Tag Archives: New York Times

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.

News versus journalism: Is there a difference?

I’ve been thinking lately about the value of what we consider news versus the value of journalism, which are not always the same thing. And then today’s New York Times comes along to provide more fodder.

Ask yourself this: Who is going to come away from today’s Times with a deeper, richer understanding of the human condition? Those who only read Dan Barry’s story on mentally disabled former poultry workers and Ron Suskind’s article on his autistic son? Or those who read all the news but who skipped those two articles?

The Barry article represents the perfect marriage between a great reporter with a wonderful eye for detail and a rich story about human beings at their best and their worst. It’s accompanied by a half-hour documentary video, which I intend to watch tonight. I haven’t read the Suskind piece yet, but Mrs. Media Nation recommends it highly, and I know Suskind’s work.* Yet neither Barry’s nor Suskind’s stories could be considered news.

What’s happening between Russia and Ukraine is important, of course, but if you skip today’s coverage you can always catch up tomorrow — or the next day. The apparent plane crash in Asia is horrifying, but it’s not particularly relevant to most people’s lives.

In fact, much of what we consider news is tied to the industrial processes that gave rise to the modern newspaper, which demand that the product of news be delivered on a daily basis — and in the post-print age, more frequently than that. Those processes demand quantity as much as quality; or quantity over quality at lesser news organizations.

Sometimes it makes more sense to get off the news treadmill and experience something more substantial.

*Monday update: I’ve now read Suskind’s article and watched the videos accompanying both his story and the Dan Barry story. They were as good as I imagined they would be.

Thinking through the Globe’s multi-site strategy

BG frontThis post has also been published at WGBH News.

After I posted an item yesterday speculating that The Boston Globe’s lower paywall might eventually lead to the end of the paper’s two-site strategy, Jack Gately tweeted at me that the Globe actually seems to be going in the opposite direction. With the addition of its BetaBoston site, unveiled on Monday, the paper now has three.

And that’s just the beginning. Soon the Globe will launch a separate site for all things Catholic, in part so that it can showcase its prized new religion reporter, John Allen. Incumbent religion reporter Lisa Wangsness will continue. And yesterday editor Brian McGrory announced that Boston.com community engagement editor and former metro editor Teresa Hanafin will edit the new venture.

So is this a splintering of the Globe’s identity? I don’t think so. And today’s front page may serve as a good indication of how the different sites will work together. The lead story, on private repo companies that are using license-plate scanners, is from BetaBoston, and was written by Shawn Musgrave. He, in turn, is the editor of MuckRock, an independent public-records project that is affiliated with the Globe. (Here’s a 2012 interview I did with MuckRock founder Michael Morisy for the Nieman Journalism Lab. Morisy is also the editor of BetaBoston.)

What the Globe seems to be embracing is a hub-and-spoke model. The Globe, in print and online, is the hub. Spokes reach out to specialty projects such as BetaBoston, the entertainment site BDCWire (part of the Globe’s Radio BDC project), the religion site and whatever else may be in the works. It’s similar to how The New York Times handles Dealbook, or how The Washington Post interacts with Wonkblog, both before and after the departure of Ezra Klein. The idea is to foster semi-free-standing projects that generate a lot of content, some of which migrates along the spokes and into the hub.

That’s quite different from the business strategy of offering the paid BostonGlobe.com site and the free Boston.com. Those are intended as two entirely different ventures, and McGrory’s memo yesterday made it clear that they are going to be separated even more going forward.

NEFAC honors James Risen, a free-press hero

James Risen

James Risen

James Risen is a free-press hero. Whether he will also prove to be a First Amendment hero depends on the U.S. Supreme Court.

On Friday, Risen, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times, was presented  with the 2014 Stephen Hamblett First Amendment Award by the New England First Amendment Coalition (NEFAC), which is affiliated with Northeastern University. (I wish I’d been able to attend, but I was teaching.) Risen faces prison for refusing to identify an anonymous CIA source who helped inform Risen’s reporting on a failed operation to interfere with Iran’s nuclear program — a story Risen told in his 2006 book, “State of War.”

Both the Bush and the Obama administrations have pushed for Risen to give up his source, but Risen has refused. “The choice is get out of the business — give up everything I believe in — or go to jail. They’ve backed me into a corner,” Risen was quoted as saying in this Boston Globe article by Eric Moskowitz. Also weighing in with a detailed account of the NEFAC event is Tom Mooney of The Providence Journal.

My Northeastern colleague Walter Robinson, a former Globe reporter and editor, said this of Risen:

There’s no one anywhere on the vast landscape of American journalism who merits this award more than you do. It is hard to imagine a more principled and patriotic defense of the First Amendment.

Unfortunately, Risen has little in the way of legal protection. The Supreme Court, in its 1972 Branzburg v. Hayes decision, ruled that the First Amendment does not protect journalists from having to reveal their confidential sources. In addition, there is no federal shield law. Thus journalists like Risen must hope that the attorney general — and, ultimately, the president — respect the role of a free press in a democratic society sufficiently not to take reporters to court. President Obama has failed that test in spectacular fashion.

Risen has asked the Supreme Court to take his case, giving the justices an opportunity to overturn or at least modify the Branzburg decision. But if the court declines to take the case, the president should order Attorney General Eric Holder to call off the dogs.

The Stephen Hamblett Award is named for the late chairman, chief executive officer and publisher of The Providence Journal. Previous recipients have been the late New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis, then-Boston Globe editor Marty Baron (now executive editor of The Washington Post) and Phil Balboni, founder of GlobalPost and, previously, New England Cable News.

More: On this week’s “Beat the Press,” my WGBH colleague Margery Eagan paid tribute to Risen in the “Rants & Raves” segment.

Headlines distort CBO report on Obamacare

The reaction to a Congressional Budget Office report released Tuesday demonstrated how easily politicians are able to game the media system.

The CBO, a respected source of nonpartisan data, found that the Affordable Care Act would lead to the disappearance of more than 2 million jobs — nearly all of them because people will choose to stop working or cut back on their hours now that their health insurance is no longer dependent on their continued employment. CBO director Douglas Elmendorf put it this way:

I want to emphasize that that reduction doesn’t mean that that many people precisely will choose to leave the labor force. We think that some people will chose to work fewer hours. Other people will choose to leave the labor force.

Of course, that didn’t stop Republican opponents from claiming that the CBO report proves the ACA is a job-killer. And why not? The media are so quick to go along. Let’s consider that this is Elmendorf’s report, and he said at a news conference precisely what it meant. Yet the very NPR story in which his remarks are quoted is headlined “Is Obamacare A Job Killer? New Estimates Suggest It Might Be.” Gah.

This morning I looked at the front pages of four major dailies. Here’s how they stack up, in order of disingenuousness.

Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 10.22.25 AM

1. The Boston Globe. “Health law projected to put a dent in workforce; GOP calls analysis proof of act’s failings.” The clear impression is that people are going to lose their jobs because of the ACA. If you would like to believe that, go right ahead — but it’s not what the CBO said. The Globe headline is slapped atop a New York Times story (below) that isn’t nearly that bad.

Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 10.20.05 AM

2. The New York Times. “Health Care Law Projected to Cut the Labor Force; Choosing Not to Work; G.O.P. Seizes On Data — Drop May Equal 2.5 Million Jobs.” Whew! Try saying it all without taking a breath. The Times’ headlines is slightly better than the Globe’s: the second deck, “Choosing Not to Work,” gets at the gist of the CBO report. But the rest of it makes it sound like Tuesday was a very bad day for the ACA. You’ve got to read the story to find out what’s really going on.

Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 10.21.24 AM

3. The Washington Post. “New fuel for the health-law fight; CBO: More will quit jobs, cut hours; Estimates revive debate over economic effects.” Not bad. The impression given by the headline is that the fight is over the economic effect of people quitting their jobs. Not quite right, but we’re getting closer. Here’s the story.

Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 10.21.57 AM

4. The Wall Street Journal. “Health Law to Cut Into Labor Force; Report Forecasts More People Will Opt to Work Less as They Seek Coverage Through Affordable Care Act.” Folks, we have a winner — a headline that accurately reflects what the CBO actually said. Good story, too. (To get around the Journal’s paywall, enter the headline at Google News. Don’t worry. Rupert knows about it and says it’s OK.)

The problem with deceptive or incomplete headlines is that few people get past them or the partisan attacks they reflect. What House Speaker John Boehner (quoted in the Times story) said is simply flat-out wrong: “The middle class is getting squeezed in this economy, and this CBO report confirms that Obamacare is making it worse.”

As U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., put it in a conversation with reporters (also quoted in the Times): “You guys are going to politicize it no matter what happens.”

Journalists need to resist the urge.

Headline images via the Newseum’s “Today’s Front Pages.”

Unoriginal thoughts from Tom Friedman

Screen Shot 2014-01-19 at 11.43.41 AM

Click on chart for the full interactive version at Infogr.am.

Today’s column by Thomas Friedman of The New York Times may have set some sort of record. In a 1,200-word piece with the unpromising headline “Obama’s Homework Assignment,” Friedman managed to type just 343 words, or 29 percent of the total. The remainder was given over to:

  • A speech by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan; 358 words, or 30 percent.
  • An email to The Washington Post from an anonymous teacher; 287 words, or 24 percent. I have called her Anonymous Teacher No. 1 in the chart above.
  • A letter to Friedman from Anonymous Teacher No. 2; 212 words, or 18 percent.

Given Friedman’s clip-paste-and-run approach, it seems worth pointing out that the theme of his (I realize I’m misusing “his” to describe a collective effort) column is that these damn kids are just too lazy. He — yes, this is really him, not one of his co-contributors — writes:

Are we falling behind as a country in education not just because we fail to recruit the smartest college students to become teachers or reform-resistant teachers’ unions, but because of our culture today: too many parents and too many kids just don’t take education seriously enough and don’t want to put in the work needed today to really excel?

Well, I don’t know. But I can think of a certain op-ed columnist for the Times who is acting as a poor role model.

I leave you with this:

Swartz case leads Media Nation’s top 10 of 2013

Aaron Swartz speaking in 2012

Aaron Swartz speaking in 2012

Last January, not long after the young Internet genius Aaron Swartz committed suicide, civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate wrote powerfully about the abusive prosecutorial tactics that may have led to his death.

Swartz faced a lengthy federal prison sentence for downloading academic articles at MIT without authorization. Even though the publisher, JSTOR, declined to press charges, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz brought a case agains Swartz under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. As Silverglate put it, the law is “a notoriously broad statute enacted by Congress seemingly to criminalize any use of a computer to do something that could be deemed bad.”

Silverglate’s article was republished in Media Nation with the permission of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, where it originally appeared. And it was far and away the most viewed article in Media Nation in 2013.

Today we present Media Nation’s top 10 posts for 2013, based on statistics compiled by WordPress.com. They represent a range of topics — from the vicissitudes of talk radio to a media conflict of interest, from Rolling Stone’s controversial cover image of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to the sad, sudden death of The Boston Phoenix.

The top 10 is by no means representative of the year in media. Certainly the biggest story about journalism in 2013 involved the National Security Agency secrets revealed by Edward Snowden to The Guardian and The Washington Post — a story that did not make the cut at Media Nation.

Here, then, is our unrepresentative sample for the past 12 months.

1. Harvey Silverglate on the Aaron Swartz case (Jan. 24). Few people were more qualified to weigh in on U.S. Attorney Ortiz’s abusive tactics than Silverglate, my friend and occasional collaborator, who several years ago wrote “Three Felonies a Day,” a book on how the federal justice system has spun out of control. But Silverglate’s take wasn’t the only article about Swartz to generate interest in Media Nation. The aftermath of Swartz’s suicide also came in at No. 11 (“The Globe turns up the heat on Carmen Ortiz,” Jan. 11) and No. 13 (“Aaron Swartz, Carmen Ortiz and the meaning of justice,” Jan. 14). In a bit of poetic justice, a project Swartz was working on at the time of his death — software that allows whistleblowers to submit documents without being identified — was unveiled by The New Yorker just several months after his suicide.

2. The New Republic’s new owner crosses a line (Jan. 28). A little more than a year ago, the venerable New Republic was saved by Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook who is using some of his fortune to restore the magazine to relevance and fiscal health. But he crossed an ethical line last January when he took part in an interview with President Obama, whose campaign he had worked on, and tossed a series of softball questions his way. At the time I wrote that Hughes was guilty of “no more than a minor misstep.” So how did it rise to No. 2? It turns out that a number of right-leaning websites picked up on it, bringing a considerable amount of traffic to Media Nation that I normally don’t receive.

3. Dailies go wild over sports controversies (Aug. 30). Four months after publishing this item, I find it hard to make heads or tails of what was going on. But essentially Globe-turned-Herald sportswriter Ron Borges contributed to a Rolling Stone article on the Aaron Hernandez murder case, which generated some tough criticism from both the Globe and the well-known blog Boston Sports Media Watch. That was followed almost immediately by a Globe article on the ratings collapse of sports radio station WEEI (AM 850), which brought yet more tough talk from, among others, ’EEI morning co-host Gerry Callahan, who also happens to write a column for the Herald. Yes, Boston is a small town.

4. Rolling Stone’s controversial cover (July 17). I thought it was brilliant. I still do. The accusion that Rolling Stone was trying to turn Dzhokhar Tsarnaev into some sort of pop-culture hero is absurd and offensive — and not borne out by the well-reported article that the cover was designed to illustrate.

5. Glenn Ordway walks the ratings plank (Feb. 14). Ordway built sports talker WEEI into a ratings monster only to see its numbers crater in the face of competition from the Sports Hub (WBZ-FM, 98.5). Ordway was by no means the problem with WEEI. But station management decided it could no longer afford his $500,000 contract, and so that was it for the Big O.

6. A big moment for The Boston Globe (Dec. 17). It was actually a big year for the Globe, from its riveting coverage of the marathon bombing and the standoff that led to the arrest of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to the paper’s acquisition by Red Sox principal owner John Henry. But two days in mid-December were emblematic of the paper’s continuing excellence and relevance — a long, detailed exposé of the Tsarnaev family that revealed Dzhokhar, rather than his older brother, Tamerlan, may have been the driving force behind the bombing; an investigation into a case of alleged “medical child abuse” that pitted a Connecticut family against Children’s Hospital; and a nationally celebrated series of tweets by staff reporter Billy Baker about a Boston teenager from a poor family who had been admitted to Yale.

7. The Boston Phoenix reaches the end of the road (March 14). A stalwart of the alternative-weekly scene and my professional home from 1991 to 2005, the Phoenix was a voice of incalculable importance. But with even the legendary Village Voice struggling to survive, the alt-weekly moment may have passed. At the time of its death, the Phoenix had more than 100,000 readers — but little revenue, as advertising had dried up and both the print edition and the website were free. I scribbled a few preliminary thoughts in this post, and later wrote something more coherent for PBS MediaShift.

8. The return of Jim Braude and Margery Eagan (Feb. 6). Eagan and Braude’s morning show was the one bright spot on WTKK Radio, an otherwise run-of-the-mill right-wing talk station that had been taken off the air a month earlier. So it was good news indeed when the pair was hired to host “Boston Public Radio” from noon to 2 p.m. on public station WGBH (89.7 FM). (Note: (I am a paid contributor to WGBH-TV’s “Beat the Press,” where Eagan is a frequent panelist.)

9. Joe Scarborough grapples with history — and loses (Feb. 17). Asking cable blowhard Scarborough to write a review for The New York Times Book Review about the relationship between Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon could have been a smart, counterintuitive move. But it only works if the writer in question is, you know, smart.

10. The bell tolls for WTKK Radio (Jan. 3). As I already mentioned, Jim Braude and Margery Eagan were able to walk away from the rubble of WTKK, which was shut down by corporate owner Greater Media and turned into an urban music station. Just a few years earlier the station had been a ratings success with trash-talking hosts like Jay Severin and Michael Graham. But tastes change — sometimes for the better.

Photo (cc) by Maria Jesus V and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

A compelling case for ‘knowledge-based journalism’

9780345806604This review was previously published in The Huffington Post.

In the early 1990s the media identified an existential threat: violent crime. Sparked by high-profile cases such as the murder of a 12-year-old girl, Polly Klaas, and the fatal shooting of six passengers on a train in Long Island, news outlets from local television to Time magazine elevated criminal carnage above all other issues.

Such relentlessness brought results. By mid-1994, 40 percent of Americans were telling Gallup that crime was the country’s leading problem. Elected officials responded by passing laws mandating tougher prison sentences and by building new prisons. Within 10 years, the United States was locking up a higher proportion of its population than other country.

But there was something fundamentally wrong with all this. As Thomas E. Patterson describes it in his new book, “Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism (Vintage), violent crime was actually on the decline in the early ’90s — including a 4 percent drop from 1993 to ’94. Thus journalistic malpractice led to policy malpractice, with consequences we continue to live with today.

Patterson is a longtime journalism and media observer as well as the Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. (Disclosure: He is also a friendly acquaintance.) The essence of his  argument is that it’s no longer enough (if it ever was) for journalists to describe what they learn from interviews and direct observation. They also need to know what’s true and what’s false, and to incorporate such knowledge into what they convey to the public.

“Today’s journalists,” Patterson writes, “use reporting tools that were developed more than a century ago and were better suited to the demands of that age than to those of today, where manufactured consent, clever fabrications, and pumped-up claims are everyday assaults on the public’s sense of reality. … Knowledge-based journalism would provide the steady supply of trustworthy and relevant news that Americans now lack, but sorely need.”

As the example of violent crime suggests, knowledge-based journalism should be grounded in a way of thinking. It’s never been a secret that the U.S. Department of Justice compiles crime statistics, and of course today those numbers are far easier to access than they were 20 years ago. Thus the key is for reporters, editors and news directors to seek out the truth and resist the urge to pander. Obviously that’s easier said than done. The spirit of Walter Lippmann’s quest for scientific journalism permeates “Informing the News,” but as Patterson notes, it has never pervaded more than a fraction of the news media.

Patterson is especially strong in describing the confluence of mindless objectivity and a lack of knowledge. When a journalist doesn’t understand the truth of what he is covering, it’s all too easy simply to present different viewpoints and leave it up to the reader, the viewer or the listener to decide. “The objective model of American journalism offers a weak defense against factual distortions,” Patterson writes. “Not only does the commitment to balance invite such distortions, it allows them to pass unchecked.”

Yet even an empiricist like Patterson can’t overcome human psychology. And one of the obstacles to knowledge-based journalism is that we are wired to adhere closely to our beliefs, regardless of whether they are grounded in reality. Patterson presents research by the Dartmouth College political scientist Brendan Nyhan showing that we tend to cling to misinformation even more tightly after our errors have been pointed out to us.

In a world in which comfortingly false information is never more than a click of the mouse or the cable box away, it is unclear how knowledge-based journalism would reach an audience larger than the one that already seeks reliable news. It is, after all, the genius of the right that it has managed to convince large swaths of the public that The New York Times and NPR are merely liberal equivalents of the Fox News Channel and Rush Limbaugh. Patterson describes the problem, but he doesn’t propose a solution. And it’s hard to imagine what a solution would look like.

So how are we to move in the direction of knowledge-based journalism? Patterson writes that “the university rather than the newsroom is the logical place to develop it,” and he calls for reforms in journalism education along the lines proposed by the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education — the most relevant being “expertise in the specific subjects to be reported on.” At the very least, journalists should make use of nonpartisan repositories such as the Shorenstein Center’s own Journalist’s Resource, which compiles data and studies in areas ranging from human rights to climate change.

Patterson has made a valuable contribution to the ongoing discussion of what we should expect of journalism at a time when media outlets are multiplying, revenues are shrinking and opinion is elevated over fact-based reporting. Whether we actually embrace knowledge-based journalism or not, he has underscored journalism’s basic mission: to provide the public with the information it needs to govern itself in a democratic society.

The Boston Globe’s remarkable two days

Tsarnaev image

A massive investigation into the Tsarnaev family that casts into doubt the notion that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was the dupe of his older brother, Tamerlan. A harrowing two-part story on a supposed case of “medical child abuse” that raises serious questions about one of our most respected hospitals. And a feel-good story posted to Twitter that immediately goes viral.

It was quite a two days for The Boston Globe, starting with the Sunday edition and wrapping up Monday evening, when staff reporter Billy Baker’s tweets about a poor teenager getting accepted into Yale were cited by the likes of BuzzFeed and Piers Morgan.

It was the Tsarnaev package that has received the most attention. Reported by Sally Jacobs, David Filipov and Patricia Wen (Filipov, a former Moscow bureau chief for the Globe, visited Dagestan, where he learned of Tamerlan’s inept efforts to join an Islamist insurgency), the story provides the most thorough overview yet of a dysfunctional family dynamic that ultimately led the Tsarnaev brothers into terrorism.

The story defies summary. For me, the most fascinating takeaway is that Dzhokhar, far from being manipulated by Tamerlan, was himself an angry young man and a big-time pot dealer who was at the very least a co-equal of Tamerlan’s. With Tamerlan reportedly hearing voices and seemingly unable to make coherent plans, Dzhokhar may well have been the key to pulling off the Boston Marathon bombings.

Indeed, it was Dzhokhar, according to the Globe report, who downloaded an article in an Al Qaeda publication titled “Make a bomb in the kitchen of your mom.” No doubt this is the sort of thing we can expect to hear at Dzhokhar’s trial, especially if prosecutors seek the death penalty.

(And a quick word about the Boston Herald, which tries to claim that what the Globe published was a politically correct puff piece about the Tsarnaevs — see this, this and this. Just stop, OK? You’re embarrassing yourselves and exploiting the victims of the Tsarnaev brothers’ act of terrorism. At least Herald columnist Margery Eagan hasn’t taken leave of her senses.)

One final point: Even though the Globe published a special eight-page section for its Tsarnaev story, the package was most fully realized online, where it received the large-type/big-art treatment that has become known as the “Snow Fall” effect, after a pioneering New York Times multimedia story. The message is that, increasingly, newspapers are treating their print editions as a secondary medium — even as they continue to bring in most of the advertising revenue.

Abuse — or a terrible mistake?

If it hadn’t been for the Tsarnaev package, I imagine the big news of the week would be Neil Swidey and Patricia Wen’s report (here and here) about Justina Pelletier, a 14-year-old from Connecticut who was taken to Children’s Hospital with what had been diagnosed as a metabolic disorder.

Doctors at the hospital concluded that Justina was actually the victim of “medical child abuse” at the hands of her parents. They placed the girl in a locked psychiatric unit for months while they tried to figure out what to do next. It is a harrowing and horrifying story, and it’s difficult to know who’s right and who’s wrong. But there are some strong suggestions that Children’s made a terrible mistake:

  • Justina’s older sister had been diagnosed with a milder form of metabolic disease, yet was living at home with no apparent issues.
  • Justina’s condition did not improve in the absence of her parents.
  • Dr. Mark Korson, a Tufts physician who had provided the initial diagnosis, was treated with contempt by Children’s and not allowed to participate in Justina’s treatment.

One inescapable conclusion: If the people at Children’s now harbor doubts about their actions, they dare not admit it because of the legal and professional ramifications. The case is as yet unresolved, and I look forward to learning more.

Billy Baker’s tweets of hope

Finally, there is Billy Baker’s remarkable series of tweets, which he began after learning that George Huynh had been accepted into Yale. Baker profiled George and his older brother, Johnny, two years ago. They were both attending Boston Latin School and were determined to rise up despite the suicide of their father and the mental illness of their mother. It began as simply as this:

It turns out that Baker had stayed in touch with the Huynh brothers after his story was published and had become something of a mentor to them. The tweets tell a full, deeply moving story, ending with George’s smiling face.

I’m not sure Twitter is the best tool for narrative journalism, but Baker made it work. And he put a smile on everyone’s face just before Christmas.

Correction: I misspelled Swidey’s name in the original post.