Pulitzer Prize-winning alumnus on ‘covering cops and crazies’

For Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist James Queally, chaos is just part of the job description.

He’s been punched out at a crime scene in Newark, N.J., he’s been offered drugs in the field and he’s had at least five somewhat-polite conversations with white supremacists. This adrenaline junkie has no shortage of wild stories.

But seven years ago, a career in police reporting wasn’t even a glint in Queally’s eye. The self-proclaimed “comic book nerd” was the sports editor at The Signal and pursuing a degree in journalism at the College.

Since he graduated in 2009, he has worked at major media outlets as close to home as The Star-Ledger and as far as the Los Angeles Times, where Queally was part of the team that won a Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on the shootings in San Bernardino, Calif., last year.

Queally returns to the College to share his experiences in journalism post-graduation. (Connor Smith)

He flew back to his alma mater on Friday, Sept. 16, for a Brown Bag discussion about his life covering “cops, crazies and conventioneers,” as per his lecture’s title.

Mayo Concert Hall was all but filled with eager students scribbling on notepads as Queally talked about his experiences covering Ferguson, Mo., in the wake of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. He described his instinct to run toward the sound of gunshots — that’s probably where the story is, after all — and the importance of treating sources with compassion.

“Seem like a human being, not a parasite, when they’re in the middle of… a life-altering situation,” he said. “Treat people like people. It’s that simple.”

With that mantra in mind, Queally set out to tell a new narrative about Ferguson, one that didn’t revolve around riots and fires in the streets.

Around Thanksgiving, he found “Momma Cat,” a 53-year-old woman named Cat Daniels who had been serving Sunday meals to demonstrators outside the Ferguson Police Department’s headquarters nearly every week. Daniels saw herself as a mentor to the younger generation of protesters.

“This, to me, summed up the center of what I saw in the protests,” Queally said. “It’s not what you’re getting on CNN. It’s not what you’re getting on Twitter. There, you’re getting fire… riots… looting. This is happening, but everyone can tell you that story. I don’t need to be there to tell you that story.”

Besides finding innovative story angles, Queally practices a novel method of note-taking. He described the typical cliché journalist to the audience — the ones with their notepads out, furiously scribbling down detailed notes, much like many of the students in the audience. But, Queally said, that’s not always the case when covering long-term stories, like the tensions in Ferguson.

Queally imitates a protester he saw in Ferguson. (Connor Smith)

There and beyond, Queally said he uses his Twitter feed as a notepad.

“I post 60, 70, 80, 90, 100 (tweets) in a couple hour span — probably more than that,” he said as he gestured to his own Twitter feed on the projection screen. “This is your notepad. I try to set a scene later by looking at this.”

From social media to photography to videography, Queally noted that journalists are expected to be jacks of all trades.

“(It’s about) trying to… serve both needs, web and traditional print side, without compromising one or the other,” he said.

That’s not an easy task, but it’s a necessary one for journalists in the digital age. Queally impressed upon students the importance of embracing the digital side of reporting without “neutering” traditional journalism.

But above all, he encouraged them to find a career that makes them happy.

“I have not felt in seven years like getting up and going to work felt like work,” he said. “If you can find that job, you need to stay in that job.”

This story originally appeared in The Signal.

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