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A lucky break after long hours for two reporters' series on childhood trauma

A lucky break after long hours for two reporters' series on childhood trauma

Two reporters do the work it takes to get lucky for series on childhood trauma in New Orleans

It was after the first night of our trip to California, sitting at the bar next to our hotel, that Rich Webster and I started to panic.

We had just left the welcome dinner for the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2017 National Fellowship. Cary Aspinwall from The Dallas Morning News was the evening’s keynote speaker, sharing insight on her project from last year’s fellowship, an engrossing investigation on what happens to children when their mothers are held in jail. 

Each of the 2017 fellows gave brief summaries of the story ideas that got them here. Their pitches were so well constructed — the topics important and often unexamined. They would surely produce impactful pieces of journalism. As Rich and I quickly realized by our second round of drinks, they exposed the uphill climb we faced when we returned to New Orleans.

We had both been crime reporters for NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune, in a city that perennially tops lists of per-capita violence. That means we’ve been to more crime scenes than we’d care to count. Among the many troubling sights we had noticed at New Orleans crime scenes is how often children are present just outside the yellow police tape. We wanted to really explore how that exposure to violence affects these most innocent bystanders, the lasting damage it causes and what — if anything — is being done to help them.

Our idea was to focus on one neighborhood in New Orleans: Central City. In a city full of history and cultural significance, Central City is among its richest. This is where jazz pioneers like Buddy Bolden and Kid Ory were born, where Mardi Gras Indians prep for Super Sunday and where the city’s civil rights movement took hold. It’s also one of the city’s most violent and impoverished areas. We, like so many media outlets limited by time and resources, had too often been guilty of parachuting in for a story and leaving after the last interview was done.

We were determined to do more. But our topic was admittedly too broad and unpolished. We needed a focus, a narrative thread to tie it all together.

We started by getting out of our newsroom. As recipients of a community engagement grant from the fellowship, we were able to rent temporary office space in Apex Youth Center on Toledano Street, opening a temporary Central City bureau on the second floor of the former Catholic school.

For the first couple weeks, we did nothing but call people in the neighborhood: nonprofit leaders, pastors, people we knew lived or had lived in Central City. We introduced ourselves and told them our idea. Then we shut up and let them tell us what they thought the issues were. Where had other attempts to take on this topic fallen short? What did they hope we accomplished? What should we avoid? Who else do we need to reach?

We heard from people proud of their neighborhood and wary of it being portrayed as hopeless — but also concerned about the seemingly intractable violence and poverty that threaten to snuff out hard-earned progress. There were smaller but equally important lessons gleaned from those early conversations. One nonprofit leader told us to avoid making one child the focus of our efforts. It had been done before, she warned us, and it did little but add to that child’s trauma.

One day, in a conversation with Wild Magnolias Indian Chief Bo Dollis Jr., we were introduced to Edgarson Shawn Scott, head coach of a youth football team of 9- and 10-year-old boys based out of one of Central City’s main public parks: A.L. Davis, named after one of the city’s civil rights heroes.

After spending just a few minutes with the team, we knew we had stumbled into exactly what we needed to properly tell the story of children and trauma: an incredible narrative hook that presented opportunities for photos and video. It was perfect.

All great stories, the ones that truly have an impact, create an emotional connection with the reader. This team allowed us to do exactly that — to connect with people who might not otherwise care about poor, black kids in violent neighborhoods.

We knew that when readers saw photos of 9- and 10-year old boys in big pads and football helmets, or watched videos of them having fun, running around the field, laughing and goofing off, they would be able see their own children or themselves as kids. Football created that universal connection.

It also allowed us to frame what is a difficult and often tragic subject in a hopeful context: a story about dedicated parents putting together a team, doing everything they can, to keep their children happy, healthy and safe.

From there we formed a core team that consisted of Jonathan and myself, along with photographer Brett Duke and videographer Emma Scott. We went to every practice, five nights a week, in addition to attending weekend games. We interviewed parents, coaches, current players and former players, along with mental health experts.

The result was a multimedia project entitled, “The Children of Central City,” which included eight stories, both features and investigative, an 18-minute documentary, and nearly a dozen short videos, including an illustrated explainer on the science of trauma. There are also dozens of photos, including individual portraits of every member of the team.

The project prompted greater discussion about the impact of childhood trauma and spurred real change. After publication, the United Way organized a screening of the documentary, which was attended by city council members, the state’s first lady, legislators and the mayor of New Orleans. The City Council then passed two resolutions calling for the expansion of trauma-informed care in schools and the community.

In addition, the documentary was accepted into the New Orleans Film Festival and a festival organized by the American Film Institute and NBC’s Meet the Press.

The entire process, from the moment we hit the ground in Central City to publication, took roughly 10 months. Reflecting on that time, there is one lesson we learned that truly sticks out: Be overly ambitious.

Why not get a temporary office in the community you’re reporting on? Why not do dozens of videos or a 20-minute documentary? Why not find a new and unique way to present your stories? Why settle for the norm?

When presented with an opportunity like this, you need to erase all limitations and just ask yourself, “Why not?” And go for it.

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The deadline is Friday, December 14, to apply for the 2019 California Fellowship, which provides $1,000 reporting grants and six months of expert mentoring to 20 journalists, community engagement grants of up to $2,000, specialized mentoring, to five.  

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