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Q&A: Pulitzer winner Wesley Lowery discusses coverage of Ferguson police shooting, protests


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Wes Lowrey speaks about journalism on Jan. 23 in the University Center Auditorium. Lowrey won a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting when he was 25 years old.

From writing for his middle school newspaper to working at The Washington Post, Wesley Lowery has always loved journalism.

That's how he earned spots in some of America's top newsrooms, including The Detroit News, The Columbus Dispatch, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and The Washington Post

As a reporter at The Boston Globe in 2013, Lowery was involved in coverage of Aaron Hernadez's murder trial in Boston, as well as the search for the Boston Marathon Bomber. 

In 2014, he was hired at The Washington Post as a political reporter. In August 2014, Lowery flew to Ferguson, Missouri to write about the shooting of Michael Brown, a black teenager who was shot and killed by a police officer on Aug. 9, 2014. After months of covering the incident and the Black Lives Matter protests that resulted, Lowery was inspired to complete two projects: The Fatal Force Project, a database that has collected records of every fatal police shooting since 2015, and a book, "They Can't Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore and a New Era in America's Racial Justice Movement."

The Fatal Force Project earned a Pulitzer Prize in 2016 for National Reporting, and Lowery received a Los Angeles Times book prize in 2017 for "They Can't Kill Us All."

By the way, Lowery is turning 30 this year.

During a two-day visit to Central Michigan University, Lowery sat down with Central Michigan Life to talk about his background in journalism, his coverage in Ferguson and his rapid rise to fame.

CM Life: What inspired you to go into journalism?

I always saw journalism as a noble profession, I thought it was fascinating. So I got involved in journalism pretty young. I was part of my middle school's paper and my high school's paper, so when it was time to think about college, (journalism) was an obvious thing for me. 

Once I got to college and was working for my college paper, it was the only thing I was good at, it was the only thing I spent my time doing. I didn't really have a plan B or a backup plan, so I just knew it was what I was going to end up doing.

What were you doing at The Washington Post before you went to Ferguson?

I was a congressional reporter covering Congress and national politics. I happened to have a backpack – I just got back from a trip. I often weighed in on issues of justice and race even as a political reporter, and they asked me if I could go to Ferguson after the police shooting of Michael Brown. I went thinking I was going for three days and I ended up staying in Ferguson for about three months.

What were the first few days like in Ferguson?

When I got there, there were still a ton of questions. It's hard to remember sometimes, how much we didn't know at the very beginning. 

We had no details about what happened in the shooting. All we knew (was that) there was this teenage boy named Michael Brown who was shot and killed by a police officer. His body had been left to lay out for several hours after the shooting. There (were) large crowds that started to gather and began clashing with the police – as often happens at crime scenes or places like that. 

At the time, the police had provided no narrative detail about the shooting. We didn't know (the officer's) name, much less his background. We knew very little about Michael Brown himself. We also knew comparatively little about how policing worked in this part of greater St. Louis, in this town, Ferguson, (and) about the residents' history of complaints. 

What we did know, was that these massive crowds were showing up, night after night after night after night. Thousands of people were showing up in the street to protest and (were) demonstrating and getting into these altercations with police: Stand-offs, tear gas, rubber bullets, night after night after night, mass arrests on some nights

My job when I first showed up was to answer all of the questions. So one day I spend calling a bunch of family members of Michael Brown and trying to work with these lawyers to see if I can get anyone on the record. The next day I'm chasing the police officer who got a tip about what his name is and what his background is. There are other days when I'm reporting about historical context about this place, about the history (in Ferguson).

I was on the ground there watching the rise of what became the Black Lives Matter movement, or the movement for black lives. We were covering the protests every night, covering ... the beginning of a national argument about police reform there, and also covering the case itself, waiting to see if the police officer will be charged with a crime in that shooting – which he was not. 

Did you notice that you were treated differently than the white reporters in Ferguson?

Sometimes. 

It wasn't always purely a racial dynamic. But, one thing I will say is, in many cases, to be a black reporter, and to be a young reporter in a situation like that was to be the outlier, or the exception. 

In many cases, I found demonstrators, protesters and residents willing to trust me in part because they believe I must understand something about their experience. I think part of that was also because I was willing to listen to them and take their experience seriously. I think very often, no matter who you talk to, sources are more willing if they feel like you can empathize with them, if you agree with them and understand what they're saying and why they're saying it. 

I think a lot of the young activists, the young demonstrators thought, 'alright, this is someone whose experience is very similar to ours. Who knows what his personal politics are and if he writes stuff we don't agree with? At least he'll understand us.' I think that was really helpful in terms of being able to do reporting that illuminated what was happening on the ground and explain what was to come.

Tell us about your book.

I wrote a book called "They Can't Kill Us All," it's a quote from a sign that was left after a protest in St. Louis. And the goal of that was to talk about the rise of the Black Lives Matter protest by telling the stories of the people I met. One thing I thought was interesting, was I watched these young activists that I got tear gassed next to, or watched them get arrested. Some of these people became national media figures, or were quoted a lot, and became political punching bags from both sides. I spent hundreds of hours with these people, just chit chatting. And the question I wanted to answer was, what has to happen in someone's life that makes them step out into the street? I tried to do profiles about these activists.

You're turning 30 this year. What's it like seeing all that you've accomplished before even turning 30?

I don't usually think about it that way. I've had a remarkably fortunate, blessed career. I have amazing colleagues that I get to work with every day. Every accomplishment I can think of was a team effort. 

I always want to keep going. It's my job when I finish a project, no matter how great it is, no matter how celebrated it is, whether it wins all the awards, whether it wins no awards, it is my job to take a weekend off, catch up on a little sleep, and figure out what my next project is. That's how I think about my job and about my career. I'm not content to sit back and think about what I did a few years ago, I want to think about what I want to do tomorrow.


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