Outlet: York Daily Record
Journalist: York Daily Record/York Sunday News staff
Rebecca LeFever, Rick Lee and Mike Argento of the York Daily Record/York Sunday News won a February DFMie for a project on teenagers sentence to life in prison. The Life, Imprisoned series was named February’s best for the Pennsylvania/New Jersey/West Virginia cluster.
Editor Jim McClure explained the project in his nomination:
It was big news when the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to sentence a juvenile convicted of murder to life in prison without parole. But no one knew how what that ruling would mean — if anything — to people already serving that sentence. We wanted to find out what they were thinking. We made a list of York County’s juvenile lifers and wrote to them in prison. A few wrote back and said they’d be willing to talk. Reporters started setting up interviews — the classic super-slo-mo process of dealing with state prison, visitors’ lists and so on. Eventually we got our time with four men who’d been jailed since they were boys. In our series “Life, imprisoned,” the men revealed who they are now, and what they thought about who they were then. We set up the series around the question: Will some of them get a second chance? But our treatment portrayed them as human beings — not as causes to rally around, or outcasts to be condemned.
Judges praised the project:
This project is what great journalism should be: easy to read, difficult to take and impossible to put down. It takes up where a lot of other organizations’ work probably ended, putting a startlingly human face on a thorny public policy issue and compelling the reader to think about the topic in new ways. The reporting doubtlessly involved single-minded perseverance, as dealing with any prison system usually does. The writing is crisp, even terse, as the material demands.
The work by the York staff was exemplary and represented Journalism with a capital J. The series did a wonderful job of breaking down a complex Supreme Court ruling into evocative elements that connected with readers. While the stories center on a common theme, each stands on its own as compelling and well-written. Based on comments posted by readers, the series spurred debates about the justice system and conversations about the choices made in life. The work obviously requiring dogged determination locate the inmates and arrange the interviews, and the reporters should be commended for their persistence.
Teen lifers is the type of enterprise journalism every reporter wants to do. It tells the story of an under-served and often voiceless community while doing a public service and discussing an important issue that otherwise may have gone unnoticed. It was a reporting trifecta. A story like this is difficult to write and approach for a reporter. As outlined in their entry, the reporters didn’t treat these prisoners as victims, tragic heroes, or candidates for redemption. Instead, they were portrayed exactly as they are: People who committed severe crimes who are suddenly faced with the idea and the dream of freedom. The reporters’ deft ability to tell these stories while remaining objective allows the reader to subtly ponder – without being directly told or consumed with the topic – one of the eternal questions of the justice system: Is justice best served as punishment, rehabilitation or both? Digitally, the story was presented simply – if not overly so – with the stories and an artist’s portrayal as art. It would have been nice, if available, if there any old stories or documents related to the prisoner’s original crimes.
We’ve started awarding DFMies as staff prizes (a party for the newsroom) when more than two staff members are involved. But the York editors asked to make this an award for the three reporters and split the prize money among them, so we are doing that.
Other finalists in the Pennsylvania/New Jersey/West Virginia cluster were Black History Month projects by Ryan Blackwell and Sonya Paclob of the Public Opinion in Chambersburg, Pa., and Amy Stansbury of the Evening Sun in Hanover, Pa.