When forgiveness is the headline – a reporter in search of a different angle

Being the New York staff writer for any news organization could be an overwhelming job. With a population and an economy larger than many of the nations the Monitor covers, New York City is at the intersection of some of the biggest stories on the planet, from finance to culture to criminal justice. Throw a dart somewhere and you’ll hit a story target that will interest an editor and a reader somewhere. Which is why many of the big picture issues Harry Bruinius covers from his New York perch for the Monitor – morality, justice, and forgiveness – are so compelling. And why they universally connect with our readers. One in a series of monthly profiles of Monitor journalists.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Giselle Morch and Jolyn Hopson – the focus of "Two Mothers, a son's death, and the struggle for forgiveness", a cover story written by Harry Bruinius for the Monitor.

Now approaching the two decade mark as a writer for the Monitor, Harry did not start his career as a journalist, nor did he begin in New York. As his profile page will attest, Harry earned a living shoveling concrete and working with construction crews outside his blue-collar neighborhood of Chicago’s South Side. As a writer today, he is also a professor with college courses as diverse as “Journalism as Literature,” “Religion and Film,” and “The Problem of Evil.”  

 Many of the stories Harry has written in the last year, such as Can America overcome its addiction to anger?, Why Americans are talking less and less about ‘love’ and ‘kindness’, and What would real justice look like for survivors of priest child sex abuse? have attracted many a heartfelt comment from our readers.  

 I recently asked our New York bureau chief what led him down this diverse path of ideas.

When I first started writing for the Monitor – wow, almost 20 years ago! – there were a number of people in New York, including a number of my mentors, who were talking about “the journalism of ideas.” I was kind of a refugee from academia, an erstwhile wanna-be-theologian-turned-New-York-City-writer, and it just felt a natural fit. Storytelling that explores the human emotions that surround topics like justice or morality, or the roles religious concepts play in the swirl of American politics and culture – these are things that keep me awake at night.

When you explored the current issue of anger in the U.S. did you find a major source for all that anger? When did temperatures really start to rise?

 Like a lot of people, I think a significant factor has been the strange and virtually anonymous world of social media. For one, people fire off barbs online they would never dare to say to someone in a public space, where there is a subtle social standard of civility. Add to this the so-called “echo chamber” effect of social media – the explosion of information online has also led people to focus only on information and on people who reinforce their views, rather than challenge them. It’s an explosive combination, and while it’s not the only thing happening, almost all the people I talk to mention these “structural” challenges in the so-called digital age. 

Did you get any sense that there are forces – people or institutions – that can cool down some of that anger?

 There’s another way to think about the anger we see online, I think. It’s not the whole story by far.  There’s a lot happening in the country. The news industry is part of a broader media industry that is its own echo chamber, and part of the role of journalism is to focus on the problems we face and the things people are doing to try to solve them. But at the same time, there are very strong civic and private institutions throughout the country, filled with people of good will and a sense of purpose and who keep the hum of daily life running smoothly, even as we get all bent out of shape after checking Twitter or watching political conflict unfold on TV.

You did another story on the steep decline of discussion about moral and spiritual values, especially among Millennials. The impact on religion is obvious in such data, but what other influences on our daily lives are there when so many don’t talk about such things as “goodness” and “kindness”?

 It’s interesting data, and it’s actually a century-long trend that only became visible as more and more books became digitized. Public life and public discourse has become more scientific and secular, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. And for the past few decades, participation in religious institutions has declined sharply.  At the same time, words included in what the Christian tradition has called “the fruits of the spirit” – kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness – have declined even among religious people today.  

You’ve written a number of stories about crime. And one of the major trends you reported is that Americans, by and large, are living in cities with less crime. Yet many perceive that crime has increased. What’s the disconnect?

As I mentioned, the role of the news and the aims of professional journalists are often to focus on the problems the nation is facing. And that makes sense, because when things are running smoothly and the way they are supposed to run, there’s nothing to report. We pay attention when something’s wrong, and when crimes that happen near us are particularly shocking, really pay attention, because we sense that these stories have to do with our own well-being. But things that shock us can suck all the oxygen out of the room and make us lose our perspective. And then add to this, crime statistics are always political. Natural fluctuations in crime, whether rising or falling, are easily amplified and distorted by self-interested politicians. But the truth of the matter is, crime trends often take years to see clearly, let alone the possible causes of these larger trends.

Last year, your cover story A tale of two cities and murder, reported on the experience of two large Northeastern US cities – Baltimore and New York. New York had its lowest crime rate since it began keeping records, while Baltimore the highest. Why is it that these cities 190 miles apart can have such huge disparities in serious crime?

 The causes of crime, and in particular the crime of murder, are never easy to pinpoint precisely. But one thing that immediately jumps out in comparing these cities’ dramatically different murder rates the past few years is their available resources. The Baltimore PD has a total number of about 3,100 police officers and civilian personnel, and collectively they have had over 300 murder cases to solve each of the past few years. So, that’s about 10 police employees per murder case. The NYPD has about 55,000 officers and civilian personnel, and collectively they have had about 290 murders to solve in each of the past few years. That’s almost 190 officers and staff per murder case. Add to this the fact that New York City has a far greater tax base per capita, and is a mecca for social service organizations and ambitious intervention programs – this resource gap is at least part of the reason these two cities have been going in opposite directions.

 Have you witnessed any positive changes since you reported on Baltimore’s approach to reducing crime?

 Baltimore is still struggling, even though its already-high murder rate has stabilized. Nothing very significant has changed in terms of the resources available to the city of some 610,000 residents. New York City? The numbers are still falling, and after a jaw-dropping record low of 292 murders in 2017, there were 3 fewer murders in 2018 – the second consecutive record low in a city experiencing an unprecedented era of historic low crime.

Right around the same time, you wrote the story of the murder of one black man by another – and the story of how the mothers of these young men grappled with the painful process of forgiveness. What’s the backstory there? How did you find these two individuals? 

I had an idea to tell the “tale of two cities” story about the murder rates of New York and Baltimore by focusing on the experiences of mothers who had lost their children to the crime of murder. In New York, I spoke to the mothers of Eric Garner and Ramarley Graham, two well-known cases of unarmed black men killed by police. But in Baltimore I wanted to report the experiences of mothers outside the public eye. There were a number of support groups and grassroots political organizations that bring these mothers together, and I attended a meeting of a group called MOMS, Mothers Of Murdered Sons and Daughters, in Baltimore. They just happened to be exploring the concept of forgiveness, as a way to heal themselves as well as their communities. And right at the beginning of this meeting, one mother got up to ask forgiveness from another mother. Her son had participated in the murder of the other’s son. The moment was riveting, and as they embraced, those attending the meeting were dumbstruck. I approached each mother after the meeting, and each agreed to tell me their story. But the journey each travelled the next few weeks as both prepared for the trial – in effect, they were legal adversaries – was very complicated, and the concept of forgiveness became more than just an abstraction for both of them. 

And what lessons can these two women teach us about forgiveness?

I have to say, I wasn’t necessarily looking for lessons in this story.  As much as any story in my career, I just wanted to step back and let the story unfold as it may, and try to do my utmost to honor their honest experiences. Each of these mothers were women of deep faith, but this murder, I think it’s fair to say, shook this faith in many ways, even as they longed for comfort and support and hope. So in the end, the question of forgiveness remained ambiguous, part of a lived faith that included questions and doubts and even the possibility that forgiveness – real, honest-to-goodness forgiveness in a situation of such devastation for each of them – may not be possible.

There was also a lot of focus on forgiveness and justice in the two-part story you did on the survivors of child sex abuse. The people you interviewed for these stories had a much bigger interest in justice than forgiveness, yes? Are there issues when forgiveness can only come after justice?

I think forgiveness is such an intensely personal and individual matter. It’s in many ways about a person’s relationship with him or herself, as well as with others. Justice is, by definition, a matter of our public, social relationships and the laws that govern us. So, yes, I think for many individuals, the intimacy of forgiveness can only become possible if there has been a public reckoning, a public acknowledgment that a grave wrong was done to them. At the same time, I think a lot of people, from health-care professionals to spiritual caretakers, both recognize the ill effects of anger and bitterness in individuals who have experienced such grave injustices. But the process of healing, I think, is as variable as individuals vary.   

Last spring the Monitor hosted an event focused on the style of reporting known as solutions journalism. You were one of the panelists in that program. What is solutions journalism, and how is it different from more traditional news coverage?

 Solutions journalism, as the name implies, reports not just on the problems society faces, but on the practical and innovative efforts of people working to solve them.  There is a need for “hard-news journalism,” the first-on-the-scene reports and the deeper investigations and analyses that expose social problems and the various dangers they pose to citizens. Solutions journalism takes this raw data, as it were, and seeks out people who are already doing something, or thinking about something, about how to solve these problems. And sometimes this is just telling stories about people listening to each other.

When you are looking for new stories to cover for the Monitor, is there an approach you take to find such stories?

Whenever there is a wider national conversation about a certain issue, I try to look at some of the deep-seated ideas that people have about their world, and that they bring to these conversations. From religious beliefs to non-traditional self-expressions, I see it as part of my role to explore ideas that are very important to people, ideas that shape how they understand themselves among others. So, yeah, I’m a political reporter who covers religion, a double whammy of topics journalists are sometimes advised to avoid.

Got a question for Harry Bruinius or comments on his stories? We’d love to hear your feedback. Email me at fitzgeraldg@csmonitor.com.

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