Assignment: Learning to tell fuller stories


A college student is given a first glimpse at one of the challenges of reentry: fear of reincarceration.

In the final weeks of this divisive presidential campaign, I sat in the lounge in the student union researching a Black man who had had his guilty verdict and 30-year jail sentence overturned.  His name is Isaac Anderson and he was accused of hitting a police vehicle head-on after an officer stopped him because the car he was driving was allegedly stolen.

chris-barron-headshotWhile I pored over Orlando Sentinel articles, the television in the lounge broadcast one of Donald Trump’s rallies.  The “Law and Order Candidate” talked about respect for police officers and praised the use of stop-and-frisk, even after it has been proven to target African Americans.

I took notes on Isaac Anderson’s case, and wrote down the questions that swirled about in my head.

Why did he flee from the police unless he was guilty of something? Why was he driving a car that was reported stolen?  Why would his sentence be 30 years unless he was a truly bad man?

The next day, David Frakt, the man who helped overturn Anderson’s guilty verdict walked into my class to answer our questions.  Frakt leaned back in his chair and began casually telling us Anderson’s story.

Anderson, who had just recently gotten out of prison, ran from police because of a Florida law that says if a repeat offender is convicted of a felony, the mandatory sentence is 30 years, no matter the crime. Anderson was fleeing because the next 30 years of his life were at stake.

Frakt explained that Anderson didn’t have his own car because he had just gotten out of prison and was looking for a job, a hard thing to do when you have a criminal record. So he borrowed the car of a man who rents out his car for money (probably for drugs).  The man who owned the car reported it stolen — Frakt guesses he was so high that he forgot he had lent it to Anderson..

What I realized from this experience is that there is a great deal information we never get.  We wonder why those stopped by police can’t simply comply. But it could be because of the riptide of recidivism… Once you go to prison, it is almost impossible to stay out. If I hadn’t had the chance to interview Frakt, I wouldn’t have started to wonder about this.

It is easy to understand why so many believe we need more “Law and Order,” but there are clearly flaws in the system. That’s why solutions journalism is important — to identify the issues but also to begin to examine possible solutions.

We need to tell full stories. We need to tell the truth and find out what helps. Until every voice is heard and every problem has a solution, our jobs as journalists will not end.

Guest blogger Chris Barron is a student at Muhlenberg College in Allentown where journalism professors Sara Vigneri and Aggie Ebrahimi Bazaz are introducing their students to Solutions Journalism and the challenges of recidivism and reentry.