While many journalists have been forced to shift away from the field, Justin George remains stronger than ever. The Colorado native is in one of the most challenging beats in a notoriously violent city: crime and police in Baltimore. As a reporter for The Baltimore Sun he has covered high profile stories such as the recent city riots and the story of Adnan Syed, which became highly popular due to the Serial podcast to which he also contributed.
When I met Justin, he was a general reporter at the Pulitzer Prize winner newspaper the St Petersburg Times (now known as the Tampa Bay Times). During his nine years there he uncovered tough stories that needed to be told such as the investigative series on sexual abuse allegations at a developmentally disabled group home and a former Tampa Bay Buccaneer search for the killer of his son. Before that he worked at the Daily Press and the Daily Camera.
This autumn, Justin is heading to Marquette University as a Public Service Journalism fellow to lead a group of student researchers. I wanted to find out how he perceives journalism today and most of all, what motivates him amid what seems as a world surrounded by bad news.
How would you describe what you do?
I am a crime reporter and I cover mostly Baltimore police. My job is to essentially cover crime. Every day Baltimore police sends out a crime list (of what) occurred last night, usually the very serious ones like murders and shootings. I look at those every day and I try to find out who the victims are, look for trends. I am also keeping track of what is going on the department, how they are enforcing crime, how they are trying to deal with the trends, what is going on as far as politically in the city… It’s a combination of a lot of things… I interview a lot of police, I go out on the streets when I can and I try to interview victims in neighborhoods and see how crime affects them.
I’ve always viewed my job as more than just crime. I think crime affects a lot of things: it affects business growth, it affects quality of life, it affects population growth in the city… This is actually a health issue in the city.
How do you prepare for stories? How do you get your leads and identify what makes a story?
You just look for compelling stories about victims, or about suspects, things that are very unusual. But you also look for trends… If there are a bunch of crimes occurring in a neighborhood…If police are taking different tactics (such as) doing more foot patrols to try to meet residents and also suppress crime, do a story on that…We had the riots here and that has driven some of the violence that has occurred because of the looting of pharmaceuticals. So these are all little things that you pull out and you try to understand why. That’s always been key, understanding why things happen.
In terms of the perception of the public of the job of the media, for example when the people say the media is exaggerating, how do you feel about that?
The media gets beat up a lot now but I also think that regardless of it, (people) know that we are doing a public service and there is no doubt about it because they contact us, they are talking to us on Twitter and they understand that we are getting them information. I find most readers are honestly very thankful and they are very helpful… They want to understand too and they want to know why. They look to us to try to find out why.
(…) You have some trolls out there who say that the media is an issue and they are the problem. At times we make mistakes but we also try to acknowledge those things and be transparent. I know that is an issue in general but in Baltimore I think people are craving information. They want us.
Why did you wanted to become a journalist?
That’s a good question. I always liked to write, I think that was important. My dad actually worked at a newspaper. He was actually in the mailroom; he was not a writer but he put together newspapers so as child he would bring home the paper from the midnight shift… I would wake up every morning and read it, read the sports section. I think that always influenced me. I was always interested in writing and I was also very idealistic. I have a sense of right and wrong that I think is important to me. Everybody has a different sense of right and wrong but to me justice is something that is important.
Could you describe one of the biggest challenges you have had and what did you learn from it?
There’s been a lot. I think you always try to learn something from all the stories you spend a lot of time doing. Thinking of one that comes of the top of my head is that me and my crime partner who also covers crime, Justin Fenton, did a series on a summer of violence a couple of years ago. We looked at the people that were affected by the shooting and homicides that have gone one in the summer… We stretched out across the city and we looked for different people: victims, people in the neighborhood who have been affected, police. It was just really interesting because I think what that show was just how crime does impact a city. It impacts a city in every level and it impacts people in every level.
What stood out to me the most was speaking to a father and a son who had lost a mother and just the fact at how he was trying to hold the household together as his kid was a teenager and meanwhile the father was working all the time and trying to be a mother too and it just struck me how the bottles of Tide were on the living room floor. He was trying to do everything and trying to keep up the house too. But he had sworn that he was going to take care of his son. It was interesting, (actually) it was not interesting, it was sad to see what a hole had been left, what violence had taken.
With all these stories you cover, how do you keep a sense of optimism?
I would not say there is optimism but there is reward and the reward is that you are giving people who have been killed a voice for the first time. You are making their lives known to other people. These people may have lived lives out of the limelight but for once people are going to understand who they were and some of (the victims) had done already incredible selfless things. Sometimes is a cautionary tale of what not to do. Your are also trying to get these people’s faces out front to try to spur people to come forward and solve these crimes. That’s important too, that killers know that these people are not forgotten and that people are paying attention.
I’ve always remember a conversation we had in Tampa when you mentioned that what you liked about the St Pete Times is that they gave reporters time to develop a story. Now that in the past few years journalists are expected to do many things in a short period of time, do you think this is still possible?
It’s possible, it’s harder and the fact is that your bosses want to give you that time and your editors want the best stories. But the problem is there is less staff and there is a lot of news so time is very precious and its really difficult… If you look at the Sun we have an investigative team and our editors have given them time to work on very important studies and it has really paid off. They’ve given me time. I mean they are allowing me to go on a project for nine months. That’s phenomenal, that’s losing me, a pretty big producer, for that long. It is still important, is still valued in good newspapers like the Sun, it is still valued at St Pete Times, it’s just a lot more difficult.
What do you think about the evolution of journalism? Do you think it really is evolving or do you think it’s the perception of people?
The entire landscape has changed in a few years. I think journalism is very different. We are asked to do social media, we are asked to Tweet, Instagram and Facebok and get information out quickly. We are writing things as soon as we get to the office and updating things throughout the day. Before, we used to concentrate on the story that would go on the paper. Now we are concentrating on everything that’s going online as quickly as possible. So things have completely shifted… Everybody is more fluid. For better or worse we have to be faster and quicker. At the same time the quality can’t decrease so I think there a lot more pressure on us now so it makes it a lit more tricky.
I think technology helps. I think a lot of people think it hurts but I think it helps a lot when you take a picture from a crime scene and you Tweet it out, at least when you get back to the office I think you can look at that picture and describe what the scene is like. You can make it work for you.
If a student is going to school right now and says I want to be a journalist, what is your advice for them?
I think you should go for it if you are really passionate about it. I think people will tell you that you are not going to get paid a lot, (that) it’s a tough business and that is all true, but at the same time how many people do you know who actually love their job. If you are really passionate about writing and reporting, go for it. If you work really hard you can still be very successful at it. I would never discourage somebody from going into it if they are interested in it. I do think that they need to make sure they understand the commitment and sacrifice that would take…but you keep going and and you keep working and you can succeed.you keep working and you can succeed.
Follow Justin George on Twitter @justingeorge
Follow the author @yadicarocaro