On the nightstand: Saturday, 7/26/14

Today’s good reads in criminal-justice journalism, with an emphasis on longform narrative stories on crime and original reporting on crime victims and reforms in sentencing and prisons:

  • Would you buy a used quote from this man? Victoria Bekiempis writes a critical portrait of oft-quoted juvenile crime “expert” Phil Chalmers, making it clear she thinks he is winging it and  in the expert game to make a buck. I wonder if reporters who find this story when searching for experts will think twice about quoting Chalmers from now on. (Newsweek)
  • In a story about the prosecution of teens accused of murder and assault in a series of homeless-bashing attacks in Albuquerque, Fernanda Santos cites a study that three-fifths of the city’s homeless reported being attacked at some point. Most, she writes, never bothered to report the crimes. “No one cares,” one told the reporter. (New York Times)
  • Medellin once meant drug violence and dysfunction. Now it’s a hub of urban, architectural innovation. Rebecca Grant tells how it made the not-quite-complete transition. (Beacon Reader) Side note to the writer and her publisher: Hire some editors! It’s coca, not coco, from which cocaine is made. And the term is lightning-quick, not lightening. Professional storytelling requires a bit more polish than this.
  • Joseph Goldstein reports on questions prompted by Eric Garner’s death that go beyond whether police used a banned choke hold. Why was his sale of untaxed cigarettes cause for confrontation in the first place? A look at high arrest numbers for minor offenses: the “broken windows” tactic in an age when windows are no longer all that broken. (New York Times) Meanwhile, a pro-enforcement advocate, Heather Mac Donald, argues why this is no time to back off from the tactic. (City Journal)
  • Lauren Ritchie reports that author Gilbert King is working on a sequel, of sorts, to his Pulitzer-winning Devil in the Grove about racial injustice in Florida. (Orlando Sentinel)
  • Thomas Wheatley investigates one prison death and uses it to explain the broader context: violence in Georgia prisons that reformers see as a sign of a poorly run system. (Atlanta Creative Loafing)
  • Colin Woodard wraps up the series Unsettled tomorrow. I marked the start of the month-long series with this post, and my enthusiasm for it rarely waned throughout. Though the story fairly quickly branched out from the murder that was the focus at the outset, his reporting and writing about injustices inflicted on Maine’s Passamaquoddy tribe demonstrates the skill of one writer and the dedication to quality journalism of a small newspaper. (Portland Press Herald)
  • Radley Balko’s astute analysis of Sen. Rand Paul’s criminal-justice-reform push — the latest bill would seek to fix a corrupt civil-forfeiture system — makes this key point: Even if Paul’s positions only stem from his quest for political popularity, think about what that says about how much the politics of crime has changed. (Washington Post)

This almost-daily digest compiles and expands on posts I’ve made on Twitter, Facebook, and my other social media feeds. See the buttons on the left rail to follow me on one of those sites, or follow this blog via RSS or email.

Don’t drag these victims into a firefight

Dahlia Lithwick calls it a “grotesque” prospect that the upshot of the Joseph Wood execution in Arizona would be a credibility contest between what the victims’ family observed, on the one hand, and what some journalist observers described, on the other. I agree — and not just because she’s my editor for my upcoming series on crime victims. As I wrote a few months ago, if it’s a common mistake to assume all victims seek retribution as their therapy — and it is — so too is it a mistake for supporters of restorative justice and other peacemaking strategies to disdain victims who disagree with them. All victims deserve to be heard and have their views respected.

So, instead of throwing more fuel on this fire — whether Woods was “just snoring” or gasping throughout a “torture” session — I prefer to focus on a story like Danielle Paquette’s in the Washington Post, in which she notes the disagreement over Wood’s condition but spends more time telling us about the victims, and their survivors’ grief and remembrance. It’s a short story, but poignant and earnest in its goal to provide them with a forum that concentrates on their humanity without adding unnecessarily to the hate.

Of course the debate matters and must happen. But there’s nothing to be gained by accenting a dispute involving people who didn’t ask to find themselves in this circumstance.

On the nightstand: Wednesday, 7/23/14

Today’s good reads in criminal-justice journalism, with an emphasis on longform narrative stories on crime and original reporting on crime victims and reforms in sentencing and prisons:

  • Greg Hanlon’s long, deeply reported narrative about former Yankee Mel Hall documents his serial predation of young girls, sometimes with the tacit approval of their parents who were dazzled by his money, fame, and charm. It’s an unforgettable and disturbing portrait of sexual abuse and the bravery of victims to step forward and hold him accountable. (SB Nation)
  • Lawyer and writer Mary Adkins intelligently and clearly explains the legal hurdles that must be overcome to protect victims — usually young women — from revenge porn. (Slate)
  • Beth Schwartzapfel puts the juveniles-with-life-without-parole sentencing debate in perspective with the story of Greg Diatchenko, who at age 50 hopes for a reprieve from his lifetime in prison for killing at man when he was 17. (Boston Magazine)
  • Amanda Hess writes about the limitations that a $190 million class-action settlement has in helping to repair the damage done to thousands of patients of a Johns Hopkins Hospital OB/GYN who violated his patients’ trust and privacy. (Slate)
  • Amid the scramble to point out all the great New Yorker stories available while the magazine’s archives are free online, Slate’s editors put together this list. The crime category contains some gems.

This almost-daily digest compiles and expands on posts I’ve made on Twitter, Facebook, and my other social media feeds. See the buttons on the left rail to follow me on one of those sites, or follow this blog via RSS or email.

On the nightstand: Monday, 7/21/14

Today’s good reads in criminal-justice journalism, with an emphasis on longform narrative stories on crime and original reporting on crime victims and reforms in sentencing and prisons:

  • Kevin Johnson writes the first of what’s promised as an occasional series in coming months on mental illness and America’s criminal justice system. The first installment looks at the enormous burden placed on police, the front-line service providers interacting with dangerously ill people with nowhere to turn but jail.  (USA Today)
  • Rolling Stone‘s ambitious special report on gun violence features powerful, personal stories from a cross-section of survivors of gunshots. They include gun owners and defenders of Second Amendment rights, but their experiences inform their views in a way that demands we listen, no matter what our opinions on gun control.
  • Brad Heath continues his aggressive coverage of federal firearms investigators by reporting that more than 91 percent of suspects in controversial sting operations were racial minorities. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives already has been accused by judges and defense lawyers of manufacturing “fictitious” crimes, so whom it targets in those stings — and whether they were racially profiled — matters even more than in ordinary law enforcement, if you buy the argument that they were lured into a crime created by federal agents. (USA Today)
  • Alan Schwarz takes us to “America’s Drugstore,” Missouri, where protecting privacy trumps an effective prescription-painkiller database. In the resulting mayhem, drug abusers and traffickers battle with law enforcement for the upper hand. (New York Times)
  • Mark Brunswick takes readers inside a “hamstrung and intensely secretive” immigration system that frees criminals, often without notifying victims, when home countries won’t take their expatriates back. Though they make up a small portion of immigrants, and many of their crimes are not safety threats, the exceptions have proven spectacularly tragic. (Minneapolis Star Tribune)
  • David Carr proves his mettle once again as one of the most perceptive reporters on media, with his column about what we lose when we remain jacked in to social media and cable news, without stopping to dig more deeply into thoughtful journalism. (New York Times)
  • On the blog, I offered thoughts on our impulse to judge and shame criminal suspects in social mediapraised the Duke-lacrosse case blog Durham-in-Wonderland for its citizen journalism and media critiques, criticized a New York Times Magazine story for lacking key details on the Jerry Sandusky Penn State scandal, and praised Dan Fagin’s Pulitzer-winning book Toms River for its deep reporting on questions not prone to easy answers.

This almost-daily digest compiles and expands on posts I’ve made on Twitter, Facebook, and my other social media feeds. See the buttons on the left rail to follow me on one of those sites, or follow this blog via RSS or email.

Durham-in-Wonderland’s legacy

My blog focuses on reported, narrative journalism about criminal justice. I use it to draw attention to noteworthy examples of the craft — to reinforce the notion that quality journalism on this important topic deserves attention and respect, so that it can survive a traumatic media-business transition.

That said, I know that we professional journalists have no monopoly on the art and craft of reporting and storytelling. One of the best examples of citizen journalism, KC Johnson’s Durham-in-Wonderland blog, signed off last Friday. His final post — like the book he wrote with respected journalist Stuart Taylor, Until Proven Innocent — is required reading for anyone who cares about ethical criminal-justice journalism.

The blog and the book, of course, documented the Duke lacrosse rape case and how a rogue prosecutor and irresponsible reporters turned it into a symbol of racial and class injustice without regard to the underlying facts; i.e., that the case was a lie, a story (as Johnson puts it) “too good to be false.” I followed the case closely back in the day and always found Johnson’s posts to be original, perceptive, and rigorous in their logic and devotion to the truth. It wasn’t always the easiest reading, which helps makes the point about why we need journalists as intermediaries between experts and a general audience. But time and again, Johnson beat journalists at their own game (while generously recognizing when journalists provided good coverage of the case, as eventually happened). In the great pro-am debate, Johnson showed the professionals that dedicated amateurs could do it just as well or better.

Here, from Johnson’s final post (which explains why he kept the blog going so long), is what he says about journalism in the Duke lacrosse case:

Excellent coverage of this case came from some quarters of the traditional media—from the 2006-2008 staff of the Duke Chronicle; from Joe Neff at the N&O; and nationally from 60 Minutes and ABC’s Law and Justice Unit. But the terrible traditional coverage—from the New York Times, the Herald-Sun, op-ed commentators such as Selena Roberts and Eugene Robinson, and other outlets in the early stages of the case—was terrible indeed.

The bad work suffered from two problems that reinforced each other. The first comes from the media’s general ideological biases. While not as left-wing as the typical elite school’s faculty, the media obviously leans left, especially on issues of race and gender; and in spring 2006, the facts offered by Nifong seemed for too many too good to be false. So rather than challenging Nifong’s presentation of the case, the Times, the H-S, and politically correct commentators and authors served as de facto stenographers for the prosecutor, uncritically passing along whatever version of events he happened to be offering at the time.

The second general problem exposed by the case was the media’s poor coverage of procedure and procedural issues. It’s no coincidence that the best reporter on this case—Neff—was comfortable with procedure, and that the worst—Duff Wilson and self-described “serious investigative journalist” William D. Cohan—appeared clueless on procedural matters.

For the media as a whole, covering procedure can be difficult—it’s often technical, and it doesn’t exactly sell newspapers. But as the lacrosse case demonstrated, explaining the role of procedure in policy and legal matters is a critical role that journalists play in society. And while there’s been some progress in this regard (consider, for instance, the Washington Post partnering in its blogs with Volokh Conspiracy or Radley Balko), as a whole, the media tends to do a poor job at illustrating procedural matters. Jim Fallows’ laments about the mainstream newspapers’ frequent failures to explain the Senate’s filibuster process is a good example of the broader problem.


A cure for pitchfork-and-torch fever

I’m in post-vacation tab-clearing mode, catching up on interesting articles published while I was semi-unplugged for a week. One in particular that merits attention is this piece by Terrence McCoy in the Washington Post on July 16. It’s on a topic I last wrote about here, when I called social-media shaming of crime suspects the “21st Century pillory.”

My starting point for that post four months ago was mugshot-heavy news posts that turn the traditional newspaper police blotter item into a high-profile target for trolls and haters who lack all sense of proportion, empathy, or due process. (As an aside, I found novelist Megan Abbott’s essay in Sunday’s New York Times about the appeal of mugshots in popular culture engaging and thoughtful, but frustrating in its blizzard of words speculating about — but never bothering to report on — the crimes and reputation of Jeremy “#hotfelon” Meeks.)

McCoy’s examination of the social-media shame game walks us through the case of Georgia’s Leanna Harris. Her husband Justin Harris is charged in the death of their son Cooper, the toddler who died after Justin left him in a hot car for hours. McCoy looks at the role played by journalists (and “journalists,” with scare quotes meant for Nancy Grace) and the social-media mob:

The Internet gives its users almost unfettered capacity to shame strangers without fear of retribution. Some of them, Harvard professor Jonathan Zittrain told the New Yorker, are those “who think they’re the Bloodhound Gang and want to solve the case.” Members of Reddit belong to this cohort; after the Boston bombing, some built an unsubstantiated case against one young man. “By the time people have torches and pitchforks, the system has gone wrong,” Zittrain said.

Others simply shame for shaming’s sake. The urge isn’t new. But “now, instead of making norm violators run around wearing a big red A on their chest, we make Facebook pages that exhort people to “LIKE THIS IF YOU THINK HESTER PRYNNE IS A DIRTY SKANK!” wrote researcher Kate Miltner of the Social Media Collective. “Shaming is a tool that people use for all sorts of reasons — not only to enforce norms, but to feel superior, exact revenge, make a joke.”

A glance at the comments on practically any crime news story, particularly in high-profile controversies such as last Sunday’s Walt Bogdanich investigation of another college-rape scandal, reveals a deep reservoir of citizens prone to snap judgments that merely echo their preconceptions about human nature and politics. Why bother reading those long stories when we can tell you what happened based on … something we think we might have heard about it? Facts not-so-firmly in hand, we now can commence the sermon.

What in us prompts such moralizing, and this certainty that we know the facts before they’ve been developed in full? What satisfaction do some among us gain from denouncing sinners and sin? They pretend to be advocates for victims, but their energy seems to spring instead from righteous indignation over misdeeds; a zeal to see miscreants (real or imagined, proven or not) summarily punished and banished.

What to do? We can’t change human nature. And evidently the ubiquity of social-media “discourse” will always be with us. So the only antidote I can imagine is responsible, careful, factual reporting; resisting the carnival-barker impulse and instead calmly, cautiously laying out what’s known, not known yet, and possibly never knowable about any given case.

A fella can dream, can’t he?

Hollow at the core

Michael Sokolove’s New York Times Magazine feature on the prosecution of former Penn State president Graham Spanier paints a sympathetic and readable portrait of the man’s life and career, and tells a clear, plainspoken account of his role in the sex-abuse scandal involving former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. What it doesn’t do well is prove its premise: that the charges against Spanier are potentially “fatally flawed.”

Relying solely on a link to a 2012 news story to detail and explain the specific charges against Spanier, Sokolove wrestles with the facts of the case without ever telling us enough about the case itself. Without explaining what specifically Spanier is charged with, how are we to understand the evidence in context — whether it adds up to guilt, and what a jury will ultimately have to decide when applying the law to those facts?

I write this not as a partisan in this highly emotional case — I care not one bit about Penn State football, and have not read a great deal about the case since the news broke years ago — so I come to the story needing what a story of this length should provide: the basics, before you serve up the main argument.

Sokolove evidently wants me to see that the evidence of a crime is thin to nonexistent, and that Spanier’s actions, while possibly blameworthy in a civil context to hold the university financially accountable to Sandusky’s victims, don’t add up to a crime. Fine, but if you want to make that case, then tell me what crime he’s not guilty of and why. The story doesn’t do that, and so it’s only effective for an audience of Penn State scandal aficionados. Too bad, because the access Spanier gave Sokolove, and Sokolove’s talents as a storyteller, make this a prime opportunity to ask and answer important questions about an important case.

Elusive truth

tomsriverbook3d2My blogging and tweeting have been fairly light the past week, as I took a family vacation and tried to set the laptop  and phone aside now and then. But that doesn’t mean I turned off my brain in the reading I chose. I finally made time to read a book that’s been on my nightstand for months — Dan Fagin’s Toms River — and although there’s a healthy dose of criminal and civil law in it, it’s mostly a narrative about science. That narrative, in Fagin’s talented hands, teaches valuable lessons about journalism and truth at the intersection of politics and public opinion.

In popular parlance, “narrative” has come to mean a simplified storyline that makes clear who are the good guys and bad guys and lessons to be learned. But a journalistic narrative, done honestly, must aim higher than that. Balancing the needs of coherent character development and plot with what the obtainable facts show, a journalistic narrative keeps its integrity by exposing ambiguity and leaving us in doubt when that is the closest we can come to the truth. That is indeed what I got from Fagin’s Toms River, which justifiably won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.

Predisposed to see the story in simplistic cutouts — greedy chemical corporation poisons the air and water, and then covers up its guilt in the “cancer cluster” that results; heroic residents crusade for the victims, holding both the corporation and hapless regulators accountable — I instead learned at every step of the story why it wasn’t all that simple. I learned about the science and why it’s so difficult for epidemiologists to pinpoint cause and effect. I learned about the complexities involved when multiple polluters over long periods of time might be responsible for illnesses that germinate slowly, through genetic mutations and impossibly complex cancers. And I was reminded of a phenomenon all too common on my criminal-justice beat: how public frustration, fear, and anger can push public opinion to unambiguous conclusions, and demand the same from courts and law enforcers, despite troubling gaps in knowable facts.

Fagin tells the story of Toms River, New Jersey, in that broader context, weaving complexity into a compelling set of characters and plots that teach while they entertain. The longer I work as a journalist, the more I am drawn to stories that force readers to come to their own, conflicted conclusions from sets of facts and contradictions that make easy solutions impossible. This book, and writer, rank near the top of recent examples of that art.

(Disclosure: I worked for many years with Fagin’s talented legal-journalist wife Alison Frankel, and I know him casually through her.)

On the nightstand: Tuesday, 7/15/14

Today’s good reads in criminal-justice journalism, with an emphasis on longform narrative stories on crime and original reporting on crime victims and reforms in sentencing and prisons:

  • Michael Winerip and Michael Schwirtz obtained a report on brutality at New York’s Rikers Island jail, and then put names and dates to the 129 recent instances of guard-on-inmate violence. The clear conclusion is that the guards, working in intolerable conditions, lack the training or the incentives to handle mentally ill prisoners, and so they use their fists to keep order. The conditions sound medieval. (New York Times)
  • Reporter-columnist Brian Dickerson does what any good journalist should do when writing about a policy debate like the one over mandatory life-without-parole for juveniles: visit the men we’re talking about, decades into their sentences. (Detroit Free Press)
  • Bob Garfield interviews Chicago Tribune overnight cops reporter Peter Nickeas, who talks about his job and the war-zone feel of Chicago over the July 4 weekend. “On a good night, we’ll get to the ‘why,’” he says. His goal: “There are a lot of ways of looking at violence other than box score-type coverage.”  (On the Media)
  • Jennifer Mascia tells the story behind her involvement in The New York Times‘ now-defunct Gun Report, a daily tally of shootings of all types. Perhaps most surprising (for those of us who hadn’t paid attention to her role and backstory): that she’s the daughter of a former mob enforcer. And that her views on gun control are not as one-dimensional as might be assumed. (Raw Story)
  • Stephanie Clifford shows how new Justice Department and Sentencing Commission policies, on top of previous reforms, yield minimal prison sentences in federal court for drug couriers. (New York Times)
  • Graham Kates’ story explaining why environmental crimes so rarely result in prosecutions hit me at a propitious time, as I read Dan Fagin’s Pulitzer winner Toms River, which documents a stunning series of crimes that evaded effective enforcement. Kates’ project goes beyond good reporting to provide a useful database that promises updates, allowing local searches to see who’s been caught violating the law and what the companies’ punishments were. (The Crime Report)

This almost-daily digest compiles and expands on posts I’ve made on Twitter, Facebook, and my other social media feeds. See the buttons on the left rail to follow me on one of those sites, or follow this blog via RSS or email.

On the nightstand: Sunday, 7/13/14

Today’s good reads in criminal-justice journalism, with an emphasis on longform narrative stories on crime and original reporting on crime victims and reforms in sentencing and prisons:

  • Walt Bogdanich’s story line may be familiar, but the depth of his reporting is what stands out in this story of a college’s evidently botched handling of rape accusations by a freshman woman against football players at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York. The woman who reported being gang raped bravely tells her story despite having endured harassment since the alleged attack, and provides Bogdanich with unusual access to the inner workings of the campus “justice” system. (New York Times)
  • Reporter David Andreatta, ably assisted by photographer/videographer Annette Lein, movingly tells the story of 14 inmates at a Rochester-area juvenile home whose forgotten graves reveal official neglect by New York state, offset by touching concern by a former chaplain at the home and the journalists themselves (videos embedded in the story tell those angles of the story well). (Democrat & Chronicle)
  • In another outstanding story by my local paper, reporter-columnist Erica Bryant looks at the extreme trauma suffered by students and connects the dots to their academic struggles. These insights should give pause to critics of city schools who blame teachers or culture for students’ failure, when in fact they are crime victims in shockingly high numbers. (Democrat & Chronicle)
  • Sonia Nazario, author of a book on one young man’s flight to the U.S., writes about violence in Central America and the role it plays in sending young people North for safety.  She takes care to note that the influx of immigrants stems from economic causes as well as crime. But crime is such a major factor that we Americans should think harder about the role we play, in creating the demand for the drugs that wreak such havoc in Latin America. (New York Times)
  • Gina Barton performs a valuable public service in watchdog journalism by examining a Wisconsin legal quirk that traps inmates in prison long after they become eligible for parole based on the unchecked whims of prison officials. (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

This almost-daily digest compiles and expands on posts I’ve made on Twitter, Facebook, and my other social media feeds. See the buttons on the left rail to follow me on one of those sites, or follow this blog via RSS or email.

A writer and editor on law, crime, and business