Sunday, April 25, 2010

'People are gray'

When the Pulitzer Prize winners were announced recently, it was particularly exciting for my Reporting New York class (at NYU) and me. We learned that Barbara Laker and Wendy Ruderman won for investigative reporting for their work at the Philadelphia Daily News. My professor and program director, Yvonne Latty, worked at the Daily News for several years and considers Barbara Laker one of her mentors — and a dear friend.

So last week, we had a conference call with Barbara Laker to talk about the series that won her the Pulitzer. The series — "Tainted Justice" — "exposed a rogue police narcotics squad, resulting in an FBI probe and the review of hundreds of criminal cases tainted by the scandal," the announcement reads.

Talking to Barbara was a joy because it was so clear how invested she is in the series. Her dedication and excitement was infectious, and it was really great to hear about how she and Wendy "hit the streets of Philadelphia" day after day and month after month. I think it was, in a big way, paying homage to the traditional idea of journalism that has become a rarity in the modern newsroom.

But what I took away from our conversation with Barbara was an understanding of the importance in being so invested — so immersed — in the story. Barbara talked a lot about how she envisions herself in the shoes of the people she interviews. She tries to understand what it feels like from their perspective to better convey the little details.

One of my favorite things she said was in reference to a video that was part of the series. The Daily News obtained surveillance footage from one of the raids led by the narcotics unit in a bodega. She talked about how closely she watched that video to glean the particulars.

In the video, one of the police officers, who was at the center of this entire controversy, was seen talking to a young person and allowing him to leave as the other officers searched the place, questioned the owner and cut wires to disable the video camera — seemingly for no reason. Barbara said how easy it is to assume people are all good or all bad, but that she saw a different side of this officer based on his interaction with the young man.

"People are gray," she said.

I couldn't agree more. And the series, which was reported so fairly and with such detail, was an inspiring, thought-provoking read. I highly recommend taking a couple hours and looking through the articles.

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