The journalism of empathy: Alex Kotlowitz receives Peabody Award for his story on life in the inner city

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

Like many of us, Oak Park resident Alex Kotlowitz is unhappy with the current tone of public discourse in this country. "If you look at the state of the media these days," he said, "there's just far too much shouting going on and too much 'here's what I know' and 'here's what I think;' not any genuine curiosity about the world."

As a journalist, Kotlowitz exercises his genuine curiosity, and in the first week of April those efforts were rewarded when he received his second Peabody Award — for the two-part series "Harper High," which aired in February of 2013 on National Public Radio's This American Life — not for shouting louder than other commentators but for telling an important story.

"What I try to do as best I can," he explained, "is go out into the world on these journeys of discovery. The point is to try to tell a story because readers don't like to be pandered to. They don't like to be pushed or pulled. They don't like to be told how to think. When you read a story, you can find your own way. Two people can hear or watch the same story and come to different conclusions. That's the power and beauty of narrative."

His peers applauded his stories about the diverse perceptions of home to various people living in different parts of Chicago by awarding him and his team of writers and producers a Peabody Award in 2002 for the radio series, produced with Amy Drozdowska, Stories of Home; in 2012, he received a Spirit Award, a DuPont Award, and an Emmy for the documentary The Interrupters (with director and fellow Oak Park resident Steve James); and this year the DuPont, Peabody and Third Coast Festival awards for "Harper High," the story of how a South Side Chicago tried to recover emotionally from a year (2012), during which 29 of its current students or recent graduates were shot or killed. "It's really a story," said Kotlowitz, "about what it meant to come out of that trauma both as an institution and as individuals."

He took on the project when This American Life senior producer Julie Snyder told him she wanted to do a story about the violence in 2012, a year in which 500 murders were committed in Chicago. Kotlowitz joined the project and while looking for a way to tell the story, he heard a piece by WBEZ's Linda Lutton. 

"She's one of the best education reporters out there," Kotlowitz began. "It was a poignant piece about a high school principal named Leonetta Sanders who was attending the funeral of a student at Harper who had been shot and killed. It was just heart wrenching. Sanders talked very eloquently about a school where this becomes such a regular occurrence you have to keep a notebook to keep track of all the shootings." 

He called This American Life and said, "You have to listen to this." He found the narrative he was looking for as well, as a co-reporter in Lutton, who would later be joined by NPR producer Ben Calhoun. Kotlowitz, Lutton and Calhoun spent the next five months in Harper High, interviewing students and staff members.

Journalism on the margins

That's how Kotlowitz conducts journalism. Instead of interviewing mayors or CEOs, he goes to "people along the margins." Elected officials, he said, are obligated, by virtue of their position, to talk to reporters. In contrast, people on the margins have no obligation to talk to you and are often in real vulnerable situations.

He tells his students in a class he teaches at the Medill School of Journalism that his is a journalism of empathy. 

"The hard thing about storytelling is getting intimacy," he said. "It's hard to get people to open up in a real way. It's interesting that in The Interrupters, the interviews we did with Cobie, Eddie and Ameena — the main subjects of the film — at the end of our time with them are so much more open and candid than at the beginning. By then we really had their trust. Intimacy is hard. 

"The principal, Leonetta Sanders, let us in, because she trusted Linda [who] had built up trust with the story she had written about the funeral, and Miss Sanders was also familiar with my work. Nevertheless, I was filled with angst when we began visiting Harper that we weren't going to get what we needed. What I did was embed myself with two social workers, Anita Stewart and Crystal Smith. They were my portal into this world."

Empathy, he added, is also required with your readers. 

"I tell my students at Medill that I try to figure out what a reader would want to read. So I try to imagine myself as a reader, or in the case of 'Harper High,' a listener. Is this something I would want to listen to? You have to trust your instinct, your intuition. Did it engage me? Is it something I feel passionate about? Presumably, in the end you'll find readers equally engaged and passionate about it."

People who don't write for a living, he said, may see or hear a piece that wins an award and think great stories come forth effortlessly. It's not so simple. "Time and time again you think this idea you have might be a good story," he said, "and when you wade into it, you find this water is too cold or too rough or too turbulent … or there's simply no water at all. There's always a risk. For every story I plunge into, there are two or three that for one reason or another haven't worked out."

A rewarding career path

This wasn't the profession Kotlowitz planned. "I was a biology major in college," he said, "but stumbled onto a job in the 1970s at a small alternative news weekly in Lansing, Michigan. I got paid $112 a week, which even then wasn't much money." But he realized "this is what I wanted to do. It pushed me out into the world. I'm a reasonably shy person, and the job forced me to spend time with people and get to know them in this really accelerated manner. I loved the idea that I could then disappear to my house and just write, do this art, this craft that I love.

"Even though I've been at this for over 30 years," he said, "I'm filled with self-doubt about my ability. If I'm starting a project, I doubt my ability to pull it off, and if I pull it off, is it good enough? One of the things awards do is give you some validation that what you're doing is worthwhile. Back in the 1960s, Tom Wolfe said that doing journalism is being in a constant state of humility. You go out into the world and realize how little you know."

But the stories he tells mean a lot more than awards. "I go out," he said, "and spend time with people who have the world crashing in on them and I think to myself, 'I would have collapsed a long time ago.' My editor/publisher once asked me why I am attracted to such dark, grim stories, and I said to her that I don't necessarily think of them that way. I end up spending time with these individuals who in spite of all that's crumbling around them have managed to stay erect, often not only stay erect but push back at what's going on."

He gave as examples the two social workers, Anita Stewart and Crystal Smith, who took him under their wings and allowed him to experience their work with kids exposed to so much violence. "They weren't without their own frustrations," he noted. They had a little windowless office tucked away in the middle of the school building, but they were so filled with life and vitality. They expressed joy despite everything going on around them."

"When I first met Alex," said Stewart, "I thought the process would be very difficult and somewhat invasive because I was dealing with the death of one my students. I was and continue to be profoundly impacted by the death of this student because it was so shocking. … I think Alex had the ability to blend in so efficiently because he has a genuine kind spirit. He does not come across as arrogant or self-centered, so for me and the students he was just Mr. Alex. I recall someone excitedly talking about all that he had accomplished and I remember thinking to myself, 'He's just Mr. Alex.' I'm not trying to downplay all that he has accomplished, but I think that he was able to connect in the social work office because he came across as very humble."

A foot in two worlds

What Kotlowitz sees on society's margins doesn't depress him. "What's stressful," he explained, "is the anger that inevitably becomes part of what you see and do. I'm able to do the interviews and then come back and have the catharsis of sitting down and writing, of trying to make sense of it myself."

He is deeply concerned about the growing tendency in American society for people to live in what Robert Bellah calls "lifestyle enclaves." 

"When I think about my work these days," he said, "so much of it is around this growing chasm between those who have and those who don't."

That chasm creates a creative tension within the artist himself.

"I feel pretty fortunate to live in a community as prosperous, full, artistic, creative and spiritually rich as Oak Park, but you go across Austin Boulevard and you walk into a community that has been devastated by the housing crisis and wracked by violence.

"Because I have a foot in both worlds, I'm constantly reminded of it. I think it's important for all of us to remind ourselves of our place in this world. We tend in this country to lead very disparate, separate lives. We tend to end up among the familiar people who are in some way like ourselves. It takes some effort to push beyond that."

The storyteller enjoys the recognition that comes with receiving one of the most distinguished awards in journalism. "[It's] just an incredible honor, but I remember when we got the Emmy for The Interrupters. We went to New York to receive it, and it was a glorious night, but I woke up the next morning, and I just had to get back to work. So the award is not going to change anything. Maybe if I were 28 it would open up some doors, but at this point in my life, for better for worse, I am who I am. I'm going to be 60 next year, and I feel pretty fortunate to be where I'm at." 

To listen to the "Harper High" series, go to www.thisamericanlife.org, click on Radio Archive, then click on 2013 and scroll down to programs 487 and 488 (Feb. 14 and 22).

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