United States Project

In 1990, Ziva Branstetter agreed to cover the execution of an inmate on Oklahoma’s death row. The execution was the first to take place in Oklahoma in decades, and the first in the state to utilize the three-drug lethal injection procedure. Branstetter’s editors at the Tulsa World had asked a few reporters before they came to her, but no one had accepted.
“It sounds so freaking callous, but I wanted to be in on the biggest story,” says Branstetter, who recently announced her move to a senior editor position at the Center for Investigative Reporting. “I felt I had a responsibility as a reporter to witness it.” Branstetter had covered death before, reporting on tornadoes, and didn’t think this would be much different. “I thought, I can do this, no big deal.”
At Oklahoma State Penitentiary, Branstetter recorded Coleman’s last words—“I have a peace and quiet heart.” Not long after midnight, she watched him take in a deep breath and shut his eyes for good.
Branstetter tells CJR that she found herself crying while giving her pool report after the execution, surrounded by reporters from other outlets who noticed and swarmed her for their own interviews. They demanded to know why she was crying and pressed for her personal views on the death penalty. In retrospect, Branstetter—who has reported on executions since then—says she wasn’t prepared to cover the story.
This month, as Arkansas plans to execute eight men in an 11-day span, reporters will once more be present to cover what The Guardian terms “a conveyor belt of killing.” The rush of executions is meant to beat the expiration date for the state’s supply of midazolam—part of the lethal cocktail administered during executions, and a drug that has been criticized by many (including its creator) for its use in capital punishment. 
Journalists play a critical role in how we shape our ideas about matters like capital punishment. In doing so, they often expose themselves to trauma that most of us are spared. At CJR, Tasneem Raja—an alum of Mother Jones and NPR’s Code Switch team—details the challenges facing reporters who cover executions. Read her full story here.

Be sure to read these new stories from CJR and correspondents to the United States Project:

  • “If West Virginia Public Broadcasting were to go away, I’m not sure who or what would fill the vacuum.” During a time of imperiled funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, one state’s financial crisis poses a greater threat to its public media.
  • “When you go out to many of these places, there we are.” An interview with Kirk Siegler, NPR’s reporter on the urban-rural divide beat.
  • “It is interesting to follow what journalists write and say about criminal justice. It certainly is from the perspective of a prison journalist.” Kerry Myers, longtime editor of Angola Prison’s The Angolite, on journalism lessons learned during 27 years in prison.
Check out CJR’s new podcast The Kicker on iTunes,
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