Zach Ben-Amots came to Northeastern’s journalism graduate program because he wanted to tell stories that would make a difference, stories that would reach and touch people.
He had his sights set on working with the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, which, led by Director Margaret Burnham, University Distinguished Professor of Law, has been investigating and uncovering previously unsolved murders of Black people during the Jim Crow era, exposing the facts and bringing a sense of justice to the families. He missed out on the class that would have let him work on the project, but he found another way to make his mark: a collaborative documentary that, this summer, won a New England Edward R. Murrow Award.
“The Lynching of Henry ‘Peg’ Gilbert” aired on WCVB-TV in Boston in January 2021 and tells the tragic story of the eponymous Gilbert, first uncovered by two Northeastern law students. Gilbert, a Black farmer who found success in Troup County, Georgia, during the 1940s, was falsely accused and arrested for his involvement in the murder of a white man. While in police custody he was beaten, tortured and killed in his jail cell.
“There’s so many things that we need to talk about right now, so many things that we need to fix right now in the wake of George Floyd being killed so publicly,” Ben-Amots says. “But one of those things is acknowledging that this has happened before, that Black men have been lynched by police, in police custody, for as long as there has been policing in the U.S. So, here’s one of those stories.”
Ben-Amots was recruited to work on the project by Mike Beaudet, a Northeastern professor of the practice in journalism and investigative reporter for WCVB. The project had been in the works for years, and Ben-Amots was the latest in a long line of students who had shot footage and interviewed sources, which now needed to be assembled into a final documentary.
He traveled to Georgia to talk with Gilbert’s descendants and was able to film a re-dedication of Henry and his wife Mae Gilbert’s graves. During the event, the local sheriff made a surprise appearance and a formal acknowledgement of Gilbert’s murder at the hands of the former sheriff and his deputies.
“It was amazing to go down there and witness this moment, which was really the core of the entire story, in my mind,” he says. “How do we move forward from this?”
Even before “The Lynching of Henry ‘Peg’ Gilbert” had won an Edward R. Murrow Award, Ben-Amots says he was pleasantly surprised by the public’s reaction to the story. Originally produced for ABC affiliate WLS-TV in Chicago, the story landed on Hulu and eventually WCVB due to a partnership between the two local news stations.
Ben-Amots credits the success of the project to the law students’ original investigative work, as well as CRRJ’s racial justice mission. He is hesitant to take too much credit for the project but admits he’s proud of the impact the story has had––even if there is still work to do. In the aftermath of Gilbert’s death, his family lost its 111 acres of land, which it still has yet to reclaim.
“It’s always great to tell a story that has the potential to really impact a community, a family, a person, but it’s not enough to just have the potential,” Ben-Amots says. “I really feel like there’s a need to get that last bit for this to really be given the award that it needs: to work for the family.”
Ben-Amots also wasn’t the only recent Northeastern grad to receive awards attention this year.
For their work in Beaudet’s spring 2021 experimental video storytelling class, several students received Student Production Awards from the New England Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, otherwise known as student Emmy awards. Avantika Panda and Pirzan Turel won in the arts/entertainment category for The Art of Isolation. Dalia Sadaka and Audrey Wang won in the news report/serious news category for Pandemic Anxiety Overload.
Both stories were direct products of the COVID-19 pandemic. Panda and Turel’s story delved into artists’ struggle during the pandemic; Sadaka and Wang’s focused on the mental health impacts of the pandemic.
The recent graduates found purpose in sharing stories that didn’t shy away from the challenges–both big and small–of living through a global pandemic.
“It kind of normalized how you might fall into a not so good place sometimes, and it’s OK,” Panda says. “Everyone’s dealing with a lot of things, and I think as creative people, we should be able to acknowledge that so we can actually work on that.”
Despite the logistical constraints of shooting during a pandemic, both projects provided students an opportunity to flex their creative muscles and go beyond traditional video journalism.
Sadaka was able to use direct-to-camera filming to give her story more of an emotional punch. She used quotes from a previous interview with college freshman Kaydra Hopkins about her mental health struggles during the pandemic. Sadaka turned her quotes into a script and had Hopkins read from it while looking directly into the camera. She hopes this creative twist on video storytelling makes it impossible to ignore Hopkins’ story.
“It just taught me that there isn’t one way of journalism, there isn’t one way of connecting with people, and the most effective things are the things that you have put your heart into and things you really connect with in general and you want to bond other people with,” Sadaka says.
Go here for a complete list of this year’s student Emmy winners, including Northeastern’s honorable mentions.