Category Archives: Crime reporting

Sandy Hook’s hidden story

TraceLaw and news nerd that I am, I find great satisfaction in discovering new angles to litigation stories that others have missed. Last February, I did that for The Trace in a preview of the coming fight over the legal claims made by the families of the Sandy Hook mass shooting victims. Now that the judge has ruled, I revisited the topic with this analysis, published today.

The remarkable thing to me is that no news reports that I saw ever homed in on the same issue that drew my attention. That’s probably because it’s hard to explain to a lay audience in terms that are both accurate and understandable. It’s just as hard for a layman like me to grasp it in the first place, but that’s the kind of challenge that first drew me to covering the law and that still excites me. As I said, I’m a big old nerd.

I won’t repeat what’s explained in both stories, but I will try to summarize what issue I’m talking about (this is yet another test of my explanatory abilities). The lawsuit filed by the victims’ families against the maker and sellers of the gun that Adam Lanza used, a Bushmaster AR-15 style rifle, faces the same obstacle that any case against the gun industry does, thanks to Congress’ passage in 2005 of a law granting broad legal immunity to the industry. The law allows some lawsuits that fit limited exceptions. All the coverage of the Sandy Hook case focused on just one of the exceptions claimed in this lawsuit — a claim that by marketing military-style weapons to civilians, the industry has committed “negligent entrustment,” which means giving a dangerous thing to someone who shouldn’t have it — but that was the more far-fetched of the two. The other one, which I focused on thanks to an article I ran across and then my conversation with its law-professor author, allows lawsuits that allege actions that violate laws concerning the sale of guns. How the Sandy Hook plaintiffs’ lawyers made that argument, and how the judge reacted to it, were the untold story about this lawsuit.

Who cares? Well, I submit anyone who cares about this lawsuit or about the ongoing debate to repeal the immunity law should care, because the argument I wrote about came closer to keeping the Sandy Hook case alive than the negligent entrustment claim. Closer, but not close enough, as the judge has now narrowly but decisively agreed to throw the case out.

I’m glad The Trace provided me with a platform to tell that story, nerdy though it may have been.

The freelancing life

My friend and former colleague Brian Moritz invited me to appear on his podcast, The Other 51, to talk about freelance journalism. Here’s the link.

We talked about the challenges, frustrations, and satisfaction of doing the kind of work I do without the stability of a steady paycheck. And we did it while sipping a delicious microbrew on the shore of Canandaigua Lake, undercutting some of my woe-is-me chatter. Enjoy.

Policing without oppressing

Alan Morrison, holding his 2-year-old son, told me how the Minneapolis Police Department's revised disciplinary system still treats complainants like the enemy.
Alan Morrison, holding his 2-year-old son, told me how the Minneapolis Police Department’s revised disciplinary system still treats complainants like the enemy.

Over on my Facebook page this week, I’ve been posting a series of updates on my latest project, a feature story on policing controversies and solutions. I spent the week in and around Minneapolis, watching one police department as it engaged with its community in constructive ways — and another as it tries to do the same, but remains dogged by its long history of heavy-handed, brutal tactics.

At the heart of this story, which will be published in December, is the tension between effective crime control and the trust police must earn among the law-abiding majority in high-crime neighborhood. It’s the loss of that trust that made itself heard loud and clear the past couple of years, from Ferguson, Missouri, to Baltimore and beyond. Throughout these controversies are longstanding racial tensions and the long history of discriminatory law enforcement throughout this country. In Minneapolis, there’s an added layer of complexity with the region’s recent influx of Muslims, many from Somalia.

The problems have solutions, which is what I will focus my story on. To show glimpses of this work in progress, I posted a number of times as I reported the story, on Monday, Tuesday, twice on Wednesday (here and here), and at the conclusion of the trip. The posts don’t go into great detail about the story or my thinking — I’m still developing the facts and my conclusions as I report through next week — but I share these snippets as a way of showing the nature of this kind of reporting work and the issues I’m interested in.

A changed life

I complained in my last post about reactions to my most recent story that caused me to despair about the work that I do. But something happened today to set things right.

First, about last week: I wasn’t surprised that many readers disagreed with my story’s conclusions. After all, a story about a woman who goes beyond forgiveness of her daughter’s killer to have a caring relationship with him is bound to be controversial. But I found it disheartening that many of the harshest reactions seemed based on gut assumptions rather than on the facts in the story. Clearly, many didn’t even bother to read the story they were condemning. I consider the main purpose of my stories to be educational — to explain a slice of the world that you may not have imagined — and not advocacy journalism. So it’s not my goal to change your heart so much as to open your mind. When that doesn’t happen — or, rather, when the people making the most noise in anonymous comments demonstrate that it didn’t happen for them — it’s easy to lose heart.

Now for what restored a bit of my faith in my own ability to write stories that make an impact. I was featured in a Q&A about my work in the latest issue of ASJA Magazine, the publication for members of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (it’s behind a paywall, or I’d share a link). In the article,  by ASJA’s president Randy Dotinga, I mentioned a cover story I wrote two years ago for Pacific Standard magazine on post-traumatic growth, a psychological phenomenon in which violent trauma can trigger positive growth in its victim. The point of the story was to show an upside to trauma, and maybe to teach that even traumatic injury as severe as PTSD could turn into something positive for some people. The story generated quite a few social-media posts and letters to the editor, but I didn’t get a clear sense of its impact on readers. As I told Dotinga, “I’d like to think it changed how people see trauma and recovery, but it’s hard to know of any concrete difference it made.”

Today I got an email from an ASJA member who read the Q&A and then read the Pacific Standard feature. Out of respect for her privacy, I won’t quote the email in its entirety. But she told me she was a victim of a violent crime nearly 20 years ago. Plagued by nightmares, she ultimately changed the focus of her work to achieve what she called a more “well-rounded life.” She’d always thought of her reactions to her trauma as a means of coping to counteract the harm that was done to her. After reading my story, she now sees it in a new light, as a positive change that sprang from something terrible. She didn’t just struggle to bounce back; she grew. She concluded, “Your take changed my perspective on the past 20 years or so of my existence.”

That, my friends, is what’s known in my business as a rich reward for the work that I do.

Spontaneous grace

As yesterday’s remarkable scene in a Charleston, South Carolina, courtroom unfolded — family members of some of the nine victims of the church massacre spoke up at accused shooter Dylann Roof’s first court appearance to deliver their anguish directly to him over an in-court video connection, at the same time offering their forgiveness — my first thought was to wonder how a judge ever allowed this.

The answer to that question is hard to come by in news coverage of the hearing (more on that in a moment). But first, some thoughts on victim-offender dialogue and forgiveness — topics I’ve written about here and here, and that I’ll explore in depth in my upcoming series on crime victims.

In my years of reporting on this, reading the research underlying it and talking to dozens of victims and offenders who have been through it, I’ve grown so accustomed to seeing victims benefit from dialogue and forgiveness that I found the victims’ behavior yesterday less surprising than, say, comedian and writer Albert Brooks expressed in this tweet:

The president’s tweet on this topic echoed the sort of admiration we all must feel when we see such grace under horrifying circumstances:

We’re so conditioned to hearing from victims who are consumed with rage and hurt that when we see them behave differently we often act surprised. We shouldn’t be. Victims respond in many ways, usually changing as time goes on. When we let our assumptions about them drive policy — when we confuse accountability with vengeance, and project our own anger onto them — we do victims of all types a disservice. And we make a hash of punishment policies that have grown far out of whack because they’ve been driven by this misguided presumption about what all victims need.

So I should be glad to see conciliatory victims on such prominent display. But yesterday’s rush to confront and forgive comes dangerously close to subjecting the victims’ survivors to a new form of trauma. Without adequate preparation and counseling, this sort of volatile, unplanned meeting could backfire on the victims. Ordinarily, victims get a chance to speak to an offender at sentencing, or later on in mediated dialogue. The latter is especially intense and, when done correctly, requires elaborate, careful preparation. Yesterday’s session, by contrast, seems to have happened spontaneously, carrying with it an added element of possible coercion — when one victim expresses forgiveness, how can others, particularly church people, withhold the same, even if they aren’t ready to give it? I’m not saying the forgiveness wasn’t genuine, but imagine the pressure on those who didn’t speak first, or at all, to follow the prescribed route to righteousness.

How did yesterday’s encounter come about? Most of the reports I read in search of an answer — in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and NPR, among many others — merely described the scene as emotional and unexpected, treating the victim statements as something of an unexplained fluke. The closest anyone comes to explaining it that I saw was the Charleston Post and Courier‘s Andrew Knapp, who writes that Magistrate James B. Gosnell Jr., who rarely conducts bond hearings, simply opened the floor to the victims’ families by asking if any wanted to speak.

From all indications, Gosnell — whose remarks expressing sympathy for Roof’s family as well as for the victims later drew scorn — turned the routine hearing into something else out of a desire to unite the community at an upsetting time. But at this point there are just hints at his motives, no clear explanations. If it’s true that Gosnell was winging it, someone needs to sit him down and teach him more about proper trauma care.

In her report on the hearing, USA Today‘s Mary Nahorniak quotes defense lawyers not involved in the case who express reservations about the time and place for such victim statements. They’re worried about Roof’s right to a fair trial, as they should be. At the same time, we all should hope that the victims’ families get what they really need for the long haul: trauma care that eases them into a lifelong process of coming to grips with their shocking loss.  

Glass half-full

In the first two parts of a three-part New York Review of Books series on the quality of journalism online, Michael Massing has amassed a thoughtful collection of reported anecdotes that serves as an unusually detailed snapshot of the current state of the industry. Part one evaluates the quality of first-generation online journalism and declares it kind of “meh.” Part two asks how digital startups of more recent vintage have fared. His verdict: disappointing and uneven, with such heralded innovations as longform narratives “stillborn.” (Massing says his third part will appear later this year.)

While I appreciate Massing’s focus on editorial quality instead of the usual hand-wringing about the commercial prospects of online publishing, I see his take on things as entirely too pessimistic — at least when it concerns the criminal-justice journalism that I pay close attention to.

I’m not a preternaturally positive guy, especially on the topic of quality journalism. After all, consider: a decimated business model in traditional publishing; stagnant wages and free-falling freelance rates; the ascendance of the most vapid forms of journalism as product-promoting PR, celebrity-celebrating fluff, and listicle-churning clickbait. I regularly see friends and former colleagues laid off, fellow freelancers abandoning journalism for gigs as sponsored-content writers, and newsroom morale rotting in a stew of idiotic corporate Dilbert-itis and quality-killing staffing losses. In crime news specifically, it’s far easier to find exploitative, mindless scare stories aimed at fueling rage and resentment than to see stories deeply reported and emotionally powerful that offer solutions and understanding.

But here are some snapshots of my own that show why developments in the past year or two justify optimism:

SO MUCH GOOD STUFF

Here’s last week’s City and Regional Magazine Awards‘ crime-heavy winners list. That’s not surprising, considering what any major journalism awards list looks like year after year. There is such a surfeit of deeply reported, meaningful journalism and so many ways to find it — from curated sites and feeds, and from daily newsletters like those from The Marshall Project and The Crime Report — that it’s impossible to keep up with it all. And equally impossible to take seriously the frequently made claim that “the media” (as if it’s just one, monolithic thing) don’t care about substance.

I recently abandoned my unpaid work in keeping my own list of standout stories, simply because the volume overwhelmed me and was seriously cutting into my productive time to earn a living doing this work instead of just talking about it. (I still post links to such stories several times a day on my social-media feeds, though I no longer feel obligated to read and critique more than I can fit into my schedule.)

Last week’s conference of Investigative Reporters & Editors drew about 1,800 journalists to several days of high-level seminars on producing public-interest, accountability journalism. Judging from my Twitter feed, the conference continues to grow and has lost none of its power as an inspirational gathering of the craft’s leading practitioners.

The point is: If you claim this kind of journalism is going away, then you’re just not looking for it.

SO MUCH FRESH TALENT

On Saturday night, one of my former students at Syracuse’s Newhouse School, Julie McMahon of the Syracuse Post-Standard, won AP New York state honors as young journalist of the year. She also won first places for beat reporting (she covers the cops beat) and for features. Here is her winning story, a powerful story about a gunshot victim’s recovery. In just her first few years as a pro, she has shown she has the brains, skills, and work ethic to carve out a significant role for herself in a business (both generally, and specifically at the Post-Standard) that has been declared all but dead.

She is hardly alone in that. Look, for example, at the winners and their work in the recently announced Livingston Awards, where important criminal-justice stories dominate.

SO MANY AMBITIOUS STARTUPS

Though The Marshall Project gets most of the attention, as the boldest crime-focused digital-journalism startup — and deservedly, as its stellar team consistently produces smart, deep storytelling on the most important policy topics — crime stories with true merit regularly sprout at such sites as The Intercept, Reveal, Vox, Yahoo News, Vice, The Atavist, TakePart, BuzzFeed, Colorlines, Matter, Texas Tribune (and many other regional digital-news outlets), podcasts such as Life of the Law and Criminal, and many others. Not to mention old-timers like Politico, Slate, and Alternet.

Will they all survive while sustaining the current output of ambitious journalism? Of course not. But think back just a few years, to a time when all we ever heard was naysaying about the potential for any seeds to sprout in the Web’s fallow soil. Here we are, awash in good stuff by new players, at traditional and digital-native operations alike, and by young and not-so-young journalists making a living at it.

Massing’s point is broader than my crime-specific take on the business. But, from what I see happening in the journalism of science, politics, sports, culture, and business, crime journalism is no outlier. Though the business models continue to struggle for footing, we’re creating the necessary precursor for any successful business and industry: a quality product that draws an audience and serves the public interest.

The myth of closure

Can someone please tell all elected officials and pundits to strike the word “closure” from their vocabulary when they’re talking about crime victims? Boston Mayor Martin Walsh predictably invoked the term after the jury’s verdict for the death penalty was announced Friday in the trial of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. “I hope this verdict,” the mayor said in a prepared statement, “provides a small amount of closure to the survivors, families, and all impacted by the violent and tragic events surrounding the 2013 Boston Marathon.”

As many victims are quick to point out, and as much of the research of victims’ experiences shows, there is no such thing as closure. If by closure we mean the bad experience comes to an end, and it can be put behind us, then we’re imposing impossible expectations on victims — and on the justice system that we expect to deliver this magical emotional state.

Every victim of violent trauma I have ever interviewed sounds like the marathon survivors quoted in these Boston Globe and New York Times stories after the verdict. They talk about a weight lifted, turning a page, feeling satisfaction when the person who harmed them has been held accountable and punished. What I especially liked about those stories was the variety of viewpoints aired without judgment. Victims deserve space, and help, to come to their own conclusions about what works. And they need time to evolve, as so many victims do, traveling from anger to some version of peace. They can’t close that part of their life, but they can eventually make peace with it.

The value of a high profile case like this is that the extensive storytelling surrounding the event and the characters lets us hear in more detail how real people cope with loss and trauma. There are lessons in this — if we listen — about what all crime victims experience to one degree or another. Hardly any crime victims get the kind of support that the marathon victims have received, monetary and emotional. That’s not a knock against these victims. They suffered terribly, they were targeted as symbols of our country, and they deserve anything and everything we can give them. But we must remember that the best other victims normally can hope for is a check to cover some funeral expenses, a brief stint in counseling, and some help in navigating a criminal justice system that will listen to them only when their views align with prosecutors’.

Perhaps these lessons won’t sink in with politicians. But the rest of us can remember them the next time we feel the urge to impose our own assumptions on how victim ought to feel.

Interview with a vulture

Winston Ross unburdens his journalistic conscience in this essay in Newsweek, wherein he portrays his work and that of his competitors in disaster coverage as purely self-aggrandizing and exploitative. There’s nothing redeeming about it, in Ross’ view, as he calls out himself and his cohort for behaving like “vultures” and “hyenas” toward victims and their loved ones.

Ross is, of course, more right than wrong about the bleak realities of breaking-news disaster coverage. Based on his experience, he offers a vivid and depressing view of that work from the scene of the Germanwings crash and apparent mass murder of 149 people.

But Ross offers no sensible alternatives, other than a tip of the hat to serious reporting on causes and prevention, and on the kind of narrative, victim-centered journalism after the fact that can teach about coping with grief.

When something this awful happens, it’s not an option to ignore the news. Nor is it realistic to expect that competitive journalists would avoid the scene of the disaster out of deference to victims in the vicinity. Would we even want that kind of news coverage? I’m picturing the media horde camped out not on the slopes of the Alps but in a German government or corporate conference room, waiting for a briefing. If that were the reporting standard, tragedy would be stripped of its emotional impact; victims become mere numbers, their losses reduced to abstractions.

So what should journalists and their managers do to discourage the kind of behavior Ross describes? One place to start looking for answers, the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, offers tips to care for journalists on the scene and to treat victims with as much humanity as possible. These responses, it seems to me, strike a far more constructive tone than simply decrying craven behavior before the scrum rushes off to the next scene.

My response is colored by my own experiences in covering mass casualty disasters. Those experiences are but distant memories, but I will never forget what I saw and how I felt. I know that what motivated me and those I saw doing the same kind of work went far beyond the kind of glory-seeking, parasitic mindset that Ross describes.

It’s possible to do this work without losing your soul. But that’s not nearly so eye-catching as an essay confirming everyone’s worst suspicions about journalists.

Half-right about victims

Here’s a news story that sees a real problem in the way that crime victims experience criminal justice. But then it falls into a familiar trap in criminal justice thinking.

Liz Shepard of Gannett’s Times Herald in Port Huron, Michigan, wrote about a horrifying crime in which a teen, just before her 18th birthday, arranged for a violent attack on her adoptive parents. Her father died and mother was wounded. Tia Skinner and the two assailants were sentenced to life without parole in 2011.

Mara McCalmon describes to Shepard the trauma of going through that trial and sentencing, only to endure two resentencings of her daughter. Thanks to changes in the law governing life-without-parole sentences for juveniles, Michigan prosecutors twice put McCalmon back in court to describe her ordeal. At the third sentencing, Skinner’s defense team made the family feel under attack as it pursued claims of a troubled childhood, which might mitigate against the most severe sentence.

Quoting the defense lawyer as saying such experiences for victims are a necessary “reality,” the story barely explains the factors considered in sentencing or the reasons for the constitutional and statutory changes that called a juvenile LWOP sentence into question. The story’s primary message: silly legal technicalities that stood in the way of a speedy resolution only served to harm the victims without changing the outcome. If only we figured out, the story seems to conclude, how to make the system a little more punitive, we’d finally do right by victims.

This is the standard approach by American criminal justice, to assume our only societal obligation to the victims is to punish wrongdoing as severely and efficiently as possible. But what stares us in the face in this story is how inadequately that serves these victims. McCalmon, who graciously concedes that important questions were at stake in the resentencings, practically begs for alternatives that would not stick her and her family in the middle of win-at-all-costs adversarial system. She tells Shepard:

Victims never get over these life changing events, however we strive to carry on. And so while we begin and work through this process, with the help and support of our faith, family and friends, rulings that open wounds really re-victimize victims in so many ways.

The rulings are the central problem only if we see victims as tools to be used in achieving “justice” (defined strictly as punishment) and then left to sort out their problems on their own. All too often, victims like McCalmon never hear of methods proven to ease this sort of pain. In restorative justice programs, dialogue and group conferencing take words like McCalmon’s and then dig deeper, to discover what victims truly need that isn’t satisfied by the ultimate sanctions against an offender. Maybe it’s a bridge between the family and the defense team, so that sentencing can proceed without causing so much damage. Maybe it’s face-to-face meetings, after intensive preparation, between the family and the offenders so that the family can say what it needs to say, ask what it needs to know, outside of the harsh glare of a staged conflict in court. Restorative justice doesn’t preclude punishment, but it doesn’t define justice for victims as beginning and ending there.

The first step, though, is listening — really listening — to what victims tell us.

Welcome to Jinxapalooza

Screen Shot 2015-03-16 at 9.38.40 AMThe HBO documentary series The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst was the talk of crime town even before Sunday night’s dramatic conclusion, in which Durst unwittingly mutters into an open mic his apparent confession to two killings for which, at that point, he had never been charged. This would be one of those times when I wish I hadn’t ended my HBO subscription at the conclusion of The Wire. But, thanks to this morning’s chatter and news coverage, I have at least seen the high points (check out this video-enhanced summary from Forrest Wickman at Slate).

So, what to make of it? As with the Serial podcast phenomenon, the Twittersphere will endlessly mull over How This Changes Everything in Journalism, and people seemingly unaware of how much good true-crime journalism exists will exclaim over a supposedly new art form.

I, on the other hand, just want to enjoy a good story and pay tribute to a notable piece of reporting and storytelling that was said to be nearly 10 years in the making by Andrew Jarecki and Marc Smerling.

That’s not to say there aren’t legitimate journalistic and legal questions to ponder. Will Durst’s recorded reactions after being confronted with incriminating evidence be admissible as evidence? Will this lead to a subpoena battle over reporter’s privilege and shield-law protections? What were the ethics of saving the good stuff to maximize ratings and publicity, rather than turning it over to the cops? (That last one is super easy to answer, but rest assured it will be asked again and again.)

The question that New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum asks in this critique (which ran before Durst’s arrest and the final episode) concerns the social value of such storytelling. Does this, like much of the true-crime genre, appeal only to the voyeur in us? Is it just, as she writes, a “noir striptease” that’s meant only to titillate? It’s not exactly an original discussion, and she doesn’t seem to know much about the genre, basing her generalizations on Serial and a handful of films. Nussbaum could benefit from some reading of literary true-crime, the kind of journalism (unlike the sleazy down-market forms of the genre) that puts murder and other crimes in their proper context: understanding human nature and justice (something I’ve written about many times before, such as here).

The same wide-eyed ignorance of true-crime journalism will undoubtedly color much of the commentary to come, as newbies marvel over their discovery (reporters investigate crimes and weigh the evidence, just like cops except not really!) and lament the supposed dearth of such storytelling until this came along. We should welcome them, finally, to the party and introduce them to our friends. Newbies, meet David Grann, Pam ColloffThe Marshall Project, and many others. May I interest you in my curated list of such work?

The one commentator so far to get the point exactly right comes, ironically enough, from the tabloidy side of the genre. The former Westchester County, New York, district attorney, Jeanine Pirro, spoke to The New York Times for its team-generated report on the latest in Durstland. The host of Fox News’ Justice With Judge Jeanine, whose investigation of the disappearance of Durst’s wife never led to charges, told the Times, “These two producers did what law enforcement in three states could not do in 30 years. Kudos to them. They were meticulous. They were focused. They were clear.”

Pirro gave a more extended set of comments to Lisa DePaulo for this interesting story and Q&A at Bloomberg Politics before the latest developments in the case. It’s worth reading for a grounding in what’s happened in these cases to date.

Now, pardon me while I call my satellite TV provider and restart HBO before The Jinx reshowing starts March 21.