A killer like us? AP reporter evokes inmate's humanity

Last week, I railed on the Journalism of Narcissism. Specifically, I critiqued a first-person account by a writer who said he hid in a church bathroom and pretended to be a true believer while reporting on Brazilian evangelicals in New York.

That post prompted regular reader FW Ken to comment:

How can you write at any depth if people don’t open up to you, and how do people open up if you don’t engage with them. I’m not suggesting extensive self-disclosure or getting overly personal, but if your subjects are really people to you, you have to be a person to them.

My quick reply:

Totally agree, FW Ken.

Now for something totally different: How about a first-person piece that actually works?

I'm referring to an Associated Press reporter's story over the weekend recounting her experience covering a recently executed murderer. In a striking way, AP's Dena Potter demonstrates the power of — believe it or not — high journalistic integrity and compassion in gaining a source's trust. That's opposed to, say, deception and tricks.

Potter wrote a straight news account last week of Robert Gleason Jr.'s death in Virginia's electric chair. But her weekend essay — headlined "A killer like me" by one news organization — highlights the flashes of ordinary humanity she glimpsed in the cold-blooded murderer:

It's easy to call Gleason a monster. I'm not even sure those who knew and loved him would disagree. He killed at least three men — strangling the last two while locked up in the state's most secure prisons. He'd been imprisoned for killing a man whose son was cooperating with the probe of a drug ring he was involved in. But there was something about him that made me want to know more. And he was more than willing to oblige.

Later, Potter reflects on why Gleason confided in her:

What he wanted from me, I believe, was someone to hear him out and to tell his story. I think he also liked that I didn't tell him what he wanted to hear. We had disagreements ranging from how I wrote my stories about him to how he treated his lawyers. Several times he told me I was one of the only people in the world he trusted.

At the end of her essay, the AP writer wrestles with how to characterize her relationship with the killer:

Can I call Bobby Gleason a friend? As a reporter I'm not sure I should. After all, we're taught that you go into every story with an open mind, that you keep your feelings and beliefs from interfering. And this was a murderer, a man who not only took life but took it more than once — and was well aware of what he was doing.

This is real life, though, with all the grays between the black and the white of evil and good. There's simply no way to spend that much time interacting with someone, anyone — to learn about them and their fears and their history — and not gradually begin to see them as more than just a cold killer identified by a number.

I do know one thing: I may eventually forget Prisoner No. 1059266. But I doubt I'll ever forget Bobby Gleason.

Were Potter and Gleason friends? It's probably more accurate to suggest they maintained a friendly rapport — the kind possible when a reporter treats a source, no matter how heinous, with honesty and respect. To be clear, I don't mean that she respected his actions. But rather, she respected his humanity.

As for the narcissism addressed last week, Potter's first-person account works primarily because she's not the story. Instead, the reporter's behind-the-scenes experience affords enlightening insight into the killer. It advances the story. This, my friends, is called journalism.

By the way, there is a religion angle in Potter's piece. Be sure to check it out when you do yourself a favor and read the whole thing.

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