the marshall project

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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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring immigration, caverns, & sign language

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.

Trump’s first roundup (2/20/17, The Marshall Project): In a fractious and volatile media environment, the strongest stories are sometimes the ones that cut through the noise and present simple facts.

This piece from the Marshall Project accomplishes that task with some deep research and poignant storytelling.

Writer Julia Preston examines the first round of ICE raids on undocumented immigrants since the election of Donald Trump as president. With little information from the federal government, Preston seeks out immigration attorneys and other sources to compile data.

In doing so, she develops a clearer picture of how the federal strategy has continued that of President Barack Obama … and how it has changed. One leaves Preston’s piece far more informed.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Best of 2015, written edition

Every week, I will 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.

This is one of my favorite moments of the year.

Every December, I look back at my “3 Great Stories” posts from the past year and decide on which stories, I feel, rose above the rest.

It always reminds me of how much magnificent work gets done every year.

I will post my three favorite audio/video stories of the year next week. This week, without further ado, I present my three favorite written pieces of 2015 — and an honorable mention — along with what I wrote about them back then, with minor edits for clarity:

HM) Ferguson: the other young black lives laid to rest in Michael Brown’s cemetery (8/7/15, BBC): What an inventive, informative way to commemorate the one-year mark of the killing of Michael Brown.

Jessica Lussenhop, senior writer for BBC News Magazine, visits St. Peter’s Cemetery in north St. Louis County, where “there is still no headstone in the place where 18-year-old Michael Brown Jr is buried”. But, Lussenhop discovers, the cemetery is home to many with similar stories:

If one walks in any direction away from grave number four, there are many more pictures of black men and women who died in their teens or early 20s. Some are grinning in school portraits, or giving the camera their most serious expression. Some stones include a baby picture, or a composite photo of the deceased with their children. One marker is etched with a photo of the young man’s beloved truck.

Within a roughly 30-metre radius of Michael’s grave there are at least 15 homicide victims. The youngest was a 15-year-old. Most of them were shot. There are also deaths by suicide, cancer, car accidents, but for those under the age of 30, the predominant cause of death is homicide.

The difficulty of telling a story like Michael Brown’s comes from the temptation to immediately intertwine the individual incident with the massive context and history surrounding it. Lussenhop succeeds by seeking out the numerous incidents that provide such context; she turns in a appropriately rich story as a result.

#3) These are the families left to reclaim Garissa’s dead (4/9/15, Buzzfeed): Tucked away behind lists about animals and ‘NSYNC, Buzzfeed dedicates resources to a team that regularly produces long-form gems.

Here, global news correspondent Jina Moore presents one of the most heart-rending stories I have read in a long time.

A week earlier, gunmen stormed the campus of Garissa University in Kenya and killed 144 people, mostly students, in ways both horrifying and humiliating. Moore steps in the following week by describing, not the attack, but the search by parents to claim their dead children.

This is a devastating read, and Moore writes with such descriptive power that each sentence feels like a stomach punch. She puts a captivating spotlight on the aftermath of this incidence of international terrorism.

#2) The new science of sentencing (8/4/15, The Marshall Project): One of the most fascinating subjects I have covered recently is criminal justice reform.

It seems to be one of the few issues both political parties can support: finding ways to shrink the jail population and reduce recidivism once ex-offenders return to society.

This story — a dual effort from The Marshall Project and FiveThirtyEight — does a dazzling job of spotlighting one of the issue’s more advanced and controversial innovations. As written by Anna Maria Barry-Jester, Ben Casselman, and Dana Goldstein, “Pennsylvania is on the verge of becoming one of the first states in the country to base criminal sentences not only on what crimes people have been convicted of, but also on whether they are deemed likely to commit additional crimes.”

So many ethical questions come into play in this story, and its writers spell each one out with depth and nuance. This is a long read but an informative, excellent read.

#1) A father’s initiative (5/16/15, Washington Post): I can tell when I have read a truly powerful story because of my physical response when it ends.

I get so absorbed in the world of the story that I must actually take a few seconds afterwards to re-acclimate to mine.

I had that reaction after completing “A father’s initiative”, Eli Saslow’s wrenching feature about a single dad taking President Obama’s 16-class fatherhood course. In many ways, this article is a Rorschach test for how one views poverty, race, and other matters. Mostly, though, it is a poignant tale of human struggle — and whether or not that struggle can be soothed through bureaucratic means. Each paragraph ripples with conflicting emotions, such as this one early in the piece:

Now it was his 15th class, nearing the end, and despite the hopeful language in a course guide — “End the cycle of intergenerational poverty!” “Help turn your child turn into a success story in 16 lessons.” — so much about his life remained unstable. He had moved nine times in seven months. He had been offered two jobs but failed the drug tests. It had been several days since he had seen the baby’s mother, a former longtime girlfriend who was no longer living with them. “Sapphire misses you. Are you coming over to see her??” he had texted once, and the silence that followed made him think Sapphire might become another black child whose long odds depended on a single parent, and that parent was him.

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring police, jail, & train tracks

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.

Ray Tensing: passenger from another stop says UC officer shouldn’t have questioned him (8/4/15, WCPO-TV): Our jobs as journalists often involve editing an overwhelming amount of interviews, documents, and video into one cohesive, compact story.

But sometimes, the best move is to let the video run.

Former University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing is currently charged with shooting and killing a 43-year-old man named Sam Dubose, whom Tensing had pulled over for a traffic stop. In this story, a passenger from a separate stop comes forward with an unedited cell phone video in which, he says, Tensing mistreats him.

The resulting story makes for fine TV news, but the unedited video truly provides an education and unique look at how a traffic stop can play out. Kudos to WCPO-TV for posting that as well.

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