Investigative reporting exposed me to a whole new way of thinking and going about discovering information. This hands-on experience enabled me to apply skills I had learned in previous classes and really put them to use. Before taking this class, I did not know you could visit the courthouse or request records just as a normal citizen. As students, we really did get to investigate and take on a role as an investigative reporter. From being assigned juvenile lifers to delving through their court records and being given the opportunity to interview guest speakers in class, there was no shortage of new information.
One of the most important things I learned from this class was there is always a way to find a different channel to discover the information you are looking for and that you shouldn’t take no for an answer. There is an abundance of resources, including court records, newspaper articles, speaking with specialists and so many more, and you never know which one could lead you to your answer. I learned how to formulate a news story based on information I had and how to make it appealing and interesting to readers. Overall, this has been an eye-opening, informative experience, and I have learned so much about investigative reporting.
As someone who was lucky enough to grow up in an environment devoid of violence and courtrooms, it was both humbling and eye-opening to see firsthand the way in which someone’s life may be decided. I had known it was absolutely possible for a minor to be tried in an adult court for a violent crime of some sort, but I never understood the magnitude of that nor saw how little control he had once he was put into an adult court. My own opinions have changed drastically over the past few months because of this class and what we have experienced. I cannot agree with sentencing a juvenile to life in prison without the possibility of parole, nor can I justify a crime by which to say that, in 50 years from now, a person is the same as he was as a child.
I had the experience of interviewing professionals who speak on topics that I have never encountered before, and I actually had to google half of the jargon to keep up. This experience puts journalism into a different context than what I have learned the previous four years. There are so many more facts, policies, statistics and discretionary decisions than in sports, spot news or weather. In the words we have written, we have been able to intelligibly speak on topics that we wouldn’t have otherwise explored, and the best part was that all of it was interesting enough to us that we actually wanted to learn it. Finding that from a bunch of seniors in college is never easy.
As I was surrounded by so many people unlike myself in the courtroom of the hearing I attended, the words of lawyer Bryan Stevenson (who wrote a book on the cases he dealt with in the juvenile justice system entitled Just Mercy) popped into my head: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” And it’s true. I watched a grown man whose split-second decision had ripped away a mother’s chance to see her son graduate and get married ask her for forgiveness. Of course, what the prisoner did was absolutely awful. He committed the worst act that humanity is capable of. But he was 17. He was raised by an alcoholic father. He witnessed physical and emotional abuse and experienced too many things that no child should go through. And he’s not merely the worst thing he’s ever done.
Throughout the few months I’ve spent in this Investigative Reporting class, I’ve learned that it’s this constant game of back-and-forth within the court system, trying to determine who is right and who is wrong. But there are no winners in these cases, and the arguments are nowhere near as black and white as some people expect them to be. There’s always a sense that more could be done, that we haven’t quite reached where we need to be in terms of criminal justice. This class gave me just the tiniest glimpse into all of this, and I’m grateful to have had my eyes opened to a whole new world that I never would’ve experienced otherwise.
What I got most out the class was the realization that there was a wide world of angles one could take on a story. My assigned juvenile lifer, Robert Bebout, was very different from the others, and I struggled to come up with an effective way to tell his story. A talk I had with Wes Oliver completely changed my view around and gave me the kind of story I needed to tell, which was not at all like the ones the other students told.
Furthermore, this class was the first time I worked on a long-term news story. While I had much experience producing daily or weekly content, I never engaged with a story on this kind of long-term scale, and it taught me a lot on budgeting out time over a long period to work on the project and see it to fruition.
This semester in this Investigative Reporting class, I learned a lot both in personal experiences as well as in an educational sense. This class has made me more open minded. It has made me more interested in the court systems. I learned that in investigative reporting, you have to be consistent; you have to be willing to go outside of your comfort zone when you need to. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the research side of journalism and then applying it to my writing style.
This class was an eye-opener in several regards for me. First, immersing myself into pages and pages of court documents was a great learning experience and something I had never done before. Additionally, combing through hundreds of statistics, research and charts online was very interesting. Every statistic I found made me want to research three more out of curiosity.
I would say one of the biggest challenges during this project was maintaining an unbiased perspective throughout. At first, it was easy to look at these prisoners as amounting to no more than the awful crimes they committed. As we learned more about their stories, however, they became more human. I believe this is a good thing because nobody should be solely defined by the worst thing they've ever done. At this point, though, it was important to not let the pendulum swing too far in the prisoners' favors. Remaining unbiased throughout was a personal challenge, and I think I achieved that.