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Tips for prioritizing that big project amid newsroom challenges

Tips for prioritizing that big project amid newsroom challenges

Picture of Almendra Carpizo
Prioritizing project difficult in modern newsroom
I had met Trisha Aguilar a few times before I began working on this project, but never knew about what she had endured. Over the course of my reporting, she began to feel comfortable and ultimately decided to allow me to use her name but photograph.
(Photo: Calixtro Romias/The Record)

The four years I spent covering San Joaquin County included, too many visits to homicide scenes and coroner’s name requests, but a cursory glance at the names and figures of the victims unsettled me. While the number of overall female victims was low, almost all women who appeared on our newsroom’s homicide victims list were domestic violence victims.

Stockton had an average of three domestic violence-related homicides each year, according to police.

From 2016 to the time my first story on the issue ran, Debora Martinez, 39, Christine Williams, 45, Ariadna Espinosa-Franco, 32, Erica Roman, 35, Angenai Terlouw, 37, Shontelle Bonner, 40, and Norma Jara, 29, had died at the hands of their husbands and boyfriends. The women were shot, stabbed, choked or battered to death. All left kids behind.

I remember the first time I connected that realization with my responsibility as a journalist. I was sent to cover the annual Night of Remembrance vigil at the county’s domestic violence shelter. Families, still wrought with pain, were in attendance and pleading for the community to pay attention to what was happening behind closed doors. But with the demands of the daily grind of working at a small, local newspaper, I let it go and moved on to other assignments until I was encouraged to participate in the Center for Health Journalism’s 2019 California Fellowship.

My experience working on this project was a bit chaotic — newsroom layoffs, shifting responsibilities and taking a new job proved to be big setbacks that I had not prepared for. Those were not unique experiences to me, but it definitely made me question why I had signed up for a project when managing daily assignments in a small, daily newsroom was already its own struggle. However, I am glad I pursued the project and brought forth stories that finally addressed this issue. I hope that what I share here helps other reporters planning their own projects and taking on difficult subjects.

Start early. My first piece of advice to journalists approaching a project like this is to begin reporting on your subject early. I went in thinking I knew what the story was or what I wanted it to be. It wasn’t until I began conducting interviews that I learned not just about the subject, but how only two detectives in the city were responsible for investigating the 4,400 intimate partner violence cases the department received each year, how the district attorney’s approach had shifted from criminalization to rehabilitation, and the growing number of victims who are homeless, a group authorities do not yet know how to help. Each of those topics merited its own story.

Ask the experts. I’m not referring to individuals who can speak about facts and figures. When I started this project, my biggest concern was re-victimizing survivors of intimate partner violence. I had interviewed family members of victims of homicide and requested comments from individuals experiencing tragedy, but I worried about the best ways to approach this issue and the effect my stories could have on their lives. So, I did what we do as journalists: I called experts. I contacted domestic violence organizations and therapists to ask for guidance. I asked about best practices, terminology and how to know when to back off. The experience wasn’t just educational, it built a relationship with future sources and it resulted in a local therapist inviting me to sit in on a monthly meeting she has with survivors. That invitation and off-the-record conversation with the women provided a wealth of insight and referrals. 

Earn trust. I met Alicia Corrales through the therapist I had sought advice from. Corrales had spent the past 10 years healing herself and allowed me to interview her for the project. We met multiple times over the course of the project, and each time I learned more about her life and her experience with intimate partner violence. Trisha Aguilar was the other woman who I focused on for my project. I had met her a few times before I began working on this project, but never knew about what she had endured. Our first interview was on the record, but she asked to remain anonymous. Over the course of my reporting, she began to feel comfortable and ultimately decided to allow me to use not only her name but photograph. 

As reporters we’re always looking to put faces and names to stories, and this project would not have happened had I not found women who trusted me enough to share their stories. Be willing to put in the time to build trust with sources.

Ask for help. My biggest regret after the project was completed was not asking for help from my newsroom or advisor. Because my newsroom was so short- staffed, there wasn’t an option to put off an assignment for the paper to spend much work time on the project. Most of my interviews were conducted before and after shifts or on the weekends. Once I switched jobs, it was during lunch hours and late at night at my kitchen table. I realized afterward that I did not communicate with editors or my colleagues when I had taken on too much, that I needed some help prioritizing or even just asking guidance on organizing my thoughts and all the information I had collected. I believe had I asked for more support I could have produced a stronger project.

Collaborate and communicate more. On a similar note, I wish I would have taken the time to collaborate better with my editors and photographer. A lack in communication resulted in the project unnecessarily being set back. Not bringing in the photographer and editors into the project until the last minute, once I was no longer working for my former newsroom, meant I did not express well what I envisioned for art or to create the graphics I thought we could have shared with the data I collected.

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