This story is my most read post and the most interesting account I’ve heard that doesn’t have anything to do with a violent crime. I spoke with Crystal Sweigart for nearly three hours and walked away changed by how honest she was willing to be without any fear of judgement. Legally Sweigart is wrong but how she presented her story made me understand her state of being to some extent, which helped me write a story that I hope had the same impact on readers. Helping readers understand is my goal with every story, but with that much openness for such a relatively short story was a chance to make a difference on a daily level.
The Women’s March ended up being one of the biggest demonstrations in my lifetime and I got to cover it in a really cool way. Being able to write about what went on at the, as well as the journey of a busload of Lancaster County resident was a humbling experience. On a personal note, I had written about protests in Washington, DC as an intern with The Washington Post, but those experiences didn’t prepare me for January’s monumental march. It felt more like the Independence Day celebration than a protest, in terms of the sheer volume of people. There were a few logistical issues that made the experience less than ideal from a digital storytelling perspective, which was the original plan. Still, I had a great opportunity to share the story from a blue state that voted for President Donald Trump, yet from the perspective of a county that is typically conservative. I wrote about a specific conservative group targeted voters during election season when a political action committee tasked with getting out the Amish vote was another part of the voting issue I covered in Lancaster County, and had some prior knowledge of the larger political landscape on one side. The Women’s March gave me the platform to share a different perspective of about 40 percent of the County’s population, as well as from a three-generation group who went to the March from Harrisburg.
When the Nickel Mines shooting happened Oct. 2, 2006, I was out of school, working a temporary job and completely unsure of where life was taking me. I mention this to say I knew very little about this incident and the shockwave it sent across the country, and was still a bit clueless even in getting the assignment to cover the anniversary of the tragedy. I did a substantive amount of reading on the incident before even speaking with anyone about the shooting and its lingeringe impact 10 years later, which I think led to a good story with interesting perspective. I was shocked to read that the Amish forgave and did so almost instantly and that heavily influenced my lines of questioning. That’s important to know because the Amish didn’t immediately forgive and it was a yearslong process for several of the families as I discovered. In speaking with two fathers I was able to convey how difficult the process of forgiveness was and how choosing to forgive meant therapy, compassion and work to move towards healing. The story was also motivational to me in understanding how to forgive things in my own life as I struggle to find my way.
A typical shooting scene has a certain tenor to it. Rumors always run wild and people will tell you things that will likely never be confirmed by officials or addressed on the record. This shooting had a lot of that, and the next day the mother came out and directly refuted the police account of the shooting narrative. The tension I reported stemmed directly from word circulating around the neighborhood, on Facebook and from national police-involved killings involving black people. I have no idea how this case will play out, but it was clear from the beginning that this story would be different.
It’s important not to lose the people impacted by crime and punishment, especially in the wake of police-involved shootings. In the death of David Kassick at the hands of Lisa Mearkle, a Hummelstown police officer at the time of the shooting, I followed many of the events in the case. From the feelings in the immediate aftermath, to emotional reactions prior to charges being filed against Mearkle, a curious pig roast to raise money for Mearkle’s defense fund, and the Dauphin County District Attorney’s ruling on the killing, I covered one of the more important stories to Central Pennsylvania and the larger national discussion about law enforcement response.
Serendipity is a regular part of my better stories. Something will good from good to great or average to good, as this story did, based on one detail. A the nation protested on behalf of Black Lives Matter, Harrisburg remembered its last victim of a police killing in questionable circumstances. I don’t think even the organizers know relatives of Adeleno Oliver-Horton would be at the rally. As such I was able to localize the story to Pennsylvania and it ended up getting picked up by the AP and spread across the state. I was also subsequently able to follow the movement in Harrisburg, dubbed This Stops Today Harrisburg. I spent a week with organizers seeing and profiled them in a piece. I also covered the group’s demonstration at the Pennsylvania Farm Show, probably the biggest annual event in the midstate and largely attended by a white audience.
Karlie Hall’s death at the hands of her boyfriend, Gregorio Orrostieta, was extremely tragic and really had an impact my approach to journalism. Hall died in her dorm room at the hands of a domestic abuser, marking the first homicide at Millersville University. I covered this story from the immediate aftermath, to the Lancaster County District Attorney’s news conference about the charges. I also covered Orrostieta’s two-week trial and the lengthy sentencing hearing where family members shared their sorrow with the judge in asking for the harshest legal penalty. Being a small part of a case for more than a year shifted the way I look at covering crimes and the collateral impact it has on families and communities, especially smaller ones where such violence is less likely.
Medard Kowalski’s disappearance on the Susquehanna River became one of the top headlines in Central Pennsylvania for months. There was a shift in PennLive’s coverage after this story, hearing from the rescuers, and understanding the motivation behind the extensive search in chilly conditions. New Cumberland River rescuers were much more responsive to our questions and requests after having that headline. Not too long after this story, I rode along with river rescue to get a firsthand experience. I also covered several other parts of the search, including chasing after reports of what ended up being a buoy Christmas 2014.
The last place one would expect to see a fight is a courtroom. Unfortunately a brawl broke out right in front of me while I was covering a trial. So much went on within about three minutes worth of time and there still was a trial to cover. Ultimately the victims’ brother was held in contempt of court for the attack and the defendant tired to carry a sympathetic persona the remainder of the trial. That strategy didn’t work and he was sentenced to life in prison for the brutal slaying of the mother of his children.
Journalists shouldn’t look at murder victims as statistics. I don’t think I’ll ever forget this story because it cemented why that fact is so important. A little boy who lost his dad doesn’t understand why his father won’t come home again. He also doesn’t care about the 17th homicide in his city. More than that, the community doesn’t want to see itself represented in such a negative light or dwell on a murder by the numbers.
Stories like this aren’t groundbreaking or going to win any awards, my approach in instances like this is to be a straightforward as possible and hopefully show people want to find solutions to violence in their communities. Also that the media is willing to listen and not twist words. The one member of the American Legion or the community who would talk to me took about an hour of softening, and literally reading back what I was going to quote or paraphrase him as saying. One of the biggest complaints I see about the media is having words twisted or comment taken out of context. For public officials and people who regularly deal with the media, it’s generally a cop out. With laypeople, I do think it’s a real concern, so I take go out of my way to make sure people know what they will be reported as saying before it’s said. I wouldn’t do that for say the Lancaster County District Attorney because we have a rapport and he can hold me accountable in a way the Earl Gosheas of the world can’t. It’s small but it makes a difference.
We don’t get to collaborate much at PennLive because of the setup with page views and who gets credit for what on a story. Usually when “working with” other reporters, I’ll take a part of a story or will end up tweeting or capturing video. In this case, I got to work with Christine Vendel and share a byline for an interesting daily story on a multi-layered issue. Seeing how Christine works was instructive as much as it was fun to tag team the topic. Ultimately we came away with something that hopefully helped people think of a woman who likely had serious mental health issues in a new light, rather than this monster who tried to end her child’s life.
Central Pennsylvania tends to have pretty good police forces. They aren’t perfect but in the time I’ve been in the region, there have been plenty of times bad situations have gone well. But that isn’t always the case with police across the nation, or at least with perception, so with this piece I took a look at mounting job pressures from increased duties. I was fortunate enough to get a good mix of local-, state- and national-level police voices, as well as have the speech from President Barack Obama in Dallas to draw from for secondary reaction.
I don’t have a lot to say about this story, other than it was incredibly moving to see how Susquehanna Township Public Safety Director Chief Rob Martin was affected by the actions of his officer and friend. The story was sad all the way around, but to see the pain of a man who works to protect at the actions of someone he served alongside was gut-wrenching.
This story was challenging because I was telling the story of someone who didn’t take the necessary precautions, but lost everything in a fire. People would be sympathetic if it were a house and a family struggling to get by, but this was a tattoo artist who readers said is arrogant. I think the story balanced sympathy and empathy well without excusing the negligence.
Another big topic in Pennsylvania during my tenure at PennLive was the Eric Frein manhunt and subsequent capture by law enforcers. I didn’t get to do much with this story, but the pieces I did were well read and hopefully had a decent contribution to our coverage of the saga. I also got an email from Dog the Bounty Hunter, which is neither here nor there. Another story I wrote during the coverage spoke to how close the search was to people and civilization. I was genuinely shocked that officials were searching for the fugitive within a few miles of a Wal-Mart.
I stumbled across this story while sitting in court waiting on another case to be heard, so it was fascinating to see a case unfold that hadn’t been covered, but was a part of a really important national issue. I felt bad for the woman who was sentenced because she had a bad day and ended up hurting someone unintentionally, it seemed. At the same time the man who was injured was haggard and visibly broken. He looked at least 30 years older than he actually was. I couldn’t even think of words to describe how much older and worse off he looked than what his age would have suggested.
Once again, sitting in the courtroom and listening to other cases paid off in an interesting story. Law enforcement and the community regularly relate their disgust with the way media covers everything so negatively, so I got an opportunity for a bit of a different account.
I remember this story because of how many parishioners and supporters showed up for the hearing. Additionally, I got several emails and comments calling me out for covering the case to begin with. Others were incredulous to the fact that their religious leader could engage in such terrible behavior.