Behind the Story: Stav Ziv on “Can the Right Coverage Prevent Wrongful Conviction?”

By Stav Ziv

Not long before embarking on the FASPE trip, I had the opportunity to interview a man who had recently been released from prison. He was not paroled or finished with his sentence—of 75 years to life—but exonerated, his conviction wiped off his record like spilled juice off a countertop. I knew from the moment I got his phone number from a social worker who’d asked if she could pass it on, that I was lucky to be one step closer to the source.

A couple weeks later, I sat with Antonio Yarbough and his friend from “the inside” in Yarbough’s basement apartment with a fellow journalism school classmate there to act as photographer. As we talked, I learned I was being afforded a glimpse Yarbough had not granted to the big dogs, reporters from publications I could barely even dream of writing for, like Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Rolling Stone.

Yarbough’s decision to let me in but keep them out was anything but flippant. It was hard for him to trust the press that he felt had utterly failed him in the early 1990s. No one had even spoken to him then, he said, to ask him his side of the story. But I was a student, he said, a journalist in training, and if he could give me an interview (or a handful of them) that would have an impact on how I later covered stories like his, then he would choose me over the veterans.

As we discussed various scenarios over the course of the FASPE program, I felt somewhat panicked at all the ways we can do things wrong as journalists, all of the ways we could overlook what in hindsight and with context becomes clear—from playing into the dark side of humanitarian aid culture to succumbing to restrictions and censorship by a strong-armed authoritarian regime like that of the Nazis.

I found myself thinking back to Yarbough, and asking myself what role the press played in his story and what role my peers and I would play in the stories of others. Even before FASPE, I had become deeply invested in Yarbough, and had begun working on a long-form profile of his experience, with particular attention to the transition from prison back into society after serving more than two decades for a crime he did not commit.

Delving into the thorny questions of journalism ethics while in Germany and Poland with the other fellows, I realized I also needed to pick apart the ethical questions surrounding Yarbough’s case. And so I decided to bridge my schoolwork with FASPE by writing about the role of the press in relation to the criminal justice system and cases of wrongful conviction, and hoping in the process to glean lessons that would inform my future work.

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