Old work for a new age

On the way to daycare and work one summer morning nearly two years ago, Justin Ross Harris stopped at a Chick-fil-A to share breakfast with his 22-month-old son, Cooper.

It seemed the most ordinary of June mornings. For any parent, it all sounds instantly familiar, the normal start to a normal day.

Until it wasn’t.

As Harris was driving home at the end of the day, he suddenly pulled over, jumped out of his car and began screaming: “Oh my God, oh my God _ my son is dead.”

He retrieved Cooper’s lifeless body from the back seat and called 911. The child had died a horrible death in a car where temperatures soared to 120 degrees.

Did Harris intend to kill his son, or was he catastrophically careless?

This is the simple question and complex answer that animates our new season of the podcast, Breakdown.

Episode 3 debuts Tuesday – the day after the expected start of Harris’ murder trial in Cobb County.

In the series, Bill Rankin, our veteran legal affairs reporter, delves deeply into this awful case – one he counts among the most troubling in his 25-year career. Rankin, who also reported and recorded Season 1, is both caring father and clear-eyed journalist.

He is also a compelling narrator. In his patient, gentle cadence, Rankin gently guides you below the horrifying surface to provide a deeper understanding of the legal arguments – and, in my view, a much clearer sense of what approximates the truth.

In doing so, he provides something rare in today’s frenetic world of news and pseudo news – authentic insight.

You can binge listen to the first two episodes at http://breakdown.myajc.com. They are well worth your time,.

And when you get a chance, go back and listen to Season 1 as well. Season 1 lays bare a clear miscarriage of justice in a murder trial, one in which the facts suggest strongly that a man was wrongly convicted.

Season 1 received rave reviews in the year since we released it, and reached the top tier among podcasts in the Apple iTunes store – No. 13 among all podcasts in the universe and No. 3 in the news and politics category. Nearly 600,000 people have listened to the podcast – so far.

Linda Klein, an Atlanta lawyer and president-elect of the American Bar Association, sent Bill Rankin this kind email about Season 1.

“The compelling story shows us how important the legal system is,” she wrote. “It holds the listener’s attention and teaches us so much about our rights. Your experience in decades of legal reporting comes through clearly. You explain how real people are involved in the criminal justice system, victims and defendants. I appreciate your service to the community with important stories such as those you explain in this podcast series.”

He’s received emails like that from all over the world.

Season 2 is every bit as compelling, even if the story is particularly painful to hear. It is one of those cases that will attract much public debate – much of it poorly informed. The circumstances of Cooper’s death can’t be understood in sound bites and off-the-cuff analysis.

But why would a newspaper do a podcast? Good question. The answer is that the world is changing and we must change with it.

To be sure, we’re still covering the story in print – see Christian Boone’s fine story on Sunday’s front page. But the world is going digital, and we have to extend the reach of our journalism beyond the printed page.

But, as Richard Halicks, the series’ editor points out, this nevertheless is fundamentally familiar turf.

“When you set aside all the technology and technique, podcasting really is about what we do best: telling stories,” he told me. “What we’ve discovered, though, is that this form actually enables us to tell stories better. We have more time to go into much greater depth, to provide more context and explanation, even to digress if the digression seems warranted. And the use of sound enhances our storytelling abilities by an order of magnitude.”

It gives us the same powerful tools that other storytellers long have had. The story is freed from the page, so we can take our time and pause now and then on key revelations and take important diversions. For us, sound is a discovery.

“We’ve learned that sound itself can tell a story,” Halicks said. “Witness the train whistle in the first season’s podcast. It was integral to the presentation – ‘railroad justice in a railroad town’ _ and Bill went to great lengths to capture that whistle on the street in Bremen.”

Bo Emerson, a features writer, wrote and recorded the soundtracks for both episodes. He provides a haunting background theme for Season 2 that gave us chills.

But in the end, these stories also are about what we aspire to be as journalists. Our job is to serve the world by providing oversight and insight. If you listen to these episodes of Breakdown, you will learn how our justice system succeeds and fails. To be engaged citizens, this is an essential qualification.

And there’s something even more basic that comes from understanding more deeply what led to Cooper’s death. Maybe, just maybe, it can prevent some other child from having to endure such a horrible death.

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