A conversation with Phoebe Zerwick about reporting, narrative, racism, privacy, truth and her book, ‘Beyond Innocence’

By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor

Phoebe Zerwick
Phoebe Zerwick | Photo by Christine Rucker

Phoebe Zerwick is a longtime investigative journalist who is now director of the journalism program and professor of the practice at Wake Forest University. Her book, “Beyond Innocence: The Life Sentence of Darryl Hunt,” is the story of the remarkable life of a Black man and his wrongful conviction of a 1984 rape and murder in Winston-Salem, his exoneration after nearly two brutal decades in prison, and the consequences that followed, both heroic and tragic.

I had the privilege of speaking with Zerwick recently about the book and the case, and about the roles, approaches and limitations of local journalists in reporting on the criminal justice system and the people who find themselves in it. Here is our conversation, edited for length and clarity:

EF: You wrote about the Darryl Hunt case for the Winston-Salem Journal in 2003. Talk about what you found then that surprised you, what the media may have missed.

PZ: I was assigned to take a deep, fresh look at Darryl Hunt’s case in 2003, right after he filed a motion for a new round of DNA testing so that the DNA profile could be run against what was then a new thing — databases of DNA of convicted offenders. And it was a case that, of course, had been covered by my newspaper regularly for 19 years. So I and all of our readers knew many of the facts of the case, including the fact that he claimed he was railroaded, that he claimed he was innocent, and that there were many holes in the case against him. That’s important because a lot of these cases have been neglected, going on without public scrutiny, and that was not the situation here. 

Read moreA conversation with Phoebe Zerwick about reporting, narrative, racism, privacy, truth and her book, ‘Beyond Innocence’

It’s not quite time to shrug

Check out the full NC Local newsletter from May 11 for more from the Workshop, including industry news, job postings and applause for journalists statewideSign up to get NC Local in your inbox every Wednesday.

By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor

COVID found me on Friday.  

I’m slowly getting better, but I’m still not well. My testimony: This pandemic is far from over, the variants are real and not a political ploy, and even if you’re healthy and have been pretty smart about this virus, it can still pack a punch. I had two vaccinations and a booster, and I’m glad I did — they’ve made this more like a bout of flu than the deadly terror it has been for too many. 

What amazes me, frankly, is how many of my acquaintances also have it. (Non-contact acquaintances, that is — I’m not “patient zero” here.) Cases are rising again in North Carolina and elsewhere — and probably more than the state dashboard shows because some people, using only home tests, may not be reporting their results. And some aren’t even testing. Fortunately, most of the cases seem mild to moderate, but people are definitely sick.

Read moreIt’s not quite time to shrug

Building Better Newsrooms

Check out the full NC Local newsletter from May 4 for more from the Workshop, including more on the 2022 Diversity Audit, industry news and applause for journalists statewideSign up to get NC Local in your inbox every Wednesday.

By Shannan Bowen, Executive Director

The Workshop is partnering with UNC’s Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media on a series of workshops, conversations and events about workplace resilience. We hope to convene people around ideas for improving newsroom jobs, policies and structures. I agree with CISLM director Erica Perel that sustainability isn’t just about business models. As Erica said so eloquently, “Making local journalism jobs themselves more sustainable—better pay, hours, working conditions and opportunities for growth across media and ownership types—is also important to the future of local news.”

We’re calling this series “Workplace Resilience: Building Better Newsrooms.” We kicked it off in March at our NC News & Information Summit with a session titled “The Care and Feeding of Early-Career Journalists.”

Read moreBuilding Better Newsrooms