In the Hot Pursuit of the Cold Facts

By: Sasha Abramsky

“It was the most difficult story the staff has had to tackle. You could see it in their faces. The day of the funeral, we had six reporters right in the field. When they came back, they were just ashen.” Gretchen Putnam, metro editor of The Eagle-Tribune, was reflecting the day after her newspaper beat out larger competitors to win the Pulitzer Prize for breaking-news reporting for its coverage of a local tragedy and its aftermath.

Last year, the breaking-news category was dominated by the vastness of the events associated with Sept. 11, 2001. This year, the Pulitzer judges tacked back, recognizing a hometown paper for coverage of a devastating, but entirely local, event.

The Eagle-Tribune is a small paper in the little town of Lawrence, Mass. Its staff numbers about 80. Sometimes, though, smaller may be better. Sometimes, having an ear to the ground may be as important as having at one’s disposal all the resources of a major metro.

On Dec. 14, a Saturday, four young boys — all of them the sons of migrant families, three Dominican, one Haitian — drowned after a group of seven fell through the ice on the Merrimack River. Larger news organizations erroneously reported that all the boys had been horsing around on the thin ice. The Eagle-Tribune was the first to tell readers that, in fact, only one boy had been playing — the others had fallen in after forming a human daisy chain in an effort to rescue their friend. “I’ve been in the business over 40 years,” says Editor Bill Ketter, who informed his staff that the newspaper would be donating its $7,500 in Pulitzer Prize money to the victims’ families. “I’ve seen my share of tragedy, but this one had a special feel to it. It was a story of heroism, of horror, of grief, of a community reaching out in sympathy.”

From the time reporters and photographers monitoring the local police scanner first got wind of the developing tragedy through the weeks of community mourning that followed, much of the paper’s resources were devoted to the story. Photographers snapped shots of water-drenched firefighters in diving gear, emerging from under the ice and cradling the victims to their chests, and reporters interviewed rescue workers, the boys who survived, family members, community leaders.

These articles were simple, nonsensational. They weren’t exercises in flamboyance. Rather, the content was allowed to speak for itself. And yet, underneath the veneer of simplicity, this was coverage of a series of events that demanded — and was given — journalistic nuance.

“You realize the effect your work can have, especially when there’s a lot of bad information out there,” Managing Editor Alan White says. “There are rumors, incorrect reports. You need to do the hard reporting to get facts and do the story accurately.”

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