Journalist earns just recognition for dogged persistence on Fairbanks Four case

Once a year, Alaska's journalists gather to compare notes, sharpen their skills and find the inspiration to spend another 12 months sitting through city council meetings, murder trials and late nights with nothing but a keyboard and a cup of coffee to keep them company.

The Alaska Press Club conference is a mix of socializing, education and a chance to honor the extraordinary amount of entrepreneurial, creative journalism that happens in Alaska. This year, the conference focused on two things, mainly — trying to understand the state budget and getting a handle on the new social media delivery system. Neither topic is easy, to be honest, but the latter is particularly difficult for many of us, especially if you started as a journalist before there was even a computer with a connection to the internet in the newsroom. Over the last two decades, the world of journalism has undergone huge changes. Phone interviews are being replaced with chat conversations, a wealth of information flows past you on a daily basis that almost never requires a trip to the catacombs of the library, and what you know is far less important than knowing how to access information.

To be honest, many of us in Alaska are light years behind the rest of the nation and the world in the way we deliver and receive our news. Poor internet connections in many rural communities, as well as a long tradition of small, community newspapers and radio stations delivering our news, have caused many small papers to remain in print here where they might not have survived in the Lower 48. Sure, newspapers and radio have lost ground and staffs of newsrooms have shrunk exponentially. But those who remain continue to bask in the extraordinary stories that fill Alaska.

Journalism is an interesting profession. It draws a wide range of personalities, from cerebral introverts to those drawn to the spotlight. But one thing is common among all the journalists who enjoy their job — they are innately curious. And being curious in a place like rural Alaska is one heck of an experience. Every corner seems to have a story in it, larger-than-life characters abound and even the animals are infinitely more interesting that those you find to the south. Alaska is a treasure trove for the curious journalist, and a look at the award-winning stories honored at the Press Club's award banquet proves that.

But Alaska is also a place with serious issues that go far beyond our state budget crisis and the legislative politics it incites. Many of the stories in Alaska focus on the heartbreakingly sad statistics of assault, domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse and suicide, most fueled by our above-average love affair with alcohol.

Unfortunately, the agencies charged with trying to apply law and order to our land in the face of these social challenges are also part of the problem. Alaska Natives and rural Alaskans have time and again claimed that the Alaska justice system was not their friend, and this year that was proven when the state erased the charges against four gentlemen who were incarcerated for nearly two decades just as their lives were beginning for a crime they did not commit. The Fairbanks Four — Marvin Roberts, Kevin Pease, Eugene Vent and George Frese — were exonerated, sort of. Their convictions were erased, but the state never claimed any error in the way the case was tried.

For Fairbanks journalist and journalism professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Brian O'Donoghue, the day the men were released from prison was filled with mixed emotions. O'Donoghue was honored this year with the press club's First Amendment Award for his years of work on the case. He and his journalism classes researched the case, dug up details others had missed, and poked holes in the state's investigation until others finally took notice.


His effort most certainly made the difference in the lives of these four men, but also set a standard for journalism in Alaska. Plenty of cases like these still remain, and we cannot be complacent and accept that authorities are always correct or even acting with a properly calibrated moral compass. Biases and assumptions can sneak into even the most well-intended authority figure's decision-making process.

There are so many things that warrant investigation, like the outrageous number of prison deaths occurring these days. Numerous murders and crimes remain unresolved. Even in the political sphere, investigations languish without any resolution for months, years and even decades. O'Donoghue's dogged persistence serves as a reminder and an inspiration to continue to ask questions, probe deeper and do our part to serve our readers. Because that effort is needed now more than ever.

Carey Restino is the editor of Bristol Bay Times-Dutch Harbor Fisherman and The Arctic Sounder, where this commentary first appeared.

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