Newspaper reporters tell the stories behind their stories

Kids killed in Washington, D.C.'s foster care system. Native Americans in Washington state robbed by their own government. Immigrant teens finding their way at an East Baltimore high school. Powerless all — until newspaper stories gave them voices.

The three journalists who wrote these stories gave a behind-the-scenes look at their efforts during a panel discussion Tuesday evening at The Baltimore Sun.


"I couldn't set this down," Deborah Nelson said of her work for the Seattle Times showing corruption in the U.S. government's Indian housing program. It won a Pulitzer Prize in 1997. Nelson, now a freelance journalist and associate professor of investigative journalism at the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism, said there will always be stories to tell about marginalized and powerless people. It's up to each generation of journalists to find those stories.

"We passed the torch," she said. "The problems we write about don't go away."


The discussion was the first of four panels convened by The Baltimore Sun and the Maryland Humanities Council commemorating 100 years of the Pulitzer Prizes, the top awards in the field of journalism. The panel on Tuesday was titled "Voice of the Powerless."

Another journalist, Sun education reporter Liz Bowie, wrote a series last year called "Unsettled Journeys" that used the stories of three teens at Patterson High School in East Baltimore to illustrate how immigrants navigate new lives in the United States despite language and cultural barriers and past trauma.

The third journalist was Washington Post reporter Scott Higham, who was part of a team that won a Pulitzer in 2002 for an investigation into the deaths of dozens of foster children in the nation's capital. Higham said his series began with an anonymous tip about a 2 year-old girl who was murdered after she was returned to a previously abusive mother and "beaten to death with a shoe for being fussy."

Higham said the last story of the four-part series was published on Sept. 12, 2001, the day after the 9/11 attacks. He feared the story would have less impact, but instead a powerful congressman held hearings that led to widespread changes in Washington's child protective care system.

Such stories can be painful to read and even harder to report, but the journalists said the results were widespread changes in leadership positions and even laws, as well as public understanding — impacts that ought to be widely recognized, said Phoebe Stein, executive director of the Humanities Council.

The discussion and the yearlong commemoration of journalism "seeks to illuminate the impact of journalism," she said.

The Pulitzer stories can be read online at and Unsettled Journeys can be read at

The next panels are March 29, focusing on war, veterans and national security; April 19 centering on challenges facing Baltimore; and May 10 focusing on the environment. All discussions are free and held at The Baltimore Sun's Calvert Street offices.


If You Go

7 p.m. Tuesday, March 29: War/Veterans/National Security

Dan Fesperman, former war correspondent, The Baltimore Sun

David Wood, The Huffington Post (Pulitzer 2012)

7 p.m. Tuesday, April 19: Challenges Faced by Baltimore


Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun

Erica Green, The Baltimore Sun

Diana Sugg, The Baltimore Sun (Pulitzer 2003)

E.R. Shipp, Morgan State University (Pulitzer 1996)

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7 p.m. Tuesday, May 10: The Environment

McKay Jenkins, University of Delaware


Will Englund, The Washington Post (Pulitzer 1998)

Elizabeth McGowan, Energy Intelligence (Pulitzer 2013)

John McQuaid, Forbes Magazine (Pulitzer 1997,2006)

Where: The Baltimore Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore

Cost: Free