5Q+1 interview: Pulitzer winner Jennifer Berry Hawes on the Godbeat, the Charleston shooting and black church fires

Just a few months ago, veteran religion writer Jennifer Berry Hawes celebrated winning the Pulitzer Prize.

Hawes, a projects writer for the The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C., worked on the team that produced "Till Death Do Us Part," a project on domestic violence that earned journalism's top prize. (She discusses the Pulitzer in the video above.)

About 10 years ago, Hawes and her colleague Doug Pardue proposed creating the Post and Courier's Faith & Values section "because religion and values-based coverage was so important to our readership, yet we weren't writing about it as much as needed," she recalled.

"I covered religion on and off after that until joining our projects teams about six months ago," Hawes told GetReligion. "The beat was one of the most difficult and rewarding ones I have tackled because people care so much about it, yet for that reason I dealt with some extremely thin-skinned people who really struggled to understand why we would present faiths and views that weren't 'right' in their minds.

"It honestly made me question my own faith at times to see how human the church is with infighting and backstabbing," added Hawes, a former winner of the Religion Newswriters Association's Cornell Reporter of the Year Award and a finalist again this year. "On the other side, I also met the most incredibly inspirational people of faith in our community who demonstrated the beauty of the human spirit and the strength of what faith could achieve."

In a 5Q+1 interview (that's five questions plus a bonus question) with GetReligion, Hawes reflected on her ongoing coverage of the June 17 shooting massacre that claimed nine lives at a historic black church in Charleston.

Q: How did you hear about the shootings at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church? Where were you and what was your reaction? How quickly did you jump on the story?

I was sitting in bed that night and began scrolling through my Twitter feed and saw an early mention of someone being shot at Emanuel AME. At first, it sounded like there might have been one person shot, perhaps even outside (the church sits on a busy, fairly urban road). It struck me mostly because my son's school is right across the street and a few doors down from a large library where I once worked.

Once it became clear that this potentially was a larger tragedy, I went to the church's website to refresh my memory of Emanuel's history because I began to wonder if there might be a racial component to a mass shooting at a very significant black church in town. I tweeted a snippet about that history, and that tweet took off. A few minutes later, our managing editor, Rick Nelson, called me to put together a sidebar on the church's history. I think I finished that story around midnight.

Q: You and your colleague Doug Pardue had a wonderful "tick tock" account of what transpired at Emanuel AME that night. How difficult was that chronological story to produce? How did you go about it?

Thank you. We didn't realize it, but Doug and I both were searching around trying to find people who knew exactly what happened in the Bible study room that evening without really knowing what the other one was doing.

At that point, everyone covering the shooting was trying to find people as close to the victims as possible. Doug was putting together a timeline of events, and I had spoken with several people close to the victims who had pretty specific information. At some point the day before the tick tock ran, Doug and I talked and realized we could flesh out each other's work and did just that. We also knew we had enough to beat the other news outlets, so we worked quickly to get the story up online that night. 

Q: What kind of emotional toll, if at all, has this tragedy taken on you and your Post and Courier newsroom colleagues? How are you and the newsroom as a whole dealing with that? Or have you had time even to think about it?

It's been hard on everyone because many of us knew people who were killed or who attended the church. However, at least for me, I have been so busy that I still feel mostly shock.

I do think that because we are a local newspaper, we are best able to cover the impact on our community as we all move forward in coming weeks. We will live it ourselves. For instance, I wonder how it will impact my 10-year-old son, who goes to school right across the street and will see the beautiful memorials outside the front entrance every day. Will it make him afraid? Will he understand racism and violence in a different way? 

Q: This story obviously has a strong religion angle. How valuable has your experience in that area been in covering these circumstances? 

As I mentioned earlier, it gave me a leg up in realizing the significance of that particular church and its relationship to the civil rights struggles in Charleston. It also helped a little bit with sourcing because I knew a few people who attended the church. I also heard about the spate of church fires across the South and might have had a earlier understanding of the significance of them than someone who covered a different beat, so I suggested we get an early leg up on that story, which we did. Doug and I had an enterprise story up online even before the Zion AME fire. 

Q: What differentiates the Post and Courier's coverage from that of national media who have flocked to Charleston?

Definitely our nuanced understanding of the community and having better forward thinking about coverage rather than reacting to events. For instance, we launched our poll of lawmakers' views of the Confederate flag controversy hours before Gov. Nikki Haley announced her support of removing it from the Statehouse grounds. We were able to get the tick-tock story before the NYT. We produced the most memorable tributes to the victims because these are people we knew ourselves or who were loved by people we know. For instance, we had the incredibly beautiful tribute the Sunday after the shootings that many, many people said they appreciated. And our executive editor, Mitch Pugh, said early on that we wouldn't run the shooter's photo on our front page in the immediate aftermath with the victims' stories and other coverage. 

Q: What else should readers know about you and your coverage of this story?

A: I would add that covering a tragedy like this really emphasizes to all of us in the newsroom how important it is for our coverage to be sensitive and accurate but also for us to be watchdogs for the community. We devoted a lot of manpower to stories such as our roundup of lawmakers' positions on the Confederate flag because we felt readers deserved to know where their elected officials stand on an issue of such importance to them. It was great to see how readers jumped on board and began to contact lawmakers themselves who wouldn't respond to our requests. It shows both the journalists and the community how intertwined we really are and, hopefully, makes us better journalists as a result.

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