Journalists bear enormous power to remedy social injustice. They speak on behalf of those who do not have a microphone, a platform, or a podium, telling the stories of people impacted by the social and cultural challenges that we do not want to face but desperately need to fix: People trapped in the criminal justice system by mandatory minimum sentences that don't serve public safety or rehabilitation. LGBT youth who land in foster care and then on the streets because their families reject them. Children targeted by zero-tolerance school discipline policies who get funneled into the juvenile justice system, their educations and lives derailed. Too often and in too many places, those most at risk and with the fewest resources have no voice.
The National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD) honors those journalists, filmmakers, and creators who give the silent a voice with our Media for a Just Society Awards. Each year we acknowledge media whose work furthers public understanding of criminal justice, juvenile justice, child welfare, and adult protection issues. The compelling narratives they create are not easily summed up in a witty tweet or packaged with a happy ending for a talk show. They are the sometimes difficult, sometimes uplifting stories that move us to reach out in the name of social justice.
Journalist Shane Bauer, a Media for a Just Society Award winner this year, was imprisoned while hiking in Iran in 2009 and spent four months in solitary confinement. Bauer wrote last year in Mother Jones, "I needed human contact so badly that I woke every morning hoping to be interrogated." Research maintains that just 10 days in solitary confinement can cause negative psychiatric symptoms.
Now back at home, Bauer has turned his journalistic eye to solitary confinement in the United States. He has found a few notable differences between Iran and here. For example, unlike the segregation cell he toured at California's Pelican Bay supermax, where prisoners in solitary confinement spend an average of eight years in isolation, Bauer's cell in Iran had a window.
"When, after five weeks, my knees buckled and I fell to the ground utterly broken, sobbing and rocking to the beat of my heart, it was the patch of sunlight [through that window] that brought me back," Bauer writes. Because of him, the voices of prisoners at Pelican Bay are heard by millions rather than echoing off concrete walls.
We are honoring Shane Bauer and others because their work takes these issues beyond the sensational stories on which the public and our policy makers too often fixate. When fear drives policy, the resulting initiatives do not support public safety or rehabilitation.
That is why celebrating the media's accurate and compelling voices is so important. Though these individuals often work against great odds, they find the stories we need to hear -- stories that make us realize our common humanity and universal connections, and show us answers to our most pressing issues. When they succeed, they give voice to those who have been silenced and ignite in all of us the need to act.
This year's Media for a Just Society Award winners take us places that few of us will ever visit. For example, James Ridgeway's winning article, "The Other Death Sentence," describes the precarious lives of elderly prisoners who serve as each other's caregivers through aging and illness. We recognize Ridgeway's incredible determination to make these prisoners heard, to remind us that they are people despite years of incarceration that have left them alone and broken.
Documentarians Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon let us into the lives of the five young men unjustly imprisoned for the famous 1989 "Central Park jogger" case. Ages 14 to 16 at the time, they served years for a crime they did not commit, trapped by a fearful city's perception of "out-of-control youth." The Central Park Five reveals important flaws in our criminal justice system and in our values.
This year we are especially proud to give the Distinguished Achievement Award in Nonfiction to groundbreaking author Andrew Solomon, whose book Far From the Tree describes children and families dealing with significant challenges that often become unexpected sources of joy and transformation. These families, like those in the social systems in which NCCD works, confront barriers that test their courage and their limits.
The Media for a Just Society Award winners craft compelling stories that take us past initial impressions and judgments -- to connection and compassion. When these creators bring to light the stories of where we fail each other and where we succeed, they empower us with the knowledge needed to change things for the better.
Alex Busansky, President of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD), served as a state and federal prosecutor and as counsel to Senator Russ Feingold on the Senate Judiciary Committee. For more information about the Media for a Just Society Awards, visit nccdglobal.org.