Black Investigative Reporters on Why This Important Beat Remains a ‘White Male Crowd’

Though the numbers remain dismal, one Georgia-based initiative shines a “spotlight” on how diversity is done.

Georgia News Lab

Melvin Claxton remembers working on an investigation at the Detroit News that landed a finalist spot in the Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2003.

The News looked at “how the failures of Wayne County law enforcement agencies allowed more than 26,000 fugitives to roam the streets of Detroit with little fear of apprehension. It also showed that many of these fugitives continued lives of crime while on the lam,” the News summarized at the time.

Most of those fugitives lived among black people, who were terrified and victimized by the criminals in their midst. But Claxton said it was a struggle to persuade News editors to prove through News reporting that authorities were wrong to say these fugitives couldn’t be found.

“I understood that most of the people were good people forced to live with criminals,” Claxton told Journal-isms by telephone on Friday. “Others felt that these neighborhoods are just crime-ridden. Nobody seemed to care. Nobody felt any urgency to put them [the criminals] away.”

As it turned out, some fugitives were hiding in plain sight. Kenneth Everhart, for example, had received a notice for jury duty, the investigation discovered. He had a lawn-cleaning business that ran a quarter-page ad in a local newspaper.

“This is why you need people of color. I might have had a little more concern” in that situation, “had a greater sensibility,” said Claxton, who is African American.

“Blacks in the newsroom need to be part of those discussions and part of those projects. It’s not all skills.”

Claxton’s work at the Virgin Island Daily News won the newspaper the Pulitzer Prize for public service in 1995, and he has been honored 10 times by the Associated Press Managing Editors. Claxton left the business in 2007 and formed a video-game company with his sons, he said, after becoming disillusioned by a trend he detected that valued less substance and more fluff.

Yet he keeps in touch with his investigative journalism colleagues. Their concerns deserve a listen in light of the well-deserved attention given Spotlight, the acclaimed movie about the Boston Globe’s revelations of sexual abuse by pedophile Roman Cathoic priests. In a coincidence, the Globe’s work bested The Detroit News’ fugitive series for the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for public service.