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New York Times reporter Dan Barry awarded for work in disability reporting

Dan Barry, a reporter for The New York Times, was presented with the 2014 Katherine Schneider Journalism Award for Excellence in Reporting on Disability Monday night.

Barry, who gave a presentation on disability journalism at the Walter Cronkite School’s Must See Monday event that night, spoke to a crowd about his experience exposing the abuse and mistreatment of 21 disabled men working on a turkey farm in Iowa, which resulted in an investigative piece by him called “The ‘Boys’ in the Bunkhouse.”

“At its root, men who were living in state schools in Texas, which were institutions for men with disabilities, were taken from those institutions and trained to work with turkeys,” Barry said.

The men, after being trained to work with turkeys, were taken in groups and sent around the country, according to Barry, often times ending up at turkey-processing plants.

“The group of men that I wrote about went to a place called Atalissa, Iowa,” Barry said. “Their handlers, who really didn’t have any training of working with people with disabilities, converted an old schoolhouse into a dormitory and put a bunch of these guys in there. They’d be woken up at 3 o’clock every morning and trucked over to a turkey-processing plant.”

Barry explained how the men had, essentially, the worst job in the plant, having to haul 60-pound live turkeys from a truck and place them in shackles before later eviscerating them.

For 35 years, the men did their jobs, all while being underpaid in comparison to their non-disabled peers. Barry said that since about 1974, the monthly earning for the specific men he reported on was a mere $65, a wage that was never raised.

“They had no outside life,” Barry said. “They weren’t allowed to have relationships with women, they weren’t allowed to have cellphones when cellphones appeared.”

The 21 men were isolated, unable to find an escape from being physically and mentally abused, their personal health and living conditions inside the home deteriorating.

The crowd in the First Amendment Forum at the Cronkite School heard the voices of some of these men in short video clips embedded in Barry’s article. Barry showed images of the inside of the “bunkhouse.”

Tim McGuire, the Frank Russell Chair for the business of journalism at the Cronkite School, asked Barry his reason for providing such explicit details in his story.

“You were, what I thought, painfully detailed in describing the indignities these men suffered,” McGuire said. “How did you get that detail and what was your storyteller intent in making it so explicit?”

Barry said details of the degradation came first from court case documents and social worker’s assessments. However, he said the true story — the narrative — came about when he requested to speak to the men himself, something no other reporter had done.

“I could have gotten more graphic,” Barry said. “It was a matter of pushback from my editors saying, ‘Okay that’s enough.’ But the reason was because … well, God damn, I want you to feel and know what was going on here.”

There are shortcuts for describing abuse, Barry said, but it was just not good enough for relaying what these men endured. He explained that instead of building a story around the topic of disability, he wanted to talk to the men.

This honest approach seemed to resonate with the crowd, as sophomore journalism student, Serena Zhang, pointed out.

“I learned how powerful multimedia is a tool for storytelling,” Zhang said. “I used to think it is most effective for feature stories, but my view has changed. I also like how he said, ‘A small thing like a punch in the nose can change someone’s life’ as an example of how important it is to look for stories that many think won’t be one.”

Ultimately, Barry pointed out that the essential part of journalism is the storytelling.

“Life is complicated, life is dense,” Barry said. “In order to understand life, we tell one another stories. It helps us process what we’re experiencing, and it helps us be compassionate and understanding of the lives of others.”

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