Violence begets violence

The death penalty may have cost three innocent people their lives. From The New York Times’ story on Frazier Glenn Miller, the anti-Semite who killed three people in Missouri:

In recent years, Mr. Miller has also been a devoted pen pal to incarcerated white supremacists, among them Joseph Paul Franklin, a convicted murderer who was executed in Missouri in November. Ms. Beirich, of the law center, said that Mr. Miller was very close to Mr. Franklin, whose birthday was Sunday, the day of the shooting.

More: Lest I be misunderstood, Miller is of course 100 percent responsible for his actions. He, not the death penalty, killed three innocent people. But this hatemonger had somehow made it to the age of 73 without killing anyone. Then the state of Missouri took the life of his friend. Who knows what effect that may have had on his twisted mind?

It is beyond dispute that states with the death penalty also have the highest murder rate. And some research suggests that’s no accident, as the potentially homicidal are more likely to identify with the executioner than the condemned.

Globe wins Pulitzer for ‘story none of us wanted to cover’

Brian McGrory during the Pulitzer announcement.

Brian McGrory during the Pulitzer announcement. (Photo courtesy of The Boston Globe.)

This article was published earlier at WGBH News.

Within moments of the announcement that The Boston Globe had won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting, Martine Powers tweeted from the newsroom. “This was a story none of us wanted to cover,” she quoted editor Brian McGrory as saying. The staff, she said, then observed a moment of silence at McGrory’s request for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings.

The Globe easily could have won two or three Pulitzers for its coverage of the bombings and their aftermath. The breaking-news award, of course, was well-deserved, and frankly it was unimaginable that it would go to anyone else. But the paper also had worthy marathon-related finalists in Breaking News Photography (John Tlumacki and David L. Ryan) as well as Commentary (Kevin Cullen, who emerged as the voice and conscience of the city after the attack).

McGrory’s classy response to winning underscores the sad reality that the Globe’s excellent coverage was driven by a terrible tragedy — the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil since Sept. 11, 2001. (The Globe was also a finalist in Editorial Writing, as Dante Ramos was honored for a non-marathon-related topic: improving the city’s night life.)

The Pulitzer also caps what has been a remarkable year for the Globe. On Marathon Monday 2013, McGrory was relatively untested as editor and the paper’s prospects were uncertain, as the New York Times Co. was trying to unload it for the second time in four years.

The Globe’s marathon coverage — widely praised long before today’s Pulitzers were announced — have defined McGrory’s brief term as editor as surely as the paper’s pedophile-priest coverage (which earned a Pulitzer for Public Service) defined Marty Baron’s. Moreover, the Globe now has a local, deep-pockets owner in John Henry who’s willing to invest in journalism.

But the focus should be on Martin Richard, Krystle Campbell, Lingzi Lu and Sean Collier, as well as their families and all the other survivors. Good for McGrory for reminding everyone of that.

A couple of other Pulitzer notes:

• A lot of observers were waiting to see whether the judges would honor the stories based on the Edward Snowden leaks. They did, as the Pulitzer for Public Service went to The Guardian and The Washington Post.

Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, then affiliated with The Guardian and now with the start-up First Look Media, as well as Barton Gellman of the Post, were the recipients of the Snowden leaks, which revealed a vast U.S. spying apparatus keeping track of ordinary citizens and world leaders both in the United States and abroad.

The choice is bound to be controversial in some circles. U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., has already called the award “a disgrace.” But it was the ultimate example of journalism speaking truth to power, and thus was a worthy choice.

• The oddest move was the Pulitzer judges’ decision not to award a prize in Feature Writing. I thought it might go to the New York Times’ series “Invisible Child: Dasani’s Homeless Life,” or possibly to the Globe’s “The Fall of the House of Tsarnaev.” (I should note that neither of those stories was listed as a finalist.)

The Pulitzer process can be mysterious. But it would be interesting to see if someone can pry some information out of the judges to find out why they believed there wasn’t a single feature story in 2013 worthy of journalism’s highest honor.

A story told with sensitivity and craftsmanship

MA_BGLater today the Pulitzer Prizes will be announced. And it seems likely that The Boston Globe will win at least one — maybe more — for its coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath.

So it seems fitting that, on Sunday and today, the Globe published a two-part feature that may be a contender for a 2015 Pulitzer. Written by David Abel and photographed by Jessica Rinaldi, with a video produced by Abel and Scott LaPierre, the package tells the story of the Richards, the Dorchester family that more than any other has come to symbolize the region’s heart-breaking loss and resilience.

In reading the first part, I noticed that Abel offered little in the way of the Richards’ experience when the bombs went off and took the lives of three people, including 8-year-old Martin Richard. (Martin’s sister, Jane, lost part of her left leg. Their parents, Bill and Denise, were injured as well. Their brother, Henry, was not injured physically.)

Toward the end of part two, Abel tells the story — and does it with great sensitivity and craftsmanship.

The phrase “Boston Strong” has been misappropriated by many. Last fall I actually saw it flash on a sign outside a liquor store, followed by that day’s specials. Good grief.

The Richards are Boston Strong.

Polk Award winners put human faces on statistics

b_kirtzBy Bill Kirtz

Update: On April 14, Eli Saslow, whose work is described below, won the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting.

Turning a topic into a story. Giving statistics a human face. Upsetting conventional assumptions about life’s winners and losers.

Three series spotlighting social inequality have won one of journalism’s top prizes. At a Long Island University panel discussion last Thursday, George Polk Award-winning reporters detailed how they did it. (Here is the complete list of 2013 winners.)

New York Times reporter Andrea Elliott, a Pulitzer Prize-winning feature writer, was combing the Web for a new subject when she came across these numbers: one in five American children lives in poverty.

Wanting to avoid the debate about adult responsibility for their condition, she decided to write about poverty’s effects on kids.

What’s the “narrative magnet”? she recalls she and her editors asking. What would get readers to read? Their answer: People, not numbers.

After weeks of chatting with women clustered around a filthy Brooklyn homeless shelter, she “found a young mother with a lot to say and who wanted to say it” and her feisty 11-year-old daughter, Dasani.

The more officials tried to bar her from the shelter, the more determined she was to get in.

Once there, she and photographer Ruth Fremson dived into immersion journalism, spending 15 months with the family to produce the nearly 29, 000-word series “Invisible Child.”

Conventional journalistic rules didn’t apply. “‘Off the record’ doesn’t mean anything to these folks,” Elliott said. “My stance is just to hang out with no agenda and try to fade into the background.” She protected people’s privacy by withholding or changing last names.

Elliott’s series, which she’ll expand into a book, focused on the personal, but she stressed the wider economic effects of child poverty. With so large a percentage of the future work force growing up in detrimental circumstances, she said, employers will face major problems finding qualified employees in the future.

Washington Post reporter Eli Saslow also used data to find a story and dogged reporting to make it come alive.

The Pulitzer Prize feature-writing finalist last year said,  “The stories we do at the Post have to be big.” So he sifted through big data: some 47 million Americans get food stamps; the $78 billion program has tripled in the past decade.

Then he turned those numbers into people. “Reporting is sifting information through a funnel,” he said. “That’s the most rewarding part of the job.”

He found that one-third of residents in Woonsocket, R.I., qualify for food stamps. He traveled to Woonsocket; to Tennessee, where he met hungry children; to a Texas county where processed food threatens health; and to a Washington neighborhood facing benefit cuts.

He and photographer Michael S. Williamson found a multi-general cycle of dependency and a whole industry centered around food stamps. Grocery stores hire more workers when they arrive on the eighth of each month. Cabs line up to take package-laden recipients to their houses. Food stamp recruiters try to sign up 150 people a month for the program.

Like Elliott, he handled his subjects with care. “After a while they forget you’re following them,” he said. “It takes a lot of courage to let a stranger into every corner of your life.”

Well, at least the folks who helped cause the 2008 financial crisis lost big-time, right?

Not so much, Alison Fitzgerald and three Center for Public Integrity colleagues found. They detailed Wall Street bigwigs’ loss of jobs but not mansions.

Fitzgerald, who began her career at The Boston Phoenix and won several major awards while at Bloomberg News, said the center’s three-part series began with the question “What’s up with these guys?” as the fifth anniversary of the crisis (which coincides with the statute of limitations on prosecution) approached.

Another question:  What does “they got away with it” mean?

Almost none of the ex-corporate chieftains would talk to them, but one agreed to speak on background. But they got information from golf caddies (about how much or little they tipped) and bridge partners, and from reams of court documents and real-estate transactions.

Tracking most-2008 careers produced one surprise: many top executives are back in the mortgage business.

Bill Kirtz is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University.

Globe makes move into TV with ’5 Runners’

This story was previously published at WGBH News.

When Boston Globe arts reporter Geoff Edgers and multimedia producer Darren Durlach proposed making a documentary about five runners who were crossing the Boston Marathon finish line at the moment that the bombings took place, editor Brian McGrory’s reaction was: Why not?

“What do you need? Two weeks?” McGrory recalled asking them.

As it turned out, it took Edgers and Durlach eight months, thousands of miles on the road and, as McGrory put it, “God knows how many dollars” to make “5 Runners,” which premiered before a crowd of several hundred people at the JFK Library Thursday evening.

The 25-minute film, which McGrory called “the first full-fledged documentary that theBoston Globe has ever produced,” will debut on NESN on Monday. It’s an early sign that a strategy to move into television, which Globe owner John Henry announced earlier this year, is beginning to take shape — although Edgers and Durlach began working on the film before Henry bought the paper. (Henry is also the principal owner of the Red Sox, which controls a chunk of NESN.)

The film, which grew out of a story Edgers wrote last April 21, follows the runners’ quest to return to the starting line of the 2014 marathon. I won’t give away how many make it. But “5 Runners” is deeply felt and unusual in its focus on how athletes — ordinary men and women who were well off the pace of the elite runners — were affected by the terrorist attack.

In a panel discussion after the film moderated by Globe deputy managing editor for features Janice Page, Edgers talked about the difficulties he and Durlach faced in staying in touch with their subjects. One of the runners, Volker Fischer, simply stopped responding, so Edgers sent him a card that read: “Volker — call me.”

When Edgers finally was able to connect with Fischer and visit his home in Illinois, he saw the card, unopened, on the refrigerator. “‘I liked the stamp,’” Edgers recalled Fischer telling him, explaining: “It was a Johnny Cash stamp.” (Disclosure: Edgers and I worked together at The Boston Phoenix in the mid-1990s. His wife, journalist Carlene Hempel, and I are colleagues at Northeastern University.)

Durlach said that the runners were “hesitant” about putting themselves forward when so many others had died or were wounded. “People were killed. Why do you want to spend time on my story?” is the way Durlach characterized their reaction.

Also joining the panelists was one of the five runners, Mary Jenkins of Ohio (spoiler alert: she’ll be running this year’s marathon), who said she will “probably be a basket case” during the race.

“It’s going to be hard, I think, Marathon Day, but I think it’s going to be exciting, too,” she said.

Edgers and Durlach plan to be at this year’s marathon as well. Their goal, they said, is to keep covering the story, and to expand “5 Runners” into an hour-long film.

WGBH’s ‘Beat the Press’ wins national award

beat-the-press-210x210“Beat the Press,” a weekly media program on WGBH-TV (Channel 2) that I’ve been part of for about 15 years, has won the national Bart Richards Award for Media Criticism from Pennsylvania State University. Here is the announcement from Penn State.

Television is a team sport, and I’m proud to be part of the amazing group of people that is responsible for “Beat the Press” every Friday, starting with host Emily Rooney. At the risk of leaving out names, I want to mention one who’s not in the announcement: Jeff Keating, who produces the show and keeps us all on the straight and narrow.

Congratulations to Jeff and everyone for making us look good.