A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists

SDX Awards: Newspaper non-deadline reporting, Joseph Neff, Jay Price, Charles Crain

By Quill

Gruesome photos from the ambush of Fallujah flooded front pages and airwaves in Spring 2004. With stories of prisoner abuse and an interim government breaking shortly thereafter, the American media quickly moved on. However, The News & Observer, based in Raleigh, N.C., saw the images as a story untold. One image in particular, which showed the charred bodies of American private security contractors hanging from a bridge with insurgents celebrating beneath them, inspired “The Bridge.”

The mob had tired of thrashing the two scorched torsos. The body on the south side of the skeletal steel bridge was tied to girders with electrical cord about five feet above the ground, dismembered and decapitated. The second body hung on the other side of the roadway, feet up, its limbs slack, its head little more than a blackened skull. A few blocks away, another crowd was beating two more burned bodies.

On the bridge, an Arab reporter would raise a camera, and a man or boy would climb to pose beside the corpse. Some in the crowd would turn to flash a “V” for victory with their fingers.

The News & Observer researched the histories of the four charred bodies. The reporters also looked at the role Blackwater, a North Carolina-based company making big money in the game of private military company that employed the men, played in their deaths.

“This was a difficult story to report,” said deputy managing editor Steve Riley. “The private companies stonewalled us. The military was of little help. Government sources, investigators and lawyers knew little or nothing about the deaths of Wesley Batalona, Scott Helvenston, Michael Teague and Jerry Zovko. We got to know the families of the men, learning about their lives and getting access to their e-mails. We interviewed their co-workers and friends.”

No one has ever been arrested for the deaths of Wesley Batalona, Scott Helvenston, Michael Teague and Jerry Zovko, who died March 31 in an ambush as they protected a convey on its way to pick up kitchen equipment for ESS, a food supplier to the military.

Neither the U.S. military nor the U.S.-led occupation government investigated the incident. The company that employed the four, Blackwater USA of Moyock, N.C., conducted its own investigation but has said little beyond a sketchy statement in April.

The families of Batalona, Helvenston, Teague and Zovko don’t know why the men drove through the heart of a city that boiled with hostility toward the American occupiers. They don’t know where their loved ones were going, why they drove vehicles without armor or why they didn’t have more help in a place where the military ventured only in heavily armed conveys.

It’s not clear whether they’ll ever get answers.

In all, the team of reporters spent three months creating the seven chapters of “The Bridge.” After its original publication, The News & Observer continued to uncover new facts and report them to readers.

“Newspapers have the responsibility to tell all sorts of stories – the daily news, the weather, sports,” said Riley, “but readers depend on us for the news they can’t get anywhere else, and you can’t be afraid of these types of ambitious stories.”