It started with a short news clip.
On October 12, 2009, The Daily Iowan ran a 244-word brief saying that University of Iowa business student Jacques Similhomme, missing for two weeks, had been found dead in the Cedar River. I hadn’t heard Similhomme was missing, and that seemed strange since he was a fellow Hawkeye. Even more bizarre, his death was buried deep inside the university’s newspaper.
I recalled an incident in September 2006 while I was a student at Grinnell College. Fellow sophomore Paul Shuman-Moore vanished from campus, and within hours everyone seemed to know. College administrators quickly alerted the community through a campus-wide email, spurring mass student involvement in the search.
The disappearance of the white, upper middle class 19-year old filled the pages of major newspapers and garnered attention from even Geraldo Rivera. On one weekend alone 400 volunteers searched the fields of Grinnell. Grinnell students stayed interested in the case through April 16, 2007, the day Shuman-Moore’s body was spotted floating under the tarp of a Grinnell country club swimming pool.
But less than three years later and on a campus just 61 miles away, Jacques Similhomme vanished and just a handful of the University of Iowa’s 30,000 students knew. I wondered: Did this story simply fall through the cracks of a large university bureaucracy? Or did Similhomme’s dark skin and Haitian nationality make for a less compelling story among Iowans?
So I set out to investigate. After several weeks of reporting, which included several public records requests and hours of interviews with the Similhomme family and local officials, the findings were unsettling: a string of neglect and apathy from the university, local media and police departments. Dessalines Similhomme, Jacques’ father and a Haitian refugee, had asked for help, but several institutions ignored him and left him alone to search for his son.
Dessalines was voiceless. I hoped the story would give him a voice that would change the way authorities respond when people go missing.
But I ran into a problem: In a sense, I was voiceless, too. As a newly enrolled master’s student with few published clips, none of the dozen news outlets I contacted – local, national or niche – were interested in my story. Several editors completely ignored my pitch.
I caught a break that spring when Steve Berry, then my investigative reporting professor, worked with me to improve the story, which had originally focused just on Dessalines’ search for answers. We expanded it into a four-piece series, adding context about other colleges’ missing student policies – many of which were better and more defined than that of the University of Iowa—and about how news media decides whether to report on missing people.
After refining the series with Berry outside of class, we decided to take matters into our own hands. Rather than waiting for a news outlet to simply trust the reporting of a green student journalist, we would use it to launch IowaWatch – Berry’s brainchild – a little bit early.
Getting the series ready for publication was an amazing experience. I sat alongside a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist scrutinizing the stories. He had me underline every fact, no matter how small. Over several hours we would triple check them all.
On May 29, The Gazette published the series on its front page. It drew a solid response from readers and prompted The Gazette’s editorial board to call for improvement in the way The University of Iowa handles missing student cases.
Initially I felt satisfied with the results. I had notched my first major byline and sparked a brief community-wide conversation. IowaWatch was on the map. But when other stories pushed mine out of the news cycle, I questioned whether it truly mattered. After all, The University of Iowa never overhauled its policy on missing students. Did our story, in fact, make the world a better place?
The answer came on Christmas Eve 2011.
More than 19 months after The Gazette published the series, Dessalines Similhomme called to wish me a merry Christmas and to let me know I had long been in his family’s prayers. The stories meant something to him, he said—they meant a lot. It wasn’t just that we told his story and found him a few answers. More important, he said, was simply that someone had listened.
That phone call shows that we needn’t only judge journalism by the policy changes it prompts or the corrupt officials it ousts from power. A well-reported story can make a world of impact, even by touching just a handful of people.
That series meant a lot to me. It helped me find excellent reporting jobs after I left IowaWatch and hooked me on doing journalism that matters. Five years later, I can’t imagine doing anything else.