Editor’s note: This project discusses self-harm. If you have experienced suicidal thoughts or have lost someone to suicide and want to seek help, you can call the national Suicide Prevention Lifeline by dialing 988 or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting "HOME" to 741741.
“One person’s life doesn’t necessarily make a journalistic story,” Pulitzer Center grantee Lisa Armstrong told a class of United States history students at Glendale Community College, a Pulitzer Center Campus Consortium partner. “It has to be part of something larger.”
Armstrong began her career in journalism as an international reporter. She has spent time in Sierra Leone, Kenya, and the Philippines. With grants from New York University and the Pulitzer Center, Armstrong reported from Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake until 2014. There, she investigated the spread of HIV/AIDS and sexual assault at encampments.
Her sources’ trauma may not have been hers to bear, but people trusted her to “represent their stories as they happened,” said Armstrong, which exacted a personal toll. She advised students to find ways of caring for themselves.
In 2015, Armstrong returned to the United States. Much of her reporting since illuminates sprawling, and often cruel, state-administered carceral systems. Her 2022 Pulitzer Center-supported project, Trouble in Texas, followed Joshua Kieth Beasley Jr., from the Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD), where at 11 years old he started serving his sentence for kicking a school safety officer, to an adult facility where he ultimately died by suicide while Armstrong was reporting.
Armstrong documented neglect and abuse; under-resourced and vindictive staff; and mental health treatment options limited by for-profit health care.
“This is some of the hardest reporting I’ve ever done,” said Armstrong. “Most of the time I show up as a journalist [and] the bad things have already happened. And bad things happened to Joshua [while reporting].”
Armstrong shows how Joshua’s family’s story is but one testimonial about a system set up to fail inmates and their loved ones. During her keynote presentation, attended by nearly 60 people, a formerly incarcerated man told Armstrong that her reporting touched him: “We need to be talking about this,” he said.
Michelle Dowd, the paper’s faculty adviser, said Armstrong’s talk was incredibly “moving and educational,” and helped her and her students “understand the powerful work [the] Pulitzer [Center] does.”
Students asked Armstrong how they might gain the trust of vulnerable sources.
“I have to explain to sources that this is a process,” Armstrong said. “I can’t [promise to] change anything for you. All I can do is listen to you and tell your story.”
These deep, professional relationships bedrock her stories. “I don’t quit on people,” Armstrong said.
“You can’t just tell someone’s story, you have to figure out why they are there. Because that’s where the real story is,” Armstrong emphasized to students.