Interview by Sandra Davidson Photos courtesy of Mandy Locke
People are always telling Mandy Locke that she’s brave. She thinks they’re missing the point. For over a decade, Mandy has worked as an investigative reporter for the News & Observer, uncovering injustices and uncomfortable truths at the State Bureau of Investigation, the North Carolina Department of Labor and most recently, within a rural county’s Sheriff's department in Harnett County (read the full series here). Locke believes her job is to bear witness for people in North Carolina who are not being heard: the ones who are not being paid fairly for work, whose trials and sentences are built on inaccurate or incomplete evidence, who are systematically victimized by law enforcement.
To Mandy, these are the people who are brave. Meet Mandy Locke, one of North Carolina’s most badass investigative reporters.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Shelbyville, Tennessee — the youngest of three daughters — to self-employed hard, hard, hard-working people, and was a math nerd in high school. I mean Math-lete, like competed in Tennessee math competitions which meant that I was often one of very few women in the room. That will probably become relevant down the road.
But I also liked to write. I was the kid who had the forbidden journal of poetry. Somehow, someway I was identified as someone who could write a column for my hometown newspaper, the Shelbyville Times-Gazette. And so I did. My senior year I wrote them a column every week about teenagers doing teenage things, and then they offered me a job that summer after I graduated high school to do a special edition writing about the Tennessee Walking Horse industry which is why anybody — if anybody does know Shelbyville — would know Shelbyville.
It’s the epicenter. It’s where we crown the World Grand Champion Tennessee Walking Horse every year, so it’s big money in Shelbyville. In that summer I went in every Tennessee Walking Horse Barn in Middle Tennessee. I interviewed horses and humans and the owners. That was my foray into journalism.
Did you study journalism in college?
I did not. UVA did not have a journalism program. I think in my heart I knew that I would do something humanities-based, but my parents were very practical people. They worked for every cent they ever owned. They made us work very hard. I was never told, “Mandy you are special and you are bound for special things. Go follow your passion and change the world.” I was told, “Mandy you need to have a job because things are expensive, and in today’s world we can’t just count on you getting married and having a husband who provides for you.”
For better or worse the humanities was never a direct path, or it never appeared to be a direct path. So I went into college intending to flirt with the humanities to feed my soul, but really knew that what I should do is become an engineer. My brain is wired for math.
So this flirtation became an affair of sorts.
It became an affair. And I think part of what you realize is that so much of who we become as adults has nothing to do with what you learn in the classroom. It’s the home in which you had the fortune or misfortune to be born into; the people you encounter who tell you you’re awesome or smart or pretty or you’re stupid. So much of what I do now that makes me successful or not successful has everything to do with being born to Don and Terri Locke who worked from the time the sun came up until the sun went down, and told me that nothing in the world comes easily, and you are owed nothing. My parents were so poor when they were initially married. They were 19 and 20 when they were married and somehow, someway [they became a] total bootstraps story.
From my father I think I got that moral compass, that just because so and so has a title and he drives a BMW does not mean he’s a good man, and the guy who picks up your trash every day might be the good man.
Do you have a memory of how that was revealed in a story he told you?
I have this very vivid memory of my dad trying to sell an old car of theirs. There was a young woman, who was a single mom, and she maybe had $20 on her, but she really needed a car to get to work. She had a little bit of a checkered past, and she was just trying to make a go. My dad needed to get $2,000 for that car. That’s what it was worth. But my father looked at her and he said, “You really need this car.” And she said, “Yeah.” And he said, “Well… here are the keys. Every Friday at 5 o’clock I’m expecting $40 in our mailbox.” And she paid it off.
I remember this moment because my dad said, “Sometimes people just need something so little from you, and if you’ve got it to give, you’ve got to give it.”
And then my mom just had this amazing ability to, in two seconds, relate to someone, to find something kind to say to them or something kind to offer. When I was growing up, my mother made sourdough bread. This was such a passion of hers, such a part of her life, that sometimes she would have to get up at 3 a.m. to turn the bread. My parents were spiritual. They believed in God, and we grew up going to church, and every week my mother, as she was making five or 10 loaves of sourdough bread, would pray over the dough for some clarity, for some sign to see who needed that loaf of sourdough bread. Sometimes it was somebody who really needed a loaf of bread because they were having a hard week, and sometimes it was somebody who needed the gesture of a loaf of bread.
I would say that most of who I am as a journalist and a person has [more] to do with my early foundation than my formal education.
So when you went to UVA with engineering in mind, how did you keep coming back to writing?
I was always one of the smartest kids in my high school which can be a really lonely experience. I was the girl in the honors math class with all the men. And so when you live in a place like Shelbyville, TN, that really treasures homecoming queens and prom queens and Mary Kay and all of these things that were just sort of abhorrent to me, you end up feeling a little lonely at times. When I got to UVA, I wasn’t the smartest kid in the classroom anymore and it was such a relief. It was so fun. I could go into a class and be dead-on average. I think my intellectual thirst was finally quenched, and who I was — which was just this kind of nerdy, dorky young woman who knew a heck of a lot about Walking Horses — was suddenly in an environment where people thought I was cool. I was just drinking from a fire hose. I did every activity I could. I was a tour guide. I was an RA. I waited tables. I, for a period of time, ran a student van service that gave safe rides to students. If there was an opportunity to do something that seemed somewhat interesting or cool — I did it. I kind of majored in extracurricular rather than English, which was my official major.
I kept coming back to writing because it’s what I knew how to do. For me… there were enough math nerds in the world. America was never going to be short on engineers or astrophysicists, and I didn’t need to be one. Maybe I should have been one for mortgage and sanity sake, but the thing that I could do that not everybody I knew could do was walk into that room and give the person the benefit of the doubt that my father always gave, absorb everything that I needed to about that person, which was the gift my mother gave, and then find a way to explain to the world out there what had happened. And that’s what I knew how to do. And so all I could figure out how to do was just keep doing that.
In the spring of my fourth year at UVA I started applying for jobs. I would have gone anywhere. All I had was just some ridiculous notions in my head: one, in my mind the purest form of journalism happens at small, locally-owned papers… and that actually may be true; and two, I needed to crawl before I could walk, before I could run. And so if I was going to learn anything, I needed to go to a place where I would actually get to do the journalism.
I sent a really sappy cover letter and all the writing samples I could to 50 newspapers across America. When I tell you I would have gone anywhere, I mean it. I would have gone anywhere. But exactly one person called. One person. And it was Dick Reston whose family owned and he, at the time, ran the Vineyard Gazette which was just an extraordinary place in part because of their mission. They always had a young reporter on staff, and Dick really liked mentoring. He really wanted you to come away after a year or two being able to actually report.
So I graduated, and then I packed up everything I could in my Volvo, drove to Martha’s Vineyard and started work the next day.
What kind of reporting were you doing there?
I was doing every kind of reporting that a young reporter does — or should do. I covered planning board meetings. I covered the trash district which was very contentious. I wrote about fishermen and the lack of certain types of fish available. I wrote about wind farms. I wrote about affordable housing problems. I wrote about domestic violence. If there was a story that I could possibly convince my editors to let me write — I wrote it. And I just had a blast. It was so fun.
How long were you there?
Three-and-a-half years. After three-and-a-half years I was ready to go because an island can mess with your brain. I needed to come south. I really missed the southeast. These are my people. I know the south. I applied to a smattering of papers in the southeast, and I got exactly one call, which was [from] The News & Observer. And so they took a chance on me. I had no daily reporting experience, I just had a lot of heart and a pretty interesting background and a love for this work. Circa 2004, the N&O was doing really well. They were expanding their coverage. They were looking for young reporters to go to places like Johnston County, and that’s what I was hired to do. I spent most of my time in the likes of Four Oaks and Benson and McGee’s Crossroad and places like that.
Tell me about your foray into these bigger investigative pieces.
I can tell you the exact moment that I realized inherently I was an investigative reporter. I was in Johnston County, and I was in the courtroom. I was there to cover some plea deal involving some habitual drunk driver who had caused a crash that a teenager had died in and people in the community were outraged. There was going to be some disposition in the case that day. So I’m in the courtroom and I’m waiting for that, but in the corner of my eye I see this young man in army fatigues. And I think, “Well what is he here for?” So I had my eye on him, and finally his name is called and he goes to the front of the courtroom with his lawyer and one of his supervisors. And I’m listening and I’m trying to make out what in the world he’s there for. It turns out he was there to plead guilty to manslaughter for killing his son. His baby boy.
I had no idea what shaken baby syndrome was. I had no idea what any of that meant at the time, but the two sides entered a plea deal, and they left it to the judge’s discretion to enter the sentencing. So the judge entered a sentence, and he sentenced the man to a few weekends in jail and told him to reimburse the child’s grandmother for his funeral costs. And in that moment I said, “What the heck?”
It wasn’t enough for me to just leave there to write a gripping or a confusing story about this weird moment. I wanted to know how many other children died in the hands of their loved ones. What did the courts do about it? Did we somehow enable a system in our state in which the life of a child had less value than the life of an adult? And who was doing something about it?
That was my first investigative series for the N&O. I convinced my editor at the time to let me work at it on my own time, and I did. I found all the babies who had been shaken to death by loved ones in North Carolina. I looked over a five-year period, and learned that in fact we had somehow, some way developed a system in which we assigned less value to the life of a child than we did to the life of the adult. The statistics and the sentences demonstrated that, and then the anecdotes were horrifying. That was my first investigative project, and I realized that I had the natural curiosity and the the aptitude [for it] because my brain is wired for math, and I had the human skills because of my family.
You do what you know how to do, especially when what you know how to do is so specific and there aren’t droves of other people who can do it. I just over the years felt purposeful and called to do this sort of work.
I’m thinking of the Harnett County story, and even the SBI story. How do you think being a woman shapes your experiences navigating sources and institutions that are extremely gendered?
You know I thought about gender a lot this year. At moments I was frustrated by gender, and at moments I was grateful for my gender. In some ways I think I navigated through Harnett County more easily because nobody saw me coming. I was the woman who showed up in the skirt and heels and what am I going to do to them? It’s possible that people underestimated me or didn’t expect that I would see and learn and find the things that I did. You know, I was chatting with some female mentors of mine from years past, and I said, “At what age do people stop referring to me as girl reporter?” I was informed that apparently you are never old enough to not be called girl reporter, and that was just so confounding to me. I’m 37. I’m what you would consider mid-career. I’ve been a professional journalist post college for 15 years, and multiple times a week in Harnett County I was called “girl” or [asked], “How old are you?”
I’ve dealt with that in various ways through various stages of my career, and initially when I was younger I would just kind of diffuse it by saying, “You know it’s not polite to ask a woman her age.” Now I have a more… strident isn’t the wrong word because I’m rarely strident because I think it’s ineffective, but now I don’t just let it roll as easily. I usually say, “Well how old are you?” Or I’ll say something like, “I’m old enough to be here with this very important job.”
As a citizen, how has your work affected your perspective about how things work in North Carolina?
You know I think that there’s this really wrong-headed perception that journalists are these jaded, negative, sarcastic people who bumble through life to revel in things that are broken. The reality is that I’m a person first. I’m a person who lives in this state, who loves this state, who married a man from this state, who probably will do journalism for as long as she can in this state. And I want things to work well. I want law enforcement to be good at their jobs, to abide the constitution, to treat everyone as if they’re someone. I want work at the state crime lab to be done scientifically and accurately with the best intentions. I want children to be alive and to thrive. I want people to be paid what they're owed for the work that they do, and when I cast a ballot at the elections, I am putting my trust in people to do right by the laws and the people of this state. So I never delight when things are wrong. And I always wish they were right. And when they are not, it is my job to bear witness, to see what needs fixing and to report it.
Have you heard from some of the communities that you’ve written about, about what your work has meant to them post-publishing?
Yeah. Especially in Harnett County. It’s in part because, so many of the people – especially in western Harnett County –were beaten down. They were beaten down. They felt disregarded. They felt worthless. They felt scared of law enforcement. When the stories came out, they told me that for the first time in a really long time they felt hope. They felt heard. They felt like they mattered. I can’t think of a better reward as a journalist than to have that ability to do that for people.