On Monday afternoon, the Pulitzer board awarded the local news reporting prize to an impressive, powerfully written series of stories about the homeless. Each article, each photograph, in this series brought home the incompetence and neglect with which we treat those at the bottom rungs of society’s ladder.
But, for many of us, the surprise in the prize was this: The Pulitzer went to the Tampa Bay Times, which chronicled systematic incompetence and abuse in a Hillsborough County, Florida, homeless-shelter program. The Pulitzer did not go to the New York Times, which spent five days in December meticulously detailing the tribulations of a homeless Brooklyn girl named, simply, Dasani.
I don’t know why Dasani was shut out of not just a Pulitzer, but a nomination from jurors. It did, after all, win a coveted Polk award earlier this year. And though I work just down the hall from the office of Pulitzer Administrator Sig Gissler, I know less about the internal machinations of jurors and board members now than I did when I was a city editor at the Miami Herald in the 1990s. But I do know that many readers found the Dasani story, for all its soaring prose and worthy ambitions, a difficult piece of work.
To understand more about why the piece elicited such strong reactions on both sides, I reached out to about 50 people shortly after the series ended last December. I blind copied them on an email in which I invited them to take part in a private, online discussion about the series. They emailed their thoughts, and I compiled and shared them. We abided by “Chatham House Rules,” which allow quotes to be used—but not the names or affiliations of the people who said them.
The group included journalists, scientists, lawyers, faculty members and a few former and current Columbia students. It also included alumni of the Times, but not current staff, nor any Pulitzer board members.
Why did I pick this story to examine? In part because the Times thought it to be so significant. Its public editor, Margaret Sullivan, called the series “the largest investigation The Times has published all at once in its history.” Moreover, it was stirring up a tremendous reaction, not just among journalists but all around New York City. Indeed, two of Michael Bloomberg’s deputy mayors took to the edit page of the Wall Street Journal to defend their boss’ record on homelessness.
The response to my email was instantaneous and, at times, overwhelming. Some people wrote more than 1,000 words to detail their approval or dismay. A few wrote several times, coming up with new reactions as they read and reread the series, or each other’s comments.
Over two weeks, I shared among our group five long documents filled with comments. At the end, I wrote a compilation of their reactions, along with some of my own thoughts.
Here is an edited version of that final correspondence:
Dear Dasani group,
Your reactions tended to focus on several issues, which I’ll list in what I’d consider ascending order of importance:
1. The omission of Dasani’s last name. Some found it to be like a pebble in your boot on a very long hike. It was mildly irritating at the beginning, and became more and more aggravating as the story went on. Did the Times really believe it could preserve Dasani’s anonymity after photographing her and her family, identifying her homes and school, and spending months in her company? That seems either clueless or disingenuous. And, of course, Dasani’s last name eventually came out—as it almost always does.
2. The length. Even some of the most vigorous proponents found it too long. When I sent the first email, many responded that they hadn’t yet read it, or had stopped reading midway through, because of the daunting word count. And when they did read it to fulfill this assignment they were alternately gratified, annoyed or bored. A good story should leave you wanting more. But much of our group sounded like an Italian family after a long Sunday repast, when they groan, “Basta cosi!”
3. The observer effect. That is, the Times should have disclosed the extent to which its involvement—months of following her every move—affected Dasani’s life. In one case, her family comes into an upscale wine shoppe and Mom gets a few sips; would she have been so welcome without the tagalong NYT team? More importantly, Dasani’s story ends with a gleaming apartment in Harlem; would they have been moved uptown at the end of the series if city bureaucrats didn’t know her family was under the lens of a powerful newspaper? The “observer effect” is a hard thing for a journalist to detect. But it is a question worth asking, especially in a series where the reporter—much to her credit—went to such lengths to provide footnotes and background on her research.
4. The relentless focus on narrative. Why did such a long story give such short shrift to the policies, the politics and the past of how homeless people are treated in New York City? The promise of such depth seemed implicit in its length, its play and its sweep. And so, when the Times left largely untouched the bureaucratic jujitsu that has bedeviled homeless policy for years, some readers felt cheated.
Still, that reaction was more common in responses from journalists than non-journalists. Indeed, some of those who don’t work in the news business came to the story with no expectations that it would, or should, have provided this kind of information, any more than Francis Ford Coppola should have ended Godfather II with a panel discussing 19th-century Sicilian emigration patterns.
5. The risk of the “single story.” In journalism and at Columbia Journalism School, we see a lot of stories in search of characters. That is, editors first decide what the story is, and then reporters search for people to fit the tale that we’ve already constructed.
The biggest risk in these kinds of stories is that they become caricatures of larger and more complex issues. This point is made, powerfully, in a 2009 TED talk by novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. (Video here, transcript here.)
Adichie warned of what she calls “the single story.” She grew up in Nigeria, the middle-class daughter of a professor, and attended college in the US. When she arrived on campus at the age of 19, her American roommate assumed she didn’t know how to use a stove, and that she had learned English as a second language. Her roommate, Adichie says, was relying on the “single story” that most Westerners know of Africa:
“She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way.”
Adichie goes on to say that “the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” [Emphasis mine.]
And so this package, or any narrative that is so long yet is so focused on one character, can turn into what Adichie calls the “single story.” Dasani became the prism through which many New York Times readers view homelessness, poverty, income inequality, and/or the efficacy and empathy of the Bloomberg administration. But no 11-year-old girl, no matter how courageous, no matter how eloquently her story is told, can turn into the vehicle for such complex and difficult issues.
Indeed, within a few weeks after the series ran, Dasani became a prop for city politicians; while newly elected Mayor Bill de Blasio was rolling her out for his inauguration, the city’s public advocate was calling Dasani her “new BFF” and exaggerating her own role in the Times’ series.
Is the Times to blame for that? Not literally, of course. But it is a danger when we produce a story that is both so big and so narrow.
This is less a problem with the story per se and more a problem with the way journalists rely on characters to serve as linchpins for our big pieces. Once we find the right person, the story’s contours gel and, sometimes, calcify. The news organization—wittingly or not— can become the captive of the profilee. And the subjects of our stories, whether they’re pre-adolescents or much older, usually figure that out sooner or later.
It is to the great credit of the Times that it would devote so many resources to this issue, that it could produce a piece that stirred so much reaction and brought to our consciousness this girl and our family. I can’t remember many stories that have delivered on that promise.
But when you are publishing something so massive, and so ambitious, the paper owes its readers something more than a single story.