Making an Appeal: The Marshall Project

If you watched Netflix’s Unbelievable, or read the non-fiction book, A False Report, then you’ve already encountered the work of The Marshall Project. Named for the civil rights lawyer and first African American to serve on the United States Supreme Court, The Marshall Project works “to elevate the criminal justice issue to one of national urgency, and to help spark a national conversation about reform.”

[Note: this is part of the post category I’m dubbing “Making an Appeal” (get it?!), which is to highlight the projects (sites, podcasts, other goings on) I come across that are relevant to this blog’s topic (true/crime/etc.) and seem worth checking out.]

The nonprofit journalism organization was launched in 2014 by a former hedge-fund manager, Neil Barsky, who had already been working as a philanthropist and producing journalistic media like the 2012 documentary Koch. He had considered journalism as a career since high school, and he completed a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University.  While working at newspaper organizations like New York Daily News and the Wall Street Journal, he covered business and finance issues and eventually left journalism to work in finance for about 15 years, becoming a very successful hedge fund manager.

He never lost his interest in journalism, however. But he didn’t believe in the for-profit advertising model of newspapers. With the former executive editor of the New York Times, he founded the Marshall Project to be a nonprofit investigative journalism organization that would work with other organizations and news platforms.

In a statement about the organization’s formation on the website, Barsky explains that he was heavily influenced by two books about the criminal justice system in the U.S. when considering the organization’s focus:

The seeds of The Marshall Project were planted a few years ago after I read two books. The first, Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow,” argues that mass incarceration — which dates roughly from President Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs in the 1980s to the present—represents the third phase of African-American oppression in the United States, after slavery and Jim Crow. Alexander documents how the United States came to be the world’s biggest jailer by enacting policies that represented a bipartisan shift in how we address addiction, mental illness, and other non-violent forms of misconduct. Fueled in part by a reaction to civil rights gains and in part by fear of escalating crime, Alexander claims, we enacted tough drug laws, imposed greater mandatory minimum sentences, and ignited a prison boom. Intent can be difficult to prove; impact is irrefutable.

The second, Gilbert King’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Devil in the Grove,” explores the case of four African-American males falsely accused of rape in Lake County, Fla., and the vigilante violence that ensued. At the center of the drama was NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney Thurgood Marshall, the future Supreme Court justice, who bravely but largely futilely fought in Florida’s courts to spare these young men’s lives. This took place in 1949, before Brown v. Board of Education (a Marshall legal triumph) and before an organized national movement to combat the Jim Crow segregation laws. The national press did not cover the proceedings.

Spurred on by these chapters in American history, I continued to explore our country’s system of crime and punishment.

The organization has won several awards for its reporting, and several joint awards with other organizations, including a Pulitzer Prize, an Edward R. Murrow Award, a George Polk Award, a National Magazine Award, and an Emmy nomination.

The organization has several ongoing “projects” that involve research, reporting, and media, from investigating the use of police dogs to the short film series “We are Witnesses” that interviews people with first-hand stories of encounters with various aspects of the justice system.

One of the things that stands out to me about the organization’s output is their use of illustrations on their articles (which get distributed through different online channels, with their partners as well as on social media platforms). I bring this up because, looking over their “Diversity Report” with the most recent data about their diversity inclusion efforts, it looks like their freelance photographers and illustrators is their most diverse section of their organization (it’s a start, but I notice that their leadership and more stable gigs are notably less “diverse”).

Screenshot of data from The Marshall Project's most recent 'Diversity Report.' This shows that Board is made up of 60% White and 73% Male.
Screenshot of data from The Marshall Project’s most recent ‘Diversity Report.’ This shows that the Board is made up of 60% White and 73% Male.
Screenshot of data from The Marshall Project's most recent 'Diversity Report.' This shows that the Freelance Photographers and Illustrators is the most diverse group at the organization, especially in the "Race/Ethnicity" category, with the largest representation (33%) being African American.
Screenshot of data from The Marshall Project’s most recent ‘Diversity Report.’ This shows that the Freelance Photographers and Illustrators is the most diverse group at the organization, especially in the “Race/Ethnicity” category, with the largest representation (33%) being Black or African American.

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