April 5, 2002 – A top investigative reporter who first made his journalistic mark in the Virgin Islands is urging his compatriots to take up their pens and follow his lead.
Melvin Claxton won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1995 while working as a reporter for The Virgin Islands Daily News. On Thursday, he returned to the University of the Virgin Islands, where he was a journalism major, to share some of the methods he has used to gather information for a number of prize-winning stories.
His presentation, "Investigative Reporting and the Rigors of Obtaining Information Here and on the Mainland," was part of the UVI Humanities Festival now under way as part of the university's 40th anniversary observances.
Claxton shared with his audience a fondness for family sayings, including one about not wanting to see "the making of laws or sausages." But that "making" process, he said, is the nuts and bolts of investigative journalism. His said his V.I. stories were the result conducting interviews over days and weeks, collecting information through on-site visits and sifting through thousands of documents. Many of the things he found in the process, he said, were "ugly."
His motivation for delving into the underside of the community, Claxton said, was the hope of inspiring change. "This is what should drive what we do — when people do bad things and try to hide it, that we expose what they do," he said.
In the midst of his remarks, a note of disappointment crept in. Five years after leaving the territory where he came to study and then to apply his craft, he has come home to find that, in spite of his efforts, little has changed.
As an example, he cited the story of a woman he met while writing his first major series, on the territory's public housing. When he met her, she was about 17 and had two children and was living in one of the worst housing communities in the territory. The day he interviewed her, standing by the refrigerator was her boyfriend, drinking a beer.
That was in the 1980s. When Claxton met the woman again during a more recent visit, she was still in public housing, now with seven children, two of whom had been to jail. There at the refrigerator, slightly grayer, was the same guy, drinking a beer.
"We can inform, but we can't enforce a change," he said of the journalist's mission. He called on the current V.I. press corps to revisit the conditions reported in the investigations he carried out locally and see what, if anything, has changed.
These stories are worth continued pursuit, he said, because when reports first appear, they cause a public sensation, but after a while the stir dies down, along with any resolve to change the things that readers and leaders find outrageous in the first light of day.
His local investigations produced, in addition to the "Public Housing: Public Shame" series, others on the failures of public education and the criminal justice system (this one winning the Pulitzer Prize), and on the trafficking of illegal aliens into prostitution.
Such work, he cautioned, comes with challenges and personal risks. A series written on political corruption in his native Antigua resulted in that government canceling his passport and declaring him a non-citizen. Claxton said his attorney is still dealing with that.
Claxton, who serves on the St. Thomas Source editorial advisory board, urged his V.I. colleagues to delve into problems today using the same painstaking, thorough information-gathering process that worked for him. Don't fudge facts, make every subject accountable, avoid shortcuts, and check and double check every detail, he counseled.
When Claxton left the Virgin Islands, it was to take an investigative reporting job at The Chicago Tribune. From there, he moved to The Detroit News, where he works now and has won numerous awards. He said he considers his byline as a brand name. When people see Melvin Claxton's name on a story, he said, he wants them to feel they can "take that information to the bank."
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