Professor Encourages His Inmate Students to Write Their Own Obits Based on the Life They Plan to Lead

A scene from the Los Angeles Times’ “Prison Obits” video
YouTube screenshot
A scene from the Los Angeles Times’ “Prison Obits” video
YouTube screenshot

Some Say Assignment Demonstrates Power of Journalism

"In the wrong writer's hands, an obituary can be a dull collection of biographical facts, the type of article that journalism professor William Drummond calls the 'lowest common denominator' of newspaper writing," Chris Megerian wrote last week in the Los Angeles Times, in a piece accompanied by a video.Some Say Assignment Demonstrates Power of Journalism

"But on this day, he hoped for something more profound from his students, even if his classroom wasn't filled with the high-achievers he was accustomed to teaching at UC Berkeley. Drummond was across the bay in San Quentin State Prison, where he was introducing inmates to the basics of covering the news.

"The obituary assignment came with a twist. Instead of writing about a pop star's overdose or a political leader's assassination, Drummond told his incarcerated students they would be writing about a different death: their own.

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"They would choose how they would die, and they would sum up their own lives however they wanted.

" 'I did it as a way to find out how these guys had reconciled their crimes,' Drummond said. 'Were they able to take a critical look at what got them in trouble?'

"The inmates, he recalled, were uncomfortable. These were people who were best known for their worst decisions — stabbing a man to death, gunning down a bystander, robbing banks.

"Now Drummond wanted to know: 'What is your real value?'

"The resulting obituaries were reflective, outlandish, candid, evasive, aspirational. Above all, they showed how people who have wronged society would like to be remembered."

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One passage reads, "Phoeun You's heritage is tattooed on his neck — 'the killing fields.' He escaped the genocidal Khmer Rouge in Cambodia when he was a child, reaching Utah as a 5-year-old refugee with the rest of his family.

" 'It snowed, and there was nothing but white people,' the 41-year-old recalled.

"Three years later, the family moved to Long Beach, yet another culture shock.

" 'I'd never seen a black person before. I'd never seen a Mexican before,' he said.

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"Lonely and disconnected, he linked up with an Asian gang. He fathered a son and a daughter.

"One day, You said, he was picking up a friend in a high school parking lot when they got into a fight with Latino gang members.

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"Afterward, 'I went to go find a weapon. … I wanted that payback.' He didn't find the people from the fight, but he found someone else and opened fire.

" 'It was just a guy who looked like a gang member,' You said. 'He was close enough.'

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"The victim was 17, and others were hit by bullets too.

"You was convicted of murder and attempted murder in 1996 and has no chance of parole until 2025. He could spend the rest of his life behind bars.

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"In his obituary, You doesn't mention his crime. Instead, he describes a heroic death — being stabbed while trying to break up a racially charged fight in a prison classroom.

" 'Mr. You observed what was about to take place and stepped in front of Mr. Bryant in hopes of [defusing] the situation,' he writes. He is stabbed and dies immediately.

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"Sitting in the prison yard, You explained his choice of death: 'My incarceration, the reason I'm here, is by taking a life. When I leave this world, I would love to leave saving a life.' "

The cumulative effect of the inmates' stories left an impression on readers.

"Chris Megerian did a terrific job in reporting this excellent outreach program," one wrote in the comments section. "Anything Bryan Stevenson has written, including the recently published 'Just Mercy' as well as Michelle Alexander's 'The New Jim Crow' make great companion reading."

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Another wrote, "I believe in punitive measures for crimes committed. I also believe in forgiveness and redemption. I believe this can be the first step in a life changing event for the incarcerated."

A third had the opposite reaction. "They should be [forced] to write the obituaries of their victims. Over and over again, non-stop, for the duration of their sentences."

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Megerian, author of the L.A. Times piece, passed along to Drummond another reader message that reaffirmed the power of journalism. Drummond posted it on his Facebook page Wednesday:

"I was fascinated with your article this morning…it was just not long enough! That said, I found the exercise of William [Drummond's] idea to do this remarkable. I suppose it's a funny thing on my way of navigating reading of the L.A. Times the last 30+ years, I have found a certain interest in reading obituaries. The L.A. Times does an incredible job in covering people of interest from around the world and giving the reader a view of their lives. It draws me sometimes to the other obituaries included that I find myself reading them — either from the smile on their face draws me in or their name. I have found you learn so much from them, from who they were to what they did to so much more. The generation that really fascinates me are those born in the mid 1920's and beyond.

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"This article however made me think about a rambling story that circles in my head often from reading about peoples lives. In some point of my life…I read a line that was 'live your life as if you are writing your obituary.' It ended with do you want it to begin with that you were a compassion and caring person or a mean SOB! It really made me think throughout my life what those words would entail down my path.

"There is so much more I would include in this message…I will end with my dream was to go to college like my 7 other siblings, I was sent to a family business instead. I sometimes have this conversation with myself that the L.A. Times has been my education. The world of reports that I have read over the years has brought such depth to me and it's articles such as yours that has carried a wealth of learning.

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"In the days of everything being e-newspaper to e-readers etc…I still enjoy walking out each day to retrieve getting my beloved paper with the joy it still brings, along with what awaits inside as I take [its] wrapper off to — as I approach the front door. From the smell of the paper to the article headlines — to the photos, it captures me and I wish sometimes I had all the time in the world to read everything.

"If you would like to forward my email to Mr. Drummond please do so. I can't imagine what he learned from this experience. . . ."

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Meaning, Consequences of Racist Frat Chant Debated

"The racial tension at the University of Oklahoma paints the latest picture of the trouble brewed by 50 years of backlash to Martin Luther King Jr.'s courageous 'We Shall Overcome' movement,' Jason Whitlock wrote Wednesday for ESPN.com.

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"Research and cell-phone videos are debunking the notion that white millennials are less racist than previous generations. A busload of drunken Oklahoma fraternity members got Riley Cooper-ed. Someone secretly recorded them singing 'there will never be a n——r in SAE.' The short video so disturbed the campus that Bob Stoops canceled football practice and joined his players in public protest, and the school's president immediately kicked the frat off campus and expelled two students.

"More troubling than the video is the data Politico's Sean McElwee used to pen an enlightening piece on Monday that argued millennials are not nearly as tolerant as they think they are. His closing paragraph warned that recent Supreme Court decisions that strike against civil-rights gains based on Chief Justice John Roberts' view of a post-racial, colorblind America foreshadow a bleak future. . . ."

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McElwee is a research associate at Demos. His article appeared in Politico Magazine.

OU professor emeritus George Henderson, hired in 1967 as the school's third full-time African American faculty member, did not see it that way. Henderson told Paris Burris Wednesday in the Oklahoma Daily, the student newspaper, "The arrogance of the individuals who were spewing that racist stuff was to think that everybody there agreed with them, or they didn't care whether they agreed with them — that's even worse. But the unsung heroes are the individuals on that bus who videoed it and then leaked it. . . ."

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The Oklahoma Daily took a different tack.

It editorialized on Tuesday, "Thankfully, OU is off to a good start in combatting systematic racism. Under the leadership of OU President David Boren, the OU SAE chapter was closed and all members ordered to vacate the fraternity house by midnight Tuesday. Many Sooners called for immediate, forceful action and Boren delivered. He called the offenders in the video bigots and a disgrace. He shut down the frat and announced an ongoing investigation into the possibility of expelling the students in the video. He visited with Sooners who gathered early Monday morning to protest on campus.

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"Achieving greater diversity and inclusivity at OU isn't an easy task, but it is a necessary task. We are glad Boren kicked SAE off campus, and, like the student group Unheard, we believe the next step towards promoting equality at OU is implementing mandatory diversity and sensitivity training for all students. Offering an online seminar for current students and requiring a diversity training class as part of registration for new students would be a good start. If OU truly wants to ensure another racist video never happens, we need to squash institutionalized racism at every turn.

"It’s disappointing and disheartening that OU students engaged in a display of such blatant racism, but we are encouraged by the reactions of OU students and administrators. On Monday we saw student-athletes stand together in solidarity, countless students march in silent protest on campus and administrators show support for OU students.

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"As we've said before, we applaud OU Unheard for all it's done to promote diversity on campus and combat racism at OU. The group organized the powerful Monday morning protest and shared its message on national news outlets. We are thankful OU is listening to the group's concerns and implore administrators to continue to listen to Unheard students. It's clearer than ever that racism is alive and well in 2015, and OU needs to root out racism wherever it appears on campus. We believe maintaining an open dialogue with Unheard is a great way to tackle that goal. . . ."

BerThaddaeus MP Bailey, Oklahoma Daily, University of Oklahoma: SGA Department of Diversity chairperson proposes changes

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Wayne Bennett, the Field Negro: Racism on a bus.

James E. Causey, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Two expelled for racist chat

Nolan Clay and Adam Kemp, the Oklahoman: OU students learn 'a devastating lesson'

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Editorial, Daily News, New York: How to expel the University of Oklahoma bigots

Editorial, Oklahoma Daily, University of Oklahoma: Ban secrecy, not greek life

Editorial, the Oklahoman: We can all stand to learn something from OU fraternity video

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David Edwards, Raw Story: Mika Brzezinski insists 'Morning Joe' didn't blame rap for white frat racism: 'That is not what was said' 

Fox News Latino: Univision host fired after saying Michelle Obama looks like she's from 'Planet of the Apes' (March 12)

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Michael Meyers, Daily News, New York: Don't expel the University of Oklahoma racists: David Boren and the ACLU forget that the First Amendment protects the right to be bigoted

James Ragland, Dallas Morning News: As OU case shows, embers of racism still burn

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St. Louis Post-Dispatch: MSNBC's 'Morning Joe' blasts Waka Flocka Flame lyrics for SAE racist response (video)

Eugene Volokh, Washington Post: No, it's not constitutional for the University of Oklahoma to expel students for racist speech [UPDATED in light of the students' expulsion]

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Yvette Walker blog, medium.com: "He called me 'Nigger' "

"One of South Africa's best known TV journalists has been mugged on camera as he waited to go on air," the BBC reported Wednesday.South African Reporter Mugged as Cameras Roll

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"Footage shows two men accosting Vuyo Mvoko, from the national broadcaster SABC, who was outside a Johannesburg hospital to report on the arrival of Zambia's president for medical tests.

"Mr Mvoko later said one of the muggers threatened him with a gun when he did not want to give up his mobile phone.

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"The robbers appear unconcerned by the presence of the camera. . . ."

The story quoted Mvoko, "I couldn't understand why they'd walk right in front of the camera because the light is on and they could see that — and our car is branded, so they could see that this is a live broadcast."

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The story continued, "The thieves told him to hand over his phone, which he said was in his hand."

" 'Because I wasn't giving him the phone, he then called the other one who had a gun, and said: "Dubula le nja" [Shoot this dog],' Mr Mvoko told SABC.

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"At this point he said another member of the team screamed at him to hand over the phone, which he did. . . ."

The South African National Editors' Forum said in a statement, "Every South African lives with the reality of crime, but to see thugs brazenly ignoring television cameras and robbing media workers in the course of their work, yet again brings home the level of criminality in our society."

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Mail & Guardian, South Africa: SABC's Vuyo Mvoko and crew mugged on camera

Lester Holt-Led "NBC Nightly News" Maintains Its Lead

"NBC’s 'Nightly News' trumped both its rivals in nabbing eyeballs in the last week, according to the latest Nielsen data," Brian Steinberg wrote Wednesday for Variety. "The victory came even as the NBC newscast lost some of the most important viewers — the kind advertisers covet.

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"Anchored by Lester Holt, NBC’s 'Nightly News' snared 2.391 million viewers between the ages of 25 and 54, the demographic most desired by advertisers in news programming, for the five days between March 2 and March 6.

"That figure represents a 2.9% dip in viewers in that category from the previous five-day period. Meantime, ABC’s 'World News' attracted 2.30 million in the demo, approximately 2.95% less than the previous period, while CBS' 'Evening News' captured 1.78 million, representing nearly a 9.2% fall from the previous period's figures. . . ."

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Claude Sitton of N.Y. Times Dies, Outraged Segregationists

"Claude Sitton, a son of the South whose unwavering coverage of the civil rights movement for The New York Times through most of that era's tumultuous years was hailed as a benchmark of 20th-century journalism, died on Tuesday in Atlanta," Dennis Hevesi reported Tuesday for the Times. "He was 89.

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"The cause was congestive heart failure, his son Clint said. Mr. Sitton had been in a hospice.

"In later years Mr. Sitton won a Pulitzer Prize as a columnist for The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., where he was also the editor. But it was in the crucible of the Jim Crow South that he forged his most enduring legacy. . . ."

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Karen Grigsby Bates added Wednesday for NPR's "Code Switch," "It may be that Claude Fox Sitton so outraged the white Southern segregationists he reported on throughout the civil rights movement because, by all appearances, he could have been standing beside them instead of writing about them in the New York Times.

"Known as 'the dean of the race beat,' Sitton, who died on Tuesday, reported on many of the seminal moments in the early stages of the civil rights movement. His careful, detailed, and descriptive stories made the struggle for the nation's soul very real — sometimes uncomfortably real — for the readers of the country's most prestigious newspaper. He covered everything from the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, to the bombing of a Birmingham church that resulted in the deaths of four little girls. . . ."

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Editorial, News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C.: Sitton showed historic journalistic courage

Rockdale (Ga.) Citizen: Late Claude Sitton a leader in civil rights coverage

Editor Jonell Nash Dies, Encouraged Healthful Soul Food

"Jonell Nash, who taught a generation of cooks that traditional African-American recipes could be flavorful but not necessarily fatty, and who introduced soul food to new followers at home and abroad, died on Feb. 27 in the Bronx," Sam Roberts reported Tuesday for the New York Times. "She was 72.

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"The cause was cancer, her friend and former colleague Harriette Cole said.

"As food editor of Essence magazine from 1984 until she retired in 2008 and the author of several cookbooks, Ms. Nash was among the pioneers in a cause popularized more recently by Michelle Obama: reducing rates of childhood obesity, which are higher among black and Hispanic youngsters than among whites. . . ."

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42% of Blacks Followed Ferguson Report, Whites 18%

A new national survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted March 5-8 among 1,000 adults, found wide racial and ideological differences in interest in the Department of Justice report on race and policing in Ferguson, Mo., the center reported on Monday.

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"Roughly four-in-ten blacks (42%) followed news about the report very closely, compared with 18% of whites and 13% of Hispanics. Nearly half of liberal Democrats (46%) paid very close attention to the Ferguson report, making it the top story of the week for liberal Democrats.

"By contrast, 29% of conservative Republicans followed the Justice Department report on Ferguson very closely. . . ."

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Meanwhile, "The city's embattled police chief, the focus of bitter complaints after a white officer fatally shot an unarmed black teenager here last August, agreed to resign Wednesday, completing a near complete shake-up of the city's most senior administrators," John Eligon reported from Ferguson for the New York Times.

"In the week since the Department of Justice released a scathing report detailing how Ferguson used law enforcement to pad its coffers, often violating constitutional rights and disproportionately targeting blacks in the process, the city manager and Municipal Court judge have also stepped down, and the city's court has been placed under state supervision. . . ."

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[Two police officers were hit by gunfire early Thursday outside the Ferguson police department, Susan Weich reported for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

[The shots were fired just after midnight as police were confronting protesters who had gathered outside the police station.

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[St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said one officer was with his department and the other was with the Webster Groves department. Both were being treated at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, where Belmar spoke, and were in serious condition.

[The chief said at least three shots were fired. He described the injuries of both men as "very serious gunshot injuries." Neither injury was considered life-threatening.]

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Michael Arceneaux, NewsOne: Despite Uncle's Comments, Biracial Teen Is No Different Than Other Black Ones Killed By Police

Jean Marie Brown, alldigitocracy.org: Why is scrutinizing citizens, but not officers, in police shootings now the norm?

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Jarvis DeBerry, NOLA.com | the Times-Picayune: Ferguson police chief is out, but problem is much bigger than personnel

Editorial, Daily News, New York: Justice by the numbers

Editorial, St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Supreme Court finds its courage in Ferguson. Now what?

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Meghan Keneally, ABC News: Madison Police Shooting: Not Just About Race Because Victim Was Biracial, Family Says

Mychal Denzel Smith, the Nation: DOJ Report Confirms Racism Is Alive and Well in Ferguson. Now What?

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Catherine Taibi, Huffington Post: Rachel Maddow Slams Fox News Coverage Of Racist Emails Sent By Ferguson Police

Alex S. Vitale, the Nation: Obama's Police Reforms Ignore the Most Important Cause of Police Misconduct

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Julia Carrie Wong, Salon: "Which side are you on?": #Asians4BlackLives confronts anti-black prejudice in Asian communities

Columbia J-School to Trim Staff, Student Body, Class Sizes

"With regret, I've reached the conclusion that we must eliminate about half a dozen positions" at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, Dean Steve Coll told colleagues in a memo Wednesday, Jim Romenesko reported on his media blog. Coll also said the school plans to trim the size of the student body and of classes.

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Elizabeth Weinreb Fishman, associate dean for communications, told Journal-isms by email, "Our head of Admissions, Christine Souders, expects that the incoming class will be as diverse as last year's class, if not more so."

She supplied figures on the diversity of the class most recently admitted.

"For the full-time class that enrolled for Fall 2014:

"Among American Students, our statistics for self-identified students are:

"Black/African American = 8%

"Asian American = 10%

"Latino/Hispanic = 8%

"White = 30%

"Other = 3%

"Unreported = 41%"

The statistics do not include international students. Fishman also gave these figures, "International students = 41%; Female = 75%; Male = 25%; Average Age = 27."

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She said she did not have staff diversity figures.

Coll also said in the memo that he was reorganizing the school's management.

But, he said, "Ernest Sotomayor will continue as the Dean of Student Affairs overseeing career services and student services. I have also asked him to accept the additional position of Director of the school's Latin American Initiative, working with schools, employers, funders, and alumni to broaden and deepen our engagement. One of his first assignments will be to launch a version of the highly successful summer investigative course that he and Sheila developed."

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Sheila Coronel is Toni Stabile professor of professional practice in investigative journalism, director of the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism and dean of academic affairs.

Sydney Ember, New York Times: Columbia Journalism School to Cut Class Size and Staff Jobs

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L.A. Public Radio Station Persuades a Nonvoter to Vote

"How do you convince people to care about a local, municipal primary election in a city with historically-low voter turnout?," Melody Kramer wrote Tuesday for the Poynter Institute.

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"That’s the question KPCC’s managing editor Kristen Muller posed to science reporter Sanden Totten as they were planning KPCC’s coverage of the Los Angeles primary municipal elections, which took place last week on March 3.

" 'I was bemoaning the fact that it was going to be hard to get people to pay attention, and then [. . .] said, ‘Maybe you don’t convince everyone — maybe you just find a single person.'

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"KPCC Reporter Meghan McCarty was tapped to find 'the average non-voter in Los Angeles' and set off on a quest. She knocked on doors, stood in a supermarket parking lot with a sandwich board and emailed everyone she knew to see if they could help her find 'a non-white renter under 45 who doesn’t vote in local elections but might be engaged enough to have their minds changed and have it all recorded for the radio.'

"Eventually, she found Al Gordon, a chef and partner of a restaurant in Los Angeles who had lived in Los Angeles for more than a decade but never voted in a local election."

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Kramer also wrote, "The narrative arc played itself out over several on-air radio pieces. In Part 1, the radio audience was introduced to Al. Part 2 featured a political scientist, who sat down with Al and tried to help him (and KPCC’s listeners) sort through the candidates.

"In Part 3, Al and Meghan attended a candidate forum together and broadcast what they learned to listeners. In Part 4, Al held an open house election forum at his restaurant. And in the last installment, Al became one of the first people to cast his ballot in the election.

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"As Al learned, listeners at home learned as well — about voter turn-out, how candidate forums work and about the candidates themselves. . . ."

Esther J. Cepeda, Washington Post Writers Group: The importance of Chicago's Latino vote

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Short Takes

With We Live Here, a podcast that explores racial issues in the St. Louis region, St. Louis Public Radio continues to explore the issues that arose with the shooting death of Michael Brown last year in Ferguson, Mo., and the ensuing protests," Tyler Falk of Current.org wrote March 5 in his PodScanning column. He also wrote, "Two Michigan Radio employees are spending nights and weekends developing a new podcast that they hope will eventually catch the attention of their station. Let’s Review is hosted by Jenn White, Michigan Radio's All Things Considered host, and Kim Springer, the station's social media producer, and focuses on race, identity and pop culture, with their first episode looking at race and movies. . . ."

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In Philadelphia, "WCAU reporter Nefertiti Jaquez is out at the NBC owned Philadelphia station," Kevin Eck reported Wednesday for TVSpy. "She hasn't been seen on air since reporting about a Philadelphia cop who had been shot in the head last Thursday." Eck also reported, "During a report of the top of the 6:00 p.m., she called him 'the injured officer.' The report about his death was never mentioned again. . . ."

"Having a clear digital media strategy is imperative in reaching Hispanic Americans, who are setting the pace in the U.S. for using mobile devices, the Internet and television in their daily lives," Leslie Jaye Goff reported Wednesday for Multichannel News. A study by digital marketing firm Specific Media and brand marketer SMG Multicultural titled "Hispanic Americans Foreshadow the Future of Media" found "that Hispanic Americans spent an average of 31 hours a week on the Internet, 83 percent more time than non-Hispanic Americans, who spend 21 hours a week online. Moreover, they also spend nearly four times as long shopping online via websites or apps. . . ."

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"The media should be focusing on the underlying issue, the lack of business being done with African American owned businesses by major corporations. In particular, Comcast missed a huge opportunity to advance that goal when it failed to sell any of its cable television systems to companies owned by African Americans," Jim Winston, president of the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters, said in a statement Tuesday. NABOB was joined by the National Bankers Association and U.S. Black Chambers in the statement on the recent lawsuit filed by Byron Allen's television programming company against Comcast, some leading civil rights organizations, and the Rev. Al Sharpton.

The Online News Association and the Poynter Institute announced Tuesday "the premiere class of 25 women leaders selected for the tuition-free ONA-Poynter Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media. The participants were chosen from a pool of just under 500 applicants, screened for potential, need and diversity across ethnicity, age, geography, technology platforms and skill sets. . . ."

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"The Associated Press has announced its 2016 political team, which is led by political editor David Scott," Chris O'Shea reported Wednesday for FishbowlNY. Jesse Holland is to lead race and ethnicity and voters reporting.

"María Elena Salinas and Univision News were recognized for immigration coverage [PDF] in Entre el Abandono y el Rechazo, which aired as a prime time special on the Univision Network," the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center said Wednesday in announcing winners of the Walter Cronkite Awards. "Judges praised the 'balanced and revealing' reporting from the point of view not of politicians, but of families in their countries of origin, which brought viewers face-to-face with women and children directly affected. 'This kind of story is often left out of the immigration debate,' the judges said, noting that both reporter and camera crew put themselves in harm's way in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to get the story. . . ."

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"Name calling, a dead rat and a stalker. What do they all have in common?" Dorothy Bland asked Monday for the Poynter Institute. "No, this is not a quiz for an episode in 'How to Get Away With Murder,' and I'm certainly not the angry black woman in America. I became a news junkie as a child and have lived through all these experiences over the last 35 years in journalism as a reporter, editor and publisher. Do not call me a victim as each of these experiences has made me stronger. . . ." Bland is the dean of the Frank W. and Sue Mayborn School of Journalism and director of the Frank W. Mayborn Graduate Institute of Journalism at the University of North Texas. Her essay was the first in a Poynter series on women in leadership in journalism.

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