His focused energy captivated the audience in Lorimer Chapel, and his story left student journalists inspired and encouraged.
A.C. Thompson, an investigative reporter for ProPublica, was given the 2013 Lovejoy Award this year for courage in journalism. His work led to federal charges against seven New Orleans police officers for shootings of civilians in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It also unveiled vigilante violence in Algiers Point days after the storm.
In his speech at the Lovejoy Convocation Oct. 27, Thompson said his inspiration for investigative reporting was a story he read as a teenager about a young photographer from Washington, D.C., who had been beaten and burned to death by police officers at a protest in Chile. “What gripped me about it was that it wasn’t just a hard news story,” he said. “It was a narrative, it was a tale, it was something that got you into that moment. It was cinematic. It was literary.”
The fundamental principle behind his work, Thompson said, is a commitment to exposing “awful things happening to decent people.” Early in his career he would ask himself one question at the start of the reporting process: “Is this a story about human suffering that is needless, that is unnecessary?” If the answer was yes, “I would plunge in.” The question still guides him today.
After spending three years in New Orleans investigating hate crimes after the storm, he saw firsthand the power that journalism has. “It has the power to name those who trample on human dignity, has the power to name those who aid and abet them, has the power to name those who suffer as a result,” he said. His investigations exposed abuses of power and acts of extreme hubris. Thompson said New Orleans police officers had killed civilians to show that they could get away with whatever they wanted.
Students from seven New England colleges attended the Lovejoy events including a Goldfarb Center journalism conference held earlier that day. “I thought that A.C. Thompson gave an incredible speech on his experience uncovering the murders committed by the New Orleans police,” said Chris Henderson ’14. “[It] showed that despite all the talk about investigative journalism dying out, it’s still very much alive.”
Thompson’s accounts of his investigations, many of which involved brutal violence and gruesome discoveries, kept the audience engaged. He described the case of Henry Glover, shot New Orleans police and left to die in a burning car. “Somebody took Mr. Glover’s skull or ditched it or did something with it, and it remains missing,” Thompson said. “It’s never been returned to his family, and they’d like it back. This is something they’ve said publicly: ‘Would you please give us Henry’s skull back? We’d like it.’ That’s pretty disturbing.”
The greatest heroes in journalism, Thompson said, are those who have the courage to speak up in the face of hatred and violence despite the dangers of injury or death—people like Elijah Lovejoy, for whom the Lovejoy Award is named. But journalists aren’t the only people displaying courage in these stories. Witnesses to and victims of hate crimes in New Orleans took years to find the strength to speak on the record, but in the end they did. “Those were the people who, like Lovejoy, knew that they might be harmed, knew that something bad might happen to them. But they talked,” he said. “They refused to shut up even in the face of danger, and I am inspired by their actions.”
At the midday student conference he told aspiring investigative journalists, “You’re going to have enemies.” Often, he said, you don’t make friends by exposing the truth.