WORCESTER, Mass. — The New England Newspaper & Press Association has awarded the Sun Journal a Publick Occurrences Award for Outstanding Journalism for its reporting on crime rates and rising racial tensions in the city of Lewiston following the beating death of Donald Giusti and the stabbing murder of Kimberly Dobbie last year.

Sun Journal staff writers Kathryn Skelton and Andrew Rice stand beside New England Newspaper & Press Association President Phillip Camp in Worcester, Massachusetts, on Thursday after receiving a Publick Occurrences Award for their reporting on crime and racial tension in Lewiston last summer. Camp is editor of The Vermont Standard. Judy Meyer/Sun Journal

Staff writers Kathryn Skelton and Andrew Rice were lead writers on the project and accepted the award Thursday during the association’s annual conference. The award also honors the contributions of photographers Russ Dillingham, Andree Kehn and Daryn Slover.

The Publick Occurrences Award is named after the first newspaper published in America in 1690, a paper that was shut down four days later when the royal governor suppressed the journalism because the publisher had not sought the crown’s permission to print.

Giusti died in June 2018 from injuries sustained during a fight between Giusti and a group of his friends and a larger group of local immigrants near Kennedy Park.

The community response was immediate, and a segment of the city’s population loudly criticized police for not quelling what had been months of growing tension between immigrants and other residents in the downtown. The response ignited calls for peace from Giusti’s family and others. The city imposed a curfew in Kennedy Park and a citizen safety program was launched with volunteers pairing up to patrol the park and other downtown areas overnight.

A month later, Dobbie was stabbed to death by 77-year-old Albert Flick, who was charged with murder the following day. No charges had yet been filed in Giusti’s death, and the unrest continued to build, according to Sun Journal reporting.

There were multiple reports of gunfire and street fights, and a growing perception that police were not doing enough to hold Giusti’s attackers accountable, including allegations that officers were turning an eye away from violence in the immigrant community for fear of being viewed as racist. 

For years, the Sun Journal has reported on the low crime rate in Lewiston compared to other large cities in Maine, making the two deaths highly unusual. But, the tension was real, according to Executive Editor Judith Meyer, “so, we started asking people what they were afraid of, and examined crime statistics, talked with business leaders, met with police and talked with crime victims about how they perceive the city.”

The result of that investigation was a team report by Skelton and Rice, who produced a multi-part package on crime, tension and what authorities were doing to try to set the city’s mood and behavior right.  

On Aug. 5, the Sun Journal published two stories based on its investigation. The first was a comprehensive look at the crime rates in the city, balancing fact and fear, including an array of historical statistics; the second was a reflection of nervous business owners in the downtown who worried the violence, the newspaper’s coverage and public perception would drive customers away from the area. 

The following week, two more stories were published, including a look at the Lewiston Police Department’s workload and how officers are perceived, including interviews with four officers.

According to Meyer, “the report was unpopular in certain circles, and social media was rife with accusations we were protecting police and excusing immigrant behavior, which was tough to endure. But the upside is that putting facts on the street helped people understand that the violence of the summer of 2018 was highly unusual in a historic context, and that police were actively working on education and enforcement, while also seeking help from state police to fill some personnel gaps.”

The Sun Journal’s award was one of 16 Publick Occurrences Awards given out by NENPA to daily and weekly newspapers throughout New England.

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