For the first time in her journalistic career, all Liz Bowie had to do was watch.
He lingered hour after hour, day after day, on a basketball court jammed between a fast-food joint and a drug rehab center. Others came and went for a few games before moving on. But Iven Bailey, tall, sinewy and 17 years old, stayed put as the summer sun disappeared over Northeast Baltimore. You could say the court was where he belonged. It would be truer to say he belonged nowhere else.
The Baltimore Sun reporter’s astute observations let her readers stand beside Iven Bailey and Gary Sells, two homeless teens wrapping up high school. Bowie resigned herself to blend into the background for the ongoing “On Their Own” series. She knew even the slightest touch could shatter the delicate story.
“I am a beat reporter who has churned out dailies and weekenders for years,” said Bowie. “The project made me realize the power of watching scenes unfold without asking a single question and of sticking with a subject for a long time.”
More than just denying her journalistic urges, telling the tale of Bailey and Sells required her and photographer Andre Chung to suppress their natural human impulses to help out the deprived young adults.
“We did not give them rides, even when it was freezing outside and they had to walk miles to get home,” Bowie said. “We didn’t feed them even though we knew they were hungry. … We also didn’t give them advice … but it was hard to watch two people with so many needs and not be able to help them.”
It was an obstacle that not many journalists have to clear. Consequently, it was one the judges took into consideration when analyzing the effort.
“That kind of personal sacrifice — and that specific one for many journalists — shows total devotion to the story, which the story’s text and photographs bear out,” said the judges.
“In sum, the story is the result of not just the powerful and purposeful commitment to the values contained in the ethics code that the Society of Professional Journalists promulgates, but of a desire, drive and dedication to which all journalists should aspire.”
While the determined journalist’s fingerprints can been seen on her potent, polished prose, the themes Bowie documented from the lives of the two teens made her series universally appealing, capable of altering anyone’s preconceptions.
“I believe the series did change some readers’ perceptions of inner city youths and the neighborhoods they live in,” said Bowie. “It was a coming-of-age story of two boys that had themes common to all boys in America woven through it.”