Emerson alumnus Brendan McCarthy, a crime reporter for the Times-Picayune, sat at his desk, poring through old police documents tirelessly to look for a clue into the allegations against New Orleans law enforcement shootings in the wake of Hurricane Katrina he said.
When the documents failed to be conclusive, McCarthy said he called everyone involved in the investigations, no matter how minor the role, in an attempt to uncover the truth about the convoluted reports. When his sources ran out, he walked the city streets knocking on doors, hoping to gain some insight from the people.
McCarthy’s investigative reporting turned into the television series “Law and Disorder” and was awarded the George K. Polk Journalism Award for its reports of the police brutality associated with Hurricane Katrina.
The series was a collaborative effort between the non-profit organization ProPublica, an independent newsroom dedicated to investigative reporting, and other Times-Picayune reporters.
The George K. Polk Award has honored journalists who have achieved excellence in print and broadcast journalism since 1949. Administered by Long Island University, it is named after CBS correspondent George Polk, who was killed while covering a Greek civil war, according to the awards curator, John Darton.
Darton said that out of over 450 submissions for this year, there were three standout entries in the television-reporting category, and McCarthy’s piece was the clear winner.
“We chose [the piece] because it thoroughly documented the shocking state of New Orleans during and after Katrina,” said Darton. “It had a large impact and led to a great deal of investigative reporting.”
McCarthy, former news editor of the Beacon, graduated in the class of 2004 as a print journalism major.
“It was really exciting to work with other passionate journalists covering campus issues that we found to be really important,” McCarthy said of his Beacon days.
Jerry Lanson, an Emerson journalism professor and past Beacon advisor, said that McCarthy’s reporting skills have always been well-developed due to his constant curiosity and his interest in covering things that effect the public.
“The great thing about Brendan to me is two things: he has a tremendous curiosity and he is really hungry,” said Lanson. “As a student, he always wanted to know more, and he has worked for everything he has done.”
Stephanie Chelf, a class of 2004 alumna who is now the senior account executive for Peak Media
Communications, served several editor positions at the Beacon and worked with McCarthy for two years. She said McCarthy won several journalism honors while he was at Emerson, including a second place award from the Society of Professional Journalists for spot reporting.
“He was a great reporter,” said Chelf. “[My fellow editors and I] knew it right away when he came to the Beacon as a freshman.”
Steve Stites, an alumnus currently working as a political consultant in New York City, worked with McCarthy as his assistant news editor at the Beacon.
“You could tell he had a passion to understand things,” said Stites. “He would [pitch ideas] that would seem obvious in hindsight, but no one else had thought of, and it led to some great journalism.”
Stites says he remembers when McCarthy reported a series on Emerson’s Board of Trustees. “He helped us understand the shadowy force behind the administration,” said Stites.
Post-grad, McCarthy did a series of internships at newspapers including the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Boston Globe, and a residency at the Chicago Tribune, before being hired by the Times-Picayune in December of 2006.
McCarthy said Emersonians hoping to become journalists should get as much experience as possible by writing as much as they can for newspapers and blogs.
“Treat every story like it is a big one,” he said.
McCarthy was also a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2010 for his work in crime reporting, and in 2009 he won the Meyer Berger Award from Columbia University for human interest reporting.
McCarthy said he was honored to receive the award and believes the success of the piece is largely due to the importance of the subject matter and the severity of the allegations being made against the New Orleans Police.
“It was a group effort for all involved, and it was a great recognition,” said McCarthy.