Journalism makes a difference, Express-News editor says
“Assault on Learning” series in the Philadelphia Inquirer won a Pulitzer and sparked reform.
Published: Friday, October 12, 2012
Updated: Friday, October 12, 2012 18:10
Journalism is a career where one can do something positive, make a difference and engage in public service, the Pulitzer-Prize winning editor of the San Antonio Express-News told more than 100 high school and college journalism students Oct. 5.
Mike Leary presented the 34th annual Edith Fox King Journalism Lecture sponsored by this college’s journalism program in visual arts. His talk was part of Charting Your Course, a workshop that drew students and teachers from seven local high schools.
“This day and age, it is never more relevant to have people who are sharp and sophisticated who can interpret what is going on, give it shape and purpose,” he said.
Before joining the Express-News Aug. 6, Leary edited a series “Assault on Learning” for the Philadelphia Inquirer, which won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for public service.
He shared what is required to develop winning, high quality journalism and said he plans to bring the same level of quality reporting to the local newspaper.
Leary explained how the Philadelphia Inquirer spent a year working on the series, which was published beginning March 26, 2011.
His team created a database of more than 30,000 serious incident reports from the previous five years in Philadelphia schools.
“Violence in big city schools is endemic; it’s not a surprise,” he said. “What we found was that in many schools, students were so preoccupied with self-defense and avoiding violence, they could not learn. We saw the administration were indifferent about it.
“We learned police arrested some that were not reported by the schools. We found out schools were suppressing the true level of violence.”
The Inquirer reported that the team interviewed more than 750 teachers and aides on violence and learning.
“The newspaper role is truth teller. If we don’t, frankly who will?” he said.
Sources included juvenile court records, police videos and families of victims.
Leary and the team carefully sought proof to document their findings and spent time planning how to convey their findings to the public.
The first story on a victim included a school police video of a gang of more than a dozen entering a classroom and attacking a female student.
The final article of the series, “Search the Schools,” gives public access to the data acquired, sifted, sorted and analyzed on each school in the city school system.
The team discovered dysfunctional accountability procedures, passive protection of students and administrators minimizing reporting to protect school reputations.
He said the school system’s own investigation corroborated the Philadelphia Inquirer, and administrators and board members were replaced.
He said the duty of reporting serious incidents was removed from school administration and assigned to the police.
School websites began to report every incident to the public.
He said reporting of this depth can be done here also.
“You are fortunate to be where major national issues are at play, which are both national and local for you,” he said.
He said three major topics in and around San Antonio that have national impact are the military’s withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan; the border and immigration; and Eagle Ford shale oil industry.
He said the Express-News interviewed people living in Monterrey who grew up in San Antonio and were deported but found work in call centers for American consumers.
The newspaper is spending considerable resources sending reporters to Monterrey and the border for in-person interviews and newsgathering, he said.
The new Eagle Ford oil field development in South Texas is a game changer in energy production.
He said it is affecting local citizens, incoming workers, schools, infrastructure and the economy.
“You are really fortunate to have that kind of news environment,” he said.
He said local issues are boarding homes for individuals with subsistence income or disabilities, which have no accountability oversight.
Four died in a recent fire.
The Express-News could report this with a short paragraph noting the sad event and say no more, he said.
Reporters learned the disabled tenants received less than $650 a month on disabilityand paid $600 rent.
The Express-News pursued the story further and published the results of their investigation.
He said the city government responded by doing an inventory and finding at least 250 group homes.
“We have a vast underclass of people living in warehouse conditions,” he said. “We have dedicated quite a bit of time to this and will continue to press for it (oversight).”
He told the aspiring journalists where that career could lead them.
“I’ve had a lot of fun in my career, traveled and covered momentous incidents of history. It is a place where you can be a witness to history,” he said.
He was one of two Western reporters in East Germany Nov. 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down.
The Pulitzer Prize was established in 1906 by the will of Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of St. Louis Post-Dispatch and The New York World.
To view the series, visit www.philly.com and search keywords “assault on learning.”