2021.07.10 10:00

Exposing social injustice: the Lithuanian-American behind Pulitzer-winning report

Ugnė Jonaitytė, LRT.lt2021.07.10 10:00

In June, a team of Reuters reporters were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for their investigation on US courts shielding police accused of excessive force. One of the reporters, Andrea Januta, spoke to about her Lithuanian roots and the challenges of preparing the coverage.

The Januta family moved to the US during the Second World War. Andrea’s father was born to poet and writer Petronėlė Orintaitė and Kazys Januta in Vilnius in 1941. They avoided the massive deportations by the Soviets, unleashed that same year, because the family was away at that time.

The Janutas lived in Vilnius until 1944.

“In 1944 the three of them fled Lithuania permanently as the Red Army approached again and traveled to Germany on foot, the back of a truck or horse drawn farm wagon, or in a freight car heading west on the few trains that still ran,” said Andrea. “They spent several years in a refugee camp in Germany, before coming to Chicago in 1949.”

Kazys Januta's relatives that stayed behind were eventually deported to Siberia.

Growing up in a Lithuanian environment

The family never forgot its roots. Growing up in the US, Andrea heard the Lithuanian language, tasted Lithuanian dishes. She says that her Lithuanian heritage always played an important role in her life.

“I have rye bread from Lithuania in my freezer right now! Every year, my family would attend the Lithuanian Days festival in Los Angeles where there was Lithuanian dancing and music.”

Andrea says she learned a lot from her father.

“My father writes about Lithuanian history, and I would spend my summers following him around Lithuania as we visited different museums and historical sites. I learned a great deal from our conversations.”

Andrea has visited Lithuania every summer since she was a child. While the family would spend several weeks travelling the country, the journalist would always find the time to explore the Vilnius Old Town, Palanga, and Kudirkos Naumiestis in the southwest of Lithuania.

“My first visit, I was still in elementary school and cried in the airport when we came back to the US, because I didn’t want to leave,” remembers Andrea. “Vilnius has changed so much over the last 20 years and I have had the chance to watch it evolve, but whenever I walk down the streets, they are still comfortingly familiar and filled with memories for me.”

Road to journalism

Andrea received her degree in Economics and Mathematics from Yale University. She became interested in journalism during her last year of university when she enrolled in a creative writing class.

“I hadn’t done much reporting until my senior year of college, when I signed up for a creative writing class that happened to include a section on reporting,” says Andrea.

Despite her growing interest in journalism, she then decided to work in finance and later used the skills and experience to transition into journalism.

Andrea received her degree in journalism from Columbia University, and went on to complete a three-month internship as a business reporter for Miami Herald. She joined Reuters in 2018, after spending some time as a freelance journalist.

“At first I worked as an investigator, then eventually became a reporter,” says Andrea.

The best thing about being a journalist is being able to explore new topics, admits Andrea, adding that she has already covered the US army, police, courts, internet freedom, business, and climate change.

“While I am interested in a range of topics, I am always drawn to exposing injustice,” says the journalist.

The prize-winning series took two years to make

This June, Andrea and four other reporters from Reuters were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting. The team covered the legal doctrine of ‘qualified immunity’ and how it shields police who use excessive force from prosecution.

“This legal defence says that police can’t be sued for their actions on the job, unless it was ‘clearly established’ in federal law that their actions violated a person’s civil rights,” explains Andrea. “While qualified immunity was created to protect government employees from frivolous lawsuits, it has become a powerful shield that can protect officers, even if they break the law by using too much force.”

For their Shielded series, the journalists interviewed victims of police violence, as well as relatives of those murdered by police officers. They also searched for cases related to officers being sued for using excessive force, and analysed data from US federal court cases to find out how qualified immunity is applied in court rulings.

The investigation led to understanding that it has become much harder for people to overcome qualified immunity and win similar lawsuits against police than it was 15 years ago, according to Andrea.

“We found many cases where judges ruled that a person’s rights were likely violated by police, but that the police were still immune from a lawsuit and the victims received no compensation,” says Andrea. “We also were able to show that the doctrine is applied unevenly in different parts of the country. And for our last story, we looked at how qualified immunity reinforces racial inequities in America.”

The series of investigations took some two years to make, admits Andrea, partly because of the time it took to collect and analyse data, which was unlike anything she had done before.

“There was no fast way to do it – we had to find and read thousands of court documents. With every ruling, we then filled out a spreadsheet with dozens of questions about each case so that we could analyse and compare them.”

The pandemic also slowed down the production. The team was getting ready to publish the first story, but then suddenly could no longer meet in person.

“At the same time, I caught coronavirus in New York. Even though I fully recovered, [...] it was extra stress on top of everything else,” says Andrea. “We published several more stories throughout the year, and working on them while dealing with the pandemic [...] made the process much more difficult than it would have been otherwise.”

The award was a surprise

Andrea admits that winning the Pulitzer Prize was unexpected and overwhelming.

“The first person I called to share the news with was my dad. Immediately, my phone started to ring, and I was getting emails, phone calls, and text messages from a variety of people I had not heard from in a while,” says Andrea.

“I am honoured to win this award, but mostly I am grateful to my colleagues and editors, as well as the people we interviewed. It can be difficult to revisit such painful and traumatic events, and I’m thankful they trusted us with their stories.”

The journalist says she will continue seeking out important topics.

“My goal has always been to tell important stories that expose problems and can make a difference. I hope I can continue to write meaningful articles like this throughout my career.”

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