What We’ve Learned: Homicide Watch DC’s Student Reporting Lab

This time last year we were closing in on the one-week mark for a Kickstarter campaign to keep Homicide Watch DC alive. I was about to embark on a Nieman-Berkman fellowship at Harvard, and without me present in DC it was unclear how the site was going to continue publishing. It was a nail-bitting moment.

I wrote:

Working on this beat in DC has been so incredibly meaningful for me that I can not adequately express my gratitude to you for taking part in this experiment. Together we have changed the face of crime reporting and told the world that the common news values for violent crime reporting are wrong. We have said, together, with one voice, that how people live and die here, and how those deaths are recognized, matters to every one of us.

In an effort to continue this valuable work we are seeking to transform Homicide Watch DC into a student reporting lab. We need $40,000 to do it, and we hope you will help us.

More than one thousand people answered that call, raising $47,450.

Our paid interns have included: Sam Pearson, Penny Ray, Jonah Newman, Vanya Mehta, Ivan Natividad, and Megan Arellano. They are among the brightest young professionals I know and it has been a privilege to work with them.

What they have accomplished in running Homicide Watch DC has been nothing short of remarkable. Traffic and audience engagement have grown, yes, but they’ve also expanded the core competencies of what Homicide Watch DC does, adding day-in-day-out coverage of trials, creating new ways of checking data, and building more feature work into our coverage.

Watching them, mentoring them and being mentored by them, helped me realize something I had no way of understanding when I was leaving Homicide Watch DC: that handing your best work over to the next generation, and watching them make it shine, is a joy unlike any other.

And this is why Homicide Watch DC’s student reporting lab is a project I am committed to continuing.

Although we are wrapping-up the Kickstarter-funded portion of this experiment in October, we are going into another hiring round looking for fall semester interns.

These students will be responsible for the daily reporting operations of the site, as well as the bulk of the work on our annual year-in-review package, bringing you in-depth information looking back on the year in homicides, and ahead on the year-to-come.

If you are a student and are interested in working with us, send your resume, clips, and a letter of recommendation to laura@homicidewatch.org before September 1.

And, if you are one of our valued community-members, consider a PayPal donation to help us continue this project. Use the yellow donate button on the right side bar.

If you need more convincing, to either apply for one of our spots, or to help us in continuing this work, consider the following testimonials from some of our interns, below.

From Jonah Newman:

The common thread linking all of the things I learned during my time at Homicide Watch is that none of them can be taught in a classroom. Sure, it’s possible to learn about the criminal justice process from a book, about arraignments and status hearings and plea agreements, but it pales in comparison to the experience of sitting in Courtroom C10 as those who were arrested last night are brought in for their first appearance before a judge or listening to the back-and-forth between a judge and a legal team during several rounds of status hearings. Similarly, you could read that D.C. law requires that defendants be provided with nice clothes for any appearance before a jury, but you can’t fully understand the humanizing effect that has, even for someone suspected of murder, and the critical role that plays in ensuring that that person truly is presumed innocent until proven guilty, without sitting through a trial and seeing a murder suspect as a human being for the first time.

From Lindsey Anderson:

At the most basic level, I learned the ins and outs of crime and court reporting from Homicide Watch. I learned how to walk into D.C. Superior Court, check the day’s list of arrests and warrants, request indictments and interpret online case status updates. I learned how to understand legal jargon and comprehend hours-long hearings.
Some days, understanding that legal jargon was the most difficult aspect of my time at Homicide Watch. Some days, it wasn’t.

In April 2012, I covered the sentencing of 16-year-old Christian Nevarrette-Rivas and the verdict in the manslaughter case against Patricia Cave.

Nevarrette-Rivas was the youngest defendant we had ever covered at Homicide Watch. He was charged with fatally hitting a man with a car during a fight. He had earned Student of the Month while in jail and his defense attorney got choked up at the hearing, saying it was an honor to represent him, while the victim’s family read statements about the kindness of the 22-year-old man. Nevarrette-Rivas was sentenced to six years in jail.

That same day, I watched Cave, a middle-aged victim of domestic violence, be found not guilty of manslaughter. She had fatally stabbed her on-again-off-again boyfriend in self-defense. Cave was one of the few “not guilty” verdicts we covered.

Jargon, backdoor discussions and bench conferences often make court sterile and convoluted. Often, it takes effort to humanize court proceedings, to simplify them and make them understandable.

But that day, I had a different challenge: to record the pain on both sides as a 16-year-old was sent to prison, and to record the joy as a domestic violence victim was cleared of wrongdoing. I was overwhelmed after watching hours of others’ tears. But I sat down and wrote what happened in brief blog posts for Homicide Watch.

Since interning with Homicide Watch, I have had to approach victims of crimes, family of the deceased, veterans injured in terrible accidents. My time at Homicide Watch taught me how to take something complex and make it understandable. But it also taught me how to put others’ emotions into words, while not becoming overwhelmed myself in the process.

From Vanya Mehta:

In the future, I plan to attend law school and become a public defender. This goal is largely motivated by my extremely valuable and eye opening experiences in court and in conversations with people while working for HWDC. Writing for this community news source, my thoughts were confirmed that those who cannot afford to represent themselves deserve smart attorneys with knowledge on the problems these communities live through.

During my job, attorneys would approach me in court to say how impressed they were with HWDC and the detail and precision with which HWDC covers these homicide cases. I feel honored to have been able to intern and write for this news source and it taught me that every murder in DC represents more than just the immediate family, but a wide net of community members and an even larger set of social and economic inequalities and problems that persist in the District.

From Penny Ray:

I am now a more patient person. My newfound compassion for others and the experience of court reporting are equally responsible for that; days working the courtroom beat never turn out as planned. But no day has been dull, and every day is a learning experience. From the daily pressures of writing accurately on deadline, to the responsibility of fostering relationships with people relevant to the crime beat, and everything in between, my experience with Homicide Watch D.C. has made me a better person.

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