WATERVILLE — A.C. Thompson, an investigative reporter for ProPublica, knows how wide the scope of human behavior is.

Thompson was honored Sunday at Colby College, where he was given the 2013 Lovejoy Award, named after Colby College alumnus Elijah Lovejoy, an abolitionist editor who was murdered in the 1800s.

Thompson, 41, who started working as a journalist in his early 20s, has built a career out of uncovering indecent human suffering and holding those who are responsible accountable.

“It’s not difficult to draw a line from Lovejoy to Thompson,” said Colby College President William D. Adams. The award honors a journalist who continues Lovejoy’s example of fearlessness and freedom, according to the college’s website.

Thompson was visibly humbled by the award and the honorary doctorate bestowed on him by Adams. After thanking family, friends and colleagues, Thompson recalled a memory from his teenage years, when he read a Washington Post article about a young photographer from Chile, Rodrigo Rojas, who was murdered at a protest against dictator Augusto Pinochet.

“I remember that the story wasn’t a hard news story. It was a narrative,” Thompson said to the 100-plus people in attendance.

His response to the story resonated with him. “This made me realize that journalism has power.”

Thompson’s speech focused mostly on the work he did in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He lived in the New Orleans area for more than three years, uncovering stories about racist killings and police brutality.

“Most of my stories are about awful things happening to decent people,” he said to the audience. “The heroes to me in these narratives are the people who spoke up when it was dangerous for them to do so. Like Elijah Lovejoy, they spoke up even in the face of danger.”

While Thompson has made a successful career in journalism, his start was not typical.

“I studied at a vocational school on how to run a printing press, but it didn’t take long to realize that I was more interested in writing the stories than printing them,” Thompson said in a telephone interview Thursday afternoon. “But I didn’t have any clue how to go from printing to the newsroom.”

After learning the basic structures of journalism, Thompson bounced around West Coast publications such as the Oakland Tribune and San Francisco Bay Guardian. Thompson said from the start of his career, he has focused mostly on the stories he wants to write about – stories he hopes have a tangible impact.

“I wanted to do stories about human suffering that doesn’t need to occur,” he said. “The work I do is identifying needless suffering and exposing that.”

Whether revealing the killing of unarmed civilians by police in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina or working to exonerate two California men convicted of murder, the behavior Thompson discovers frightens him.

“The downside is, when you spend a career examining human beings, it can weigh on you,” he said. “I have a lot of nightmares. It can be a challenge when you’re examining the ugliest human behavior to keep a decent attitude toward humans. What I remember is, in those grim times, people also exhibit incredible resilience and passion and love for one another.”

Thompson’s dedication to investigative journalism isn’t rooted in Internet views or how many people read his story. He writes for change.

“If people read my story and have a conversation about it, that’s great. But honestly, if that’s all that happened, then I feel my story is a failure,” he said. “If I felt like I couldn’t produce work that had a real impact, I wouldn’t do this.”

Jesse Scardina can be contacted at 861-9239 or at:jscardina@centralmaine.com