By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

From Azerbaijan to Boston, Northeastern students identify undercovered stories

Demonstrators in Baku, Azerbaijan, show their support for the war with Armenia. Photo (cc) 2020 by Interfase.

From time to time I like to ask my journalism ethics students to identify stories that they think have been undercovered. I always learn something. My graduate students dug deep last week, unearthing stories that had received some coverage — especially in the mighty New York Times — but not enough to break through into the public consciousness. At a time when the media are focused on important stories such as the police killing of Tyre Nichols and trivia such as Harry and Meghan (or was that the week before?), here is what is on my students’ minds:

The renewed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. At a moment when the world is riveted by Russia’s unprompted war of aggression in Ukraine, the military conflict between these old rivals has received very little coverage. The Times reports:

Barely two years later, the conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan is heating up again, and Russia, distracted and weakened by the war in Ukraine, has not stepped in. Defying the Russian presence, Azerbaijanis are testing whether Moscow is still able and determined to impose its will on other, smaller neighbors amid its struggles in Ukraine.

It’s not easy being fake green. Ohio’s Republican governor, Mike DeWine, signed legislation recently that designates natural gas as a source of “green energy” — and we can expect to see similar legislation pop up in other states. As The Washington Post reports, citing documents it has seen:

The Empowerment Alliance, a dark money group with ties to the gas industry, helped Ohio lawmakers push the narrative that the fuel is clean, the documents show. The American Legislative Exchange Council, another anonymously funded group, assisted in the effort.

Deadly pro-democracy protests in Peru. The unrest in Brazil following an attempt by supporters of the former authoritarian president, Jair Bolsonaro, to overthrow the democratically elected government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is apparently all the South American news that U.S. audiences can handle. Yet protests have also been mounting in Peru over the removal of that country’s leftist president, Pedro Castillo. The authorities have killed 50 demonstrators. The Times again:

Rather than fade, protests in rural Peru that began more than a month ago over the ouster of the former president have only grown in size and in the scope of demonstrators’ demands, paralyzing entire sections of the country and threatening efforts by the new president, Dina Boluarte, to gain control.

Hundreds of sexual assaults in the Boston Public Schools. The Boston Globe reported that hundreds of sexual assaults are taking place in the city’s school system every year, noting that City Councilor Erin Murphy has said that there were 744 such assaults during the 2021-’22 school year alone. The Globe’s story, though, zeroed in on whether Murphy’s claims were accurate and how the district tallies sexual assaults — overshadowing what would appear to be the larger issue, which is that the BPS has a serious problem on its hands. From the Globe account:

Between 2018 and 2022, reports of student-on-student sexual misconduct rose in BPS from 371 to 759, an increase that Murphy and three other councilors also have pointed to in advocating for tighter security in schools, including bringing back a police presence on campuses.

District officials attribute the rise in reported incidents to more people in the district’s actively reporting incidents since returning to in-person learning.

The Church of England and same-sex marriage. The Church of England recently apologized for its past mistreatment of LGBTQ people and said it would now bless same-sex unions — but that it would continue with its policy of not performing same-sex marriages. Once again, from the Times:

The Church of England is the original church in the global Anglican Communion, which now claims tens of millions of members in 165 countries. The communion has been engaged in a bitter debate over how to treat its L.G.B.T.Q. members since 2003, when the American branch — the Episcopal Church — consecrated an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire. The communion has struggled to avoid schism as some provinces have moved to welcome L.G.B.T.Q. members and celebrate their relationships, while others — mostly in the global South — have remained vehemently opposed.

A shocking story about foster care and juvenile detention. In Illinois, the state foster care system has been locking up children in juvenile detention solely because the system’s social workers have been unable to find a suitable placement for them. Now the system is being sued by the Cook County public guardian. The Illinois Answers Project, a nonprofit news organization, reports:

The Illinois Answers investigation showed a steady increase in the number of Illinois foster children held for weeks or months after a judge ordered their release from detention centers. A total of 73 foster children were locked up for weeks or months in the Cook County juvenile temporary detention center without pending charges during 2021, according to an analysis of court and DCFS records.

Famine in Africa reaches a new crisis level. About 20% of Africans, or 278 million people, were facing hunger in 2021, according to a report by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. The situation has only gotten worse since then — especially in Somalia and other parts of East Africa. Reuters reports:

Conflict and climate change are the long-term causes. Heavy debt burdens following the COVID-19 pandemic, rising prices and war in Ukraine have made things much worse as European aid has been sucked away, data and testimony from more than a dozen experts, donors, diplomats, medical staff and men and women in farms and marketplaces across nearly a dozen countries in Africa and beyond shows.

The West continues its slow escalation in Ukraine. The war in Ukraine and the West’s support for that country’s existential battle against Putin’s Russia is hardly undercovered. But there’s been a slow escalation in terms of both the weapons that are being provided to Ukraine and in the war aims, with the U.S. and its allies now talking about helping Ukraine take back Crimea, which Russia overran in 2014 — something the public may be less than fully aware of. Here’s the Times:

The new thinking on Crimea — annexed illegally by Russia in 2014 — shows how far Biden administration officials have come from the start of the war, when they were wary of even acknowledging publicly that the United States was providing Stinger antiaircraft missiles for Ukrainian troops.

A new drug menace hits the streets. A drug known as “tranq,” a mix of fentanyl and the animal tranquilizer xylazine, is wreaking havoc in urban centers where homeless people congregate, resulting in the loss of life and — literally — limb. Tranq was the subject of a recent in-depth report in the Times, but the news has not yet become widely known among the public. From the Times story:

Xylazine causes wounds that erupt with a scaly dead tissue called eschar; untreated, they can lead to amputation. It induces a blackout stupor for hours, rendering users vulnerable to rape and robbery. When people come to, the high from the fentanyl has long since faded and they immediately crave more. Because xylazine is a sedative and not an opioid, it resists standard opioid overdose reversal treatments.

What’s behind the Boston housing crisis? Though it’s well-known that there is a critical shortage of housing in the Boston area and that rents are skyrocketing, the causes and possible solutions are poorly understood. An article in Forbes found that the average monthly rent in Boston is now in the range of $3,400, making the city as expensive as San Francisco, long known for its out-of-control housing costs. Mayor Michelle Wu has introduced a rent-control ordinance, and she has also proposed abolishing the Boston Planning and Development Agency. A Boston magazine profile of Wu’s choice to head the BPDA (at least until it’s abolished), Arthur Jemison, looks at whether the agency could possibly be part of the solution:

As Jemison began to speak, there was no doubting the enormity of the task before him. He knew that reforming the system was unavoidable. Business as usual had left too many people behind during Boston’s resurgence, and the city needed more environmentally friendly and affordable housing. At the same time, some disgruntled developers were suggesting that taking their business from Boston to less-demanding regulatory environments such as New Hampshire would spare them the headache—and profit loss—of complying with Boston’s aggressive requirements, especially given the sky-high construction costs and rising interest rates that were making real estate projects increasingly difficult to get off the ground just about everywhere.

Harassing the homeless at Boston’s South Station. I was so impressed by what my students found that I decided to add one of my own: Boston Globe columnist Shirley Leung’s report that homeless people are being chased out of South Station by private security guards at midnight even on nights when the temperature falls below 32 degrees, thus violating an agreement reached with city and state officials in 2015. What’s worse, the MBTA gave the Globe information that turned out to be wrong. Leung writes:

In an e-mail, MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo insisted that “the station is not ‘locked up’ at 11 p.m.” Pesaturo would later add that the property management firm confirmed to him that it’s “a 24/7 operation.”

I decided to see for myself and went with a Globe photographer to South Station one evening earlier this month. Shortly after 11 p.m., as the last of the day’s commuter trains departed, we heard a message over the public address system: “This building and the commuter rail will be closing soon. Thank you.”

Update (Feb. 1): Leung posted a follow-up Tuesday evening reporting that Gov. Maura Healey has intervened. Once again, homeless people will be allowed to stay at North Station overnight when it’s colder than 32 degrees — just in time for the record cold that’s coming Friday night into Saturday.

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  1. Impressive work here from your students. I feel like I read the news pretty carefully and I had not known about most of these!

  2. Karen Strauss

    “ Mayor Michelle Wu has introduced a rent-control audience” — should be ordinance instead of audience.

    Great range of interesting stories, however, some of which I missed.

  3. Michele E Chausse

    Great assignment, encourages your students to dig deeper. Feeling better about the future of serious journalism.

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