Nov 29, 2022 6 min read

I work for you

I work for you
Neither puppets nor masters. (Photo illustration by Valerie Osier)
Editor's note: Last week, Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich attacked local journalists and media outlets, including Carl and RANGE. This isn’t the first time our county’s chief law enforcement politician used his office (and tax-payer money) to attack members of the community. And even though his term ends in a little over a month, it may not be the last time, either. We don’t usually respond to unfounded, ad hominem attacks, but we stand by our reporting, and the role of journalism is to fight the misinformation rotting the heart of our democracy and society.

So, rather than getting into a shouting match with our Sheriff, Carl asked if he could write something short about how and why he does the work he does as a journalist. What follows are Carl’s own words, but they reflect the highest principles of what we at RANGE hope to offer this region as a news organization. — Luke

Here’s how I do my job.

Carl Segerstrom

My job is built on trust. That trust comes from the people who share their stories with me. It also comes from readers who come to RANGE for original reporting on the issues at the center of our community in the Inland Northwest.

I don’t take this trust lightly. I also believe trust must be earned, not given. With the top elected law enforcement leader in the county attacking my work and the work of other local journalists, I wanted to take this opportunity to tell you how I approach my work.

Every story I write starts with either a topic or a tip. That could be something as broad as homelessness, or as specific as a tip that the Trent Shelter operators didn’t accept an offer to host identification services.

Once I’ve met with the RANGE team, and we’ve agreed a story is worth pursuing, I start contacting people who  know the truth of what’s going on. When the issue is a broad one, like why have people chosen to live at Camp Hope or what’s going on at the Trent Shelter, then I go to the encampment or shelter and start asking the people there what they’re experiencing.

Generally, I try to learn first from the people who are most impacted by an issue. That means meeting people where they are, and asking them to share their experiences. By hearing the voices of the people at the center of the story, for example people living at Camp Hope or employees of the Trent Shelter, I focus on those with the most lived experience in any given situation.

This approach is often at odds with the preferences of powerful people. Politicians prefer to shape narratives, and it’s easier for them to do so when they are at the center of a story. Reducing the stories of what’s happening in our unhoused community to the voices of the powerful may make for clickable headlines and colorful name-calling, but it’s no way to understand how our neighbors — especially those close to the edge — are navigating increasingly complex lives.

Centering the voices of people living at Camp Hope also isn’t an attempt to pass judgment, good or bad, on the camp and the people calling it home. As a journalist, it’s not my role to promote specific solutions or approaches to solving homelessness or tell people how to live their lives. My job is to paint as complete a picture of any situation as I can. All of us at RANGE believe we can’t get anywhere close to a complete picture without showing respect to the people sharing their stories with us, and giving them the agency to tell their own story to all of you.

Another vital part of that complete picture is accountability for local leaders. It’s why when a politician makes a claim, I don’t repeat it without checking to find out what evidence they have. An example of this is a story RANGE published about allegations that members of Jewels Helping Hands were involved in illicit trade of guns and drugs at Camp Hope.

After Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich confirmed a rumor I had heard about these allegations, I asked each of the players involved to comment on the allegations. That included the city employee who made the claim, as well as local and federal law enforcement, and the state agency who is providing funding to the nonprofit. In the end, that story didn’t end up with a confirmation of the allegations or any evidence they were true — other than one person’s word — so the story we wrote reflected that reality and focused on the fact that the claims were made without providing any evidence to support them.

Which brings up another part of the reporting process I want to be clear about: giving accused people a chance to answer their accusers. Whenever people or organizations are accused of wrongdoing, I reach out to them for comment. In the case of the drugs for guns allegations, that meant bringing those claims to Julie Garcia, the head of Jewels Helping Hands. When I reported that portable toilets were overflowing at the Trent Shelter, I reached out to the operators, the Salvation Army, to ask if they had any reaction to this claim. In that instance, the Salvation Army did not respond to multiple requests for comment and instead let the city speak for them.

While I try to give each person and institution a fair shake, some people and institutions make it harder than others. When it feels like people are playing favorites or not answering questions, it piques my interest as a reporter. I start wondering why they feel like they might have something to hide or how they might be using other media to shape their narrative.

One example of this unfolded over the course of the last couple weeks. After I reported on the dangerous living and working conditions described by employees at the Trent Shelter, the city arranged media availability for the majority of local media outlets but excluded RANGE. This came after the city replied that the conditions at the shelter were “to be expected.”

Something that’s never come up in my reporting or writing process is pressure from the organizations that financially support RANGE. It’s not my job to interact with funders, and because of that I don’t know all of the details of our finances. I know we get a chunk of money from the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund — which drew the interest of Inlander reporter Daniel Walters in his piece on RANGE and The Center Square. Personally, I have never interacted with the Smith-Barbieri folks other than the time an advocate for homeless people added me to an email chain because he thought they might be able to answer my questions. I also know we get some financial support from Meta (formerly known as Facebook) and Google, who have taken a sort of ‘you break it you buy it’ approach to funding local news outlets.

As someone who entered the media profession with the industry already in free-fall, I’m acutely aware that foundation and dot com funding isn’t reliable. That doesn’t mean that RANGE doesn’t need it — we do, for now. What it means in the long-term is that RANGE will either succeed or fail based on reader support. That’s why we’re always asking for people to become members in our posts. We need to turn our few hundred monthly donors into a couple thousand or this experiment will sputter like so many other news outlets before it.

It’s also why I write and report the way I do. I have no interest in serving ideological puppet masters. And, thankfully, no one’s asking me to. Instead, I’m working each day to build and inform a community of readers who want journalism that seeks the people at the center of stories and demands accountability from local institutions.

My work is guided by the principles laid out in the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics. As a publication, RANGE adheres to the Institute for Nonprofit News code of ethics. I take this work and the way I conduct myself as a journalist seriously and I know I’m not perfect. I respond to any statements about factual errors or bias as openly and transparently as possible and welcome the chance to correct the record when I make an error.

As always, if you have questions about the reporting process, story leads or any other editorial matters related to my work you can reach me at carl@rangemedia.co.

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