I am a prize-winning investigative journalist, narrative writer and college teacher, specializing in telling complex stories in human terms. My most recent work includes a multimedia documentary about the Yadkin River and the people whose lives are shaped by its currents. My work has been recognized by The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, Investigative Reporters and Editors, the Society of Professional Journalists, Columbia University and the North Carolina Press Association and featured in the HBO documentary The Trials of Darryl Hunt. More importantly, my work engages readers in issues large and small.
I grew up in New York City and spent my college years at the University of Chicago, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1982. I discovered a love of stories in the chaos of the university’s hospital emergency room, where I worked the front desk on weekend nights. I graduated from the Journalism School at Columbia University in 1987 with a master’s degree and landed my first full-time newspaper job that summer in the Davidson County Bureau of the Winston-Salem Journal.
I spent more than 20 remarkable years at the Journal learning the journalist’s craft. I wrote about crime and politics, declining industries and medical research. And I developed expertise in criminal justice, health and medicine, economics, race and the ways in which economic flux affects communities.
The paper gave me the freedom to dig deep and I did. I wrote about high rates of infant mortality in a city that prided itself on its medical center and about the intractable issues of race and class. I was the newspaper’s metro-columnist for three years, a job I loved because I was able to give voice to so many people in my corner of the world.
In 2003, I wrote an eight-part investigative series about a case of wrongful conviction in a murder, a case that had come to define so much about the city’s race relations. The victim was a beautiful young copy editor at what was then the afternoon paper. And she was white. The accused was an unemployed teenager, just 19, named Darryl Hunt. And he was black.
I wrote the story as a narrative, which allowed many readers who were familiar with the case to see the facts in a new light. A month after the stories ran, DNA evidence led to Hunt’s release from prison. He was exonerated two months later.
The story was featured in the HBO documentary The Trials of Darryl Hunt and won numerous awards, including the Paul Tobenkin award from Columbia University, where judges said: “The Journal’s series, which helped gain the release of Hunt and the subsequent arrest of Willard Brown for the 20-year-old murder of Deborah Sykes, epitomizes the best of what journalism has to offer. The Tobenkin is the highest award the school can bestow on a newspaper for the coverage of racial intolerance, hate crimes or discrimination.”
The newspaper kept me on the justice beat. I went on to write about another innocence claim, by a man whose conviction in the near-fatal beating of a pregnant store clerk was based on shoddy police work and the testimony of a severely brain-damaged victim. That case is under review now by a citizens’ committee appointed by the city council. I also wrote about the misuse of science in criminal prosecutions, including mistaken identifications through faulty DNA analysis.
I spent my last year at the Journal as state editor with a staff of six. I supervised the newspaper’s coverage of the 2008 presidential primary while managing the newspaper’s coverage of the state capital and an eight-county region. I also kept a hand in project work, editing a five-part series and multimedia production about a triple homicide at a remote Christmas tree farm.
I decided to leave the Journal in 2008, as the newsroom that had been my home for so long began a painful series of layoffs that no newsroom in the country has managed to escape. I felt it was time for me to find new audiences and new ways of telling human stories. For example, in 2009 I wrote about the failure of the justice system to protect victims of domestic violence, published by O, The Oprah Magazine. I teach the craft of writing to college freshmen at Wake Forest University, where I am an associate professor of the practice in the English Department. I also teach journalism. And I continue to write about the issues that matter to me, for magazines, foundations, non-profits and businesses in the belief that stories told with passion and honesty can change lives.