m not doing any of that,” he said. “My responsibility was one night … and I am done.”

Secondly, I believed in our rapport. Hullinger and I have talked about so many subjects over the years, and I trusted that he would entrust me with conducting an interview in a sensitive, professional way — the same way he had handled his assignment.

This interview — and his perspective within it — is extremely worth your time.

Hullinger discusses how he balanced his objectivity as a journalist with his emotions during a horrific act. He describes the otherworldly experience of entering a world few will ever view.

“We had been told by the state that this is a rather bloodless, painless, clinical, procedural thing, where there isn’t really a lot of emotion,” said Hullinger. “It was none of that. It was unbelievable … all of the razor wire, all of the check-ins, all of the freedom that has been denied. Even our ability to go to the restroom was not allowed. We had to ask men who would not make eye contact with us. It was a horrifying, terrifying place to begin with.”

Then he made eye contact with Gissendaner, and he felt the need to compose himself.

“I closed my eyes for about 20 seconds, just to say, ‘Okay … Understand what this is, and what you’re about to see.'”

Perhaps the above quote is the best way to listen to this podcast: understand what it is, and what you are about to hear. Hullinger’s descriptions are sometimes extremely graphic; his emotions and perspective, though, are critical to absorb for any journalist and anyone seeking to get a better understanding of a profoundly difficult issue.

“I think sometimes we put the issue of death way behind us,” he told me. “The truth is, it is always near us.”

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring clickbait, death row, and a $75 truck

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 virologist (1/5/15, New Yorker): Happy new year, journalist and storyteller friends!

Want to start 2015 with a startling look at your industry?

Andrew Marantz fires a fastball high and tight in this long-form piece from the New Yorker’s first issue of the year. The writer profiles a content creator of a different brand: a 27-year-old named Emerson Spartz who, per the article, “has been successfully launching web sites for nearly half his life.”

What are these web sites? They are cold, hard generators of clickbait.

To read about Spartz’s operation is to peek into a calculated industry that shadows the journalistic experience while utterly ignoring its ethics. In this case, Marantz is as brutal a storyteller as Spartz is a content creator, refusing to hold back and expertly matching the tone of his work with the personality of his subject. Come for the sobering look at the industry, but stay for a well-written and thought-provoking piece of journalism.

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