March 22, 2008


Mixed feelings

After being skunked in last year's competition, I was happy to hear of my being bestowed with two Georgia Press Association Awards this year. For our division (like 'Q' or something way down the alphabet for tiny twice-weeklies) I received third place for feature writing, which I consider my strong suit, and first place for investigative reporting, by which I was pleasantly surprised but also feel a bit awkward - more on that in a minute.

First, a small paper doesn't usually have the kind of budget to pay its reporters for long hours on a deep story, but I had the responsibility for covering one subject that was major news in our area for months (and still has a way to go toward resolution and possible closure, if at all). The story, and I hate using that term for someone's real life tragedy, is about a local 911 dispatcher who disappeared and how her cop husband (soon to be ex) became the prime suspect. He was indeed recently charged with her murder despite authorities not having found her body. Lots of intrigue, including another cop buddy charged with lying to authorities and hacking into the woman's computer, and the hubby losing his job after they found C-4 explosive in his work locker. I wrote several articles throughout the months following her disappearance on search efforts, family and friends holding community vigils, and a renowned forensic psychologist who analyzed a very unsettling television interview that the husband gave. The case drew national attention for a while and I appeared (or my voice did) on both CNN's Nancy Grace Show and Fox's On The Record with Greta Van Susteren. Heady times for an ex-welder who had tossed his hat into the journalism game a mere two years prior.

But the accolade comes bittersweetly, and even more so with the fact that I was informed of my achievement one year to the day that the missing and likely murdered woman was last seen by her family. It has been the most difficult assignment in my short career to talk, on several occasions, with members of that grieving family, and frankly it's been impossible to remain neutral in the face of such grief coupled with much strong circumstantial evidence against the husband. I do not aspire to be an investigative reporter - I only submitted the three articles required for the competition because they were eligible and I had worked hard on them. Congratulations seem a bit off-kilter in the light of what the woman's family is going through. It was especially poignant that my own sister passed away rather suddenly during the peak of all this, because I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to go see her one last time. This family that I came to know, and the community she lived and worked in, didn't get that chance. And by all accounts their daughter, sister, aunt and friend was a wonderful, kind and caring person that certainly deserved better than being rubbed out and discarded in some unorthodox, anonymous grave. I will hang the plaque on my wall like it is designed to be - a recognition. But it will also act as another reminder of just how fleeting life can be in this all-too-often mean and cold world, one that I cannot say as a reporter that I am glad to be a part of.

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Congratulations all the same. It's important to do the things you're doing, and it's even more important to do them as well as you did. Sure, it's not a pleasant feeling to be digging around in other people's grief, but there is a point to it. The jury recognised that, and I think you should shut up and accept they know what they're doing better than you do.

Well done on both counts.
Thanks all.

Grapes, I suppose you are correct. I have only the vaguest idea what goes through the judges' minds. It's not all about me - there is presentation and editing that they consider as well. So I will shutup, but the award will always have that emotional asterisk upon it.
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