Engaged Faculty Spotlight: Public Interest Journalism

This month’s spotlight features Tracy Breton, who is teaching students public-interest journalism skills in ways that have public impact.
by Tosin Omolola ‘23
December 2, 2021

Tracy Breton, Professor of the Practice in the Nonfiction Writing Program, arrived at Brown University in 1997, while also excelling in her work as an investigative journalist for The Providence Journal. Inducted into the Rhode Island Journalism Hall of Fame in 2020, Breton received numerous individual awards over the previous 45 years and, as part of a team, the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting for a series “that disclosed pervasive corruption within the Rhode Island court system.” 

Through her teaching and practice, Breton encourages reporters—current and aspiring—to uncover the truth about important issues and those most affected in the process. In 2017-18, she worked with advanced journalism students to analyze 17 years of elder abuse cases in Rhode Island, producing a nine-part series that the Providence Journal ran on its front pages and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. The troubling patterns revealed in the stories also sparked responses from the state Attorney General and legislators. 

This same dedication to truth and humanizing scholarship shines through in a series on the opioid crisis recently published with The Public’s Radio. In addition to students in Breton’s English courses—Reporting Crime & Justice and Investigative Reporting: The Opioid Crisis in R.I.—the series involved a data science team from Prof. Ugur Cetintemel’s course CS for Social Change. While CS students analyzed data about the local production and distribution of opioids, overdoses, and criminal and civil court cases, journalism students researched and wrote narratives about the human impact of this public health crisis and related actions by the courts and local and state government agencies. Over two semesters, Breton and students followed trails of sudden, unexplained deaths, uncovered untold stories and created evocative graphics. These stories, about local Rhode Islanders, center the humanity of those battling with addiction, which can be seen especially well in “Lives Lost Too Soon- 11 Portraits of Grief.” On the willingness of loved ones to share, Breton says, “People don't have to talk to you. So our goal as journalists is to get people to trust us to tell their stories. And to tell true stories that resonate with readers.” Staff from Project Weber/RENEW also dedicated many hours to building students’ understanding of the opioid epidemic, its impact on local communities, and culturally appropriate strategies for harm reduction.

“Hopefully, the stories that we produce will not only educate people, but also affect change,” Breton says. “I think it's very important for people to know about problems in their community. And the way that we as journalists can address those problems is by telling powerful stories.” The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Professor of the Practice is dedicated to cultivating in students the skills through which they can create hard-hitting exposés with a humane lens. According to Olivia George ‘22, who wrote on behalf of a group of students nominating Breton for an award, “Her classes burst the College Hill bubble and push her students to engage with communities in Providence and across the state. She encourages us to dive into the communities we report on—to build relationships with the people who share the gift of their stories with us… She has been a mentor to each of us involved in the project, helping us find our passion for journalism and providing constant support.”