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American Magazine: August 2014

I have a picture of me,

I have a picture of me, sitting on the sofa with them, watching the scratchy TV news as their son was freed. I also was mentioned in a New York Times story about media, noting how I was describing phone calls that came in before dawn. I used to ask the parents why they talked; the families just wanted their stories told, to keep their relatives front and center. They grew bolder as time wore on. Mostly I wrote about everything they tossed into keepsake boxes for their son’s return—cards, news clippings, political flyers, pictures, knickknacks the neighbors left. I guess what I wrote was in there, too. This was before cellphones, social media, and the world online. For a while we sent holiday cards but eventually lost touch. Then the parents and I reunited several years ago after finding each other on Facebook. We giggled like relatives, and I was glad I had treated them with respect so long ago. John Sullivan journalist in residence and Washington Post reporter I got hooked on investigative reporting in 1995. I had recently quit my job selling title insurance to banks and was working for free at the Chicago Reporter. After a few months, my editor, Tom Corfman, assigned me to gather data for a story on hate crimes, an annual roundup of reported bias-motivated crimes throughout the city and suburbs. As I set out to gather the data, I discovered that the Illinois State Police officers were breaking the law by failing to track hate crimes. The new computer system they had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on was plagued by glitches that made electronic collection of the data impossible. But instead of reverting to the old paper system, state police just ignored them. 26 AMERICAN MAGAZINE AUGUST 2014 In the meantime, using data we gathered from the Chicago Police Department, Tom taught me how to analyze data using FoxPro for DOS. It was a revelation to see how one reporter with the right tools could produce such a detailed and revealing analysis. Public reaction to the story and the failure to track crimes was strong, and I was asked to appear on an hour-long drivetime show on Chicago’s public radio affiliate. U.S. senator Paul Simon, who had sponsored a federal law mandating collection (a separate state law mandated the state police to collect the data), weighed in to lament his state’s performance. Local papers published blurbs about the story, and soon the state police vowed to gather the statistics on hate crimes. I realized then the power of the press to set right a wrong. I saw firsthand how powerful data-driven stories could be. The next year I set off for the University of Missouri and the National Institute for Computer–Assisted Reporting. I’m still amazed at the power reporters have to force leaders and the public to confront the failings of government to protect the most vulnerable. It’s the most rewarding job there is. I suspected it then, but I know it now. Bill Gentile journalist in residence and director, Backpack Journalism Project I worked as a photographer for Newsweek for quite a few years. When the Persian Gulf War started, they sent me to the region on two occasions for about two months apiece. At the time of the U.S. invasion, I was in a pool with the 101st Airborne Division, whose mission at the onset of the war was to fly into Iraq and cut off Saddam Hussein’s troops, who would flee from Kuwait back into Iraq. I was part of the first wave of helicopters that flew into Iraq from Saudi Arabia. These guys had to fly about 100 feet off the ground at 100 miles an hour so that they wouldn’t be detected. On the morning of the invasion, I and a few other journalists were spread out among the helicopters, which were sitting like giant insects with their blades drooping down. I was standing out on the tarmac with American forces, the sun coming up, and one of the commanders was listening to BBC on a small radio. It was an intense scene—some of the soldiers were openly praying, making the sign of the cross. No one knew what to expect. In a thick British accent, the BBC announcer said, “And the onslaught has begun.” They had word that the first ground troops had moved in. “And the onslaught has begun.” I’ll never forget it—it still sends chills up my neck. It occurred to me at that time, what an extraordinary opportunity it was for me to witness and participate in these historic events. To me that’s one of the most powerful draws of journalism. Brigitta Blair CAS/BA ’16 Journey is unlike any video game I have ever played. I discovered it through Flower, a video game in which you pick up flower petals by controlling the wind. Flower was shown at the Smithsonian’s The Art of Video Games exhibit in 2012 and instantly caught my eye. After doing some research, I discovered Journey was made by the same company as Flower, and within the next few days, I bought a PS3 to play for myself. The objective of Journey is to get to a mountain far in the distance without any knowledge of why you need to get there. Your character, a genderless cloaked creature with black pointy legs and a scarf, appears to be the only creature of its kind in what starts out as a desert. After exploring for a while, you eventually encounter another character who looks just like you. This character isn’t just another character in the game, though— it’s an anonymous player. Your experience in this world is affected by how you interact with this other player. Working together can lead you to new areas and regenerate health,

while turning your back can leave you more vulnerable to enemy attacks. Journey was the first video game that showed me how gameplay didn’t have to involve violence and the first game that moved me without the use of written text. Instead, Journey uses visuals, sounds, and interactions. This was the game that sparked my interest in games that tell stories. So many game designers rely heavily on written text above other methods to communicate their message. Although it’s by no means a bad thing, it’s not the only way to get an idea across. Body language, images, color, size, style—they all tell stories in their own way. Rachel Boehm SOC/MA ’11, communications manager, Consumer Specialty Products Association In 2008 I stumbled across a magazine article on dying languages. One of the languages listed, Wendish, is connected with Serbin, Texas, an unincorporated town not too far from Austin, where I am from and where I was living at the time. I love languages and words; I’ve been a storyteller my entire life. I also love history and culture, so I was amazed that I had never heard of the Texas Wends or their efforts to preserve their language and culture. The word “Serbin” means Wendish land, and the town was founded in 1855 by a group of about 500 Wends who fled their native Lusatia to escape Germanification and religious persecution. Their settlement flourished for a time, but eventually the Texas Wends were absorbed into the German Texan culture. At the time I interviewed volunteers of the Texas Wendish Heritage Society, few if any descendants remained who could speak the Wendish language, though recordings allow people to hear it. Traditions, however, remain alive. I learned that certain egg noodles, Easter egg decorating techniques, and other traditions can be traced back to the Wends. When I was able to place an article in the Hill Country Sun telling the story of the Texas Wends and the heritage society’s efforts to spread awareness, I, and they, were thrilled. I’ve told many stories over the years, but few have evolved as organically and touched me as personally as the story of this hidden gem in my own backyard. Lillian Skye Noble SOC/BA ’16 My first year on staff with tb two, a newspaper for high school students published by the Tampa Bay Times, I was attending an annual music festival called Next Big Thing. While I was there representing the paper and inviting attendees to stop by our booth, I also walked around, listening to music and visiting different vendors. There was a booth near ours called To Write Love on Her Arms, which is a nonprofit that helps people struggling with depression. Inside the tent was a wall where people anonymously jotted down their fears and dreams. Some of the fears included codependent relationships, and some of the dreams were graduating high school, loving your body, inspiring others. As I was reading them, I realized that everything on that wall had a story behind it. I decided to talk to one of the girls who had just finished posting on the wall. I explained that I wrote for the local paper, and she opened up about her life. Her name was Sydney, and her greatest fear was relapsing into what she used to be—someone without hope. She had thoughts of suicide. She had a tattoo on her wrist of the word “love,” to remind her that she was loved and she should love herself. It also was a reminder for her to stay strong, even when her life gets difficult. Her greatest dream was to tell her life story to keep other people alive. Sydney was my first impromptu interview. I didn’t know her, I hadn’t meticulously mapped out my questions. I only knew that I wanted to learn more about her. Talking to her showed me that there are so many amazing stories unfolding around us every day. Dan Merica SOC/MA ’11, CNN associate producer While I was a student at AU, I covered a story at D.C. Central Kitchen, a nonprofit that, among other things, trains former inmates and homeless people to get their food handler’s license. I went to cover the program but quickly realized an abundance of other stories in the kitchen. One such story was Dawain Arrington, a kitchen manager and graduate of the program who had served time in jail for murder. I was fascinated by his story. He’s a tall, good-looking guy, who was 38 years old at the time. He had a presence in the room and a good relationship with all the people there. So I came back and spent the day with him. He took me to a crime-ridden neighborhood called Eastgate in D.C., where he grew up. He showed me the place where he sold drugs for the first time and where he was arrested when he was 14. He then told me what landed him in jail. Standing at the scene of the crime, Arrington told me about how he was at the parking lot where a young man was killed. He was charged with the murder. He got out at the age of 32 on a technicality, and at that moment he turned his life around. He struggled, at first, with life on the outside. And then he found D.C. Central Kitchen. I could tell it meant a lot to him to tell his story, and it was very moving for me. It showed me that stories aren’t just about people who are powerful or people you know by name. Some amazing stories are about people you’ve never heard of, and Arrington was a perfect example. FOR MORE SOC STORIES, VISIT OUR BLOG, SIDEBAR, AT AMERICANMAG.BLOGS.AMERICAN.EDU. FOLLOW US @AU_AMERICANMAG 27