Social Justice Journalism – 2009
A.C. Thompson For exposing “Katrina’s Hidden Race War” in The Nation. Thompson’s two-part investigation in The Nation revealed how white residents of New Orleans’s Algiers Point neighborhood in the wake of Hurricane Katrina formed an ad hoc militia. As black residents fled the rising flood waters in search of help and refuge, many were shot, attacked or forced back into the storm.
At the time the two-part series appeared, none of these attacks and killings had ever been investigated. Conducting dozens of interviews with survivors, historians, eyewitnesses, firefighters, forensic pathologists and self-described vigilantes and poring over more than 800 autopsy reports, Thompson was able to document 11 shootings, including several possible murders. His reporting, supported by The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund, ProPublica, the Center for Investigative Reporting and New American Media, resulted in two grand jury investigations and critical reforms in the New Orleans Police Department.
JoAnn Wypijewski For a career distinguished by original reporting on the interweaving of social and sexual affairs. Through in-depth features for Harper’s, Mother Jones, Legal Affairs, Counterpunch and most recently in her column “Carnal Knowledge”in The Nation, Wypijewski shreds the clichés that structure typical media narratives and “common sense.”
In the late 1990s, she visited two towns projected into the national spotlight by sensational cases involving sex and managed to tell a more penetrating, nuanced story about them than had any other journalist.
In Jamestown, New York, for instance, a 21-year-old black man named Nushawn Williams had been accused of having sex with dozens of teenaged girls — most of them white — and of infecting 13 of them with HIV. The prevailing narrative demonized him as an HIV predator and sexual scorekeeper. For the story called, “The Secret Sharer” Wypijewski went to Jamestown. Without denying Williams’ agency, she asked herself what needs Williams had filled in the lives of the young women there. Her detailed account intimately reconstructed the constraints on life (and love) chances for women and men in a town suffering progressive deindustrialization.
Wypijewski accomplished similar exercises in extraordinary contextualization in pieces on the murder of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard, who was beaten, stripped, and left to die tied to a fence outside Laramie, Wyoming and the conviction of Paul Shanley, a defrocked priest convicted of sexual abuse on the basis of “recovered memory.”
A piece on Notes on a Scandal the New York Governor Elliot Spitzer challenges conventional wisdom by suggesting that he and his wife may actually have had the happy marriage they claimed they did and that the infamous prostitute, “Kristen,” may have played an important role in maintaining it. Articulating a moral realism and nuance that journalistic discourse rarely permits itself, she writes, “sometimes you don’t get from your husband or wife everything that you need. . . . That [Spitzer] himself had scant generosity toward others who are drawn to the forbidden, need not compel us all to be prosecutors.”
Wypijewski’s ability to see beyond individual “choice,” narrow good and evil and typical “root causes,” enriches the very conception of social justice journalism.
Mother Jones Magazine for comprehensive, vivid coverage of climate change In Climate Countdown a special of issue of Mother Jones, writers spanned the globe, weighing the present-day, human costs of the swiftly warming planet and analyzing obstacles to mitigation. Destinations included the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu, whose residents are the world’s first climate refugees; a slice of Brazilian rainforest being used by General Motors to offset its SUV-sized carbon footprint while forcing local people to find somewhere else to live; Alaskan backcountry being flooded by early thaws and California’s once-fertile Central Valley devolving into a 21st-century Dust Bowl. Coverage of the Copenhagen climate talks was enriched through cooperative reporting with eight other journalism organizations so that Mother Jones was able to field a staff of two dozen reporters, columnists and videographers. The magazine’s special issue announces a significant ongoing commitment to expanded reporting on what is arguably the most far-reaching story of our era.
Nina Bernstein of The New York Times for multi-faceted coverage of immigration issues. Bernstein’s ongoing coverage of immigration issues for the New York Times paints a complex picture of people drawn to the American dream and the intricacies of public policy governing their movements. Through her reporting we witness a Burmese refugee’s first sight of snow and learn of a Senegalese boy, left from the age of 14 to fend for himself in New York. His lack of documents is only revealed when his skill in robotics helps to win his team an invitation to fly to a national contest in Atlanta.
At the same time, Bernstein, keeps a steady eye on the machinery of law-enforcement and due process. Tracking the patchwork of more than 500 county jails, profit-making prisons and federal detention centers housing half a million noncitizens, she reports that all too often they fail to work as they should. As her stories unfold, we see secrecy and lack of legal accountability shielding operations from independent oversight. Immigrants have no right to court-appointed lawyers. No central body is mandated to publicly track deaths in custody, nor is any independent inquiry required into such tests. The mentally ill receive scant understanding of the difficulties they face. In short, Nina Bernstein’s thoroughgoing enterprise reporting brings the human and political dimensions of the immigration issue to life.