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Posts published in “Reflections”

Reflections podcast: Lessons learned while covering city council

After attending a Durham City Council meeting this Spring, a trio of 9th Street Journal reporters collaborated on a jointly authored story. The meeting—and the story—focussed largely on ShotSpotter, a controversial gunshot detection technology that the city may soon adopt.

In the latest episode of our Reflections podcast, Duke professor Stephen Buckley joins student reporters Alex Kumar, Kelly Torres and Zella Hanson to talk about what they learned while covering the meeting, including lessons about journalism and democracy.

You can hear these and other conversations with student journalists on our Reflections podcast, available on Spotify and Apple. Reflections is funded by a generous grant from The Purpose Project.

Above: Photo of Stephen Buckley, Alex Kumar, Kelly Torres and Zella Hanson by Alison Jones — The 9th Street Journal 

Reflections podcast: Learning life lessons through journalism

Student reporter Julianna Rennie has been deeply involved in journalism during her time at Duke, helping to found The 9th Street Journal’s Courthouse Project, among other initiatives. In the course of learning about journalism, Julianna also learned important life lessons, including lessons about confidence, about injustice, about how to ask good questions and how to seek information.

Julianna sat down recently with Bill Adair, founder of The 9th Street Journal, to discuss her time at the center for the Reflections podcast. The podcast episode is the latest entry in our Reflections series, occasional pieces that feature 9th Street Journal reporters writing and talking about lessons they’ve learned — about themselves and about journalism.

You can hear additional episodes featuring student reporters Grace Abels, Lilly Clark and Milla Surjadi on our Reflections podcast, available on Spotify and Apple. The Reflections series is funded by a generous grant from The Purpose Project.

Above: Julianna Rennie interviewing local chef Matt Kelly. Photo by Milena Ozernova — The 9th Street Journal 

Reflections: How journalism can save the world

In light of rising disdain for journalism—often known merely as the “media,” that undifferentiated behemoth—as biased or corrupt or useless in this age of skyrocketing polarization and information overload, it’s time for an ode to journalism as a way to tell stories that change the world.

When journalists cover an event or investigate an issue, they bear witness to something not everyone has seen. Maybe they’re among the few people allowed inside that refugee camp. One of the few people who got to interview that hostage crisis survivor. Regardless of what they’ve seen (no matter how seemingly mundane), the journalist is somehow changed.

The journalist now knows more about who someone is, how something works. Maybe they bear witness to suffering, and they experience empathy in a way they hadn’t before. The lens through which they see an issue, or the world at large, is widened or even reshaped. Things look different.

It’s the job of the journalist to impart this to readers. The average citizen doesn’t have a press pass; they can’t go to Afghanistan or Ukraine to speak to refugees because how could they? But the journalist has the power to enable readers to come along, to be there, too. Through skillful storytelling, the journalist plants readers in the very seat they occupied, experiencing the events they experienced. The reader bears witness, their lens shifts, things look different.

This process requires an adept journalist and an at-least-somewhat engaged reader, but it’s universally applicable within journalism—from a short local story about a town hall meeting to a feature about a Key Issue Of Our Time. And I think it’s exciting and inspiring and the way we’ll save ourselves.

I think many of the most complex problems of our time are due to lack of information, or misinformation, or misunderstanding. And that the existence of institutionalized racism is something everyone could grasp if they only talked to certain people, read certain books. Same with anthropogenic climate change. Same with a global inequality gap that’s reminiscent of feudalism. I believe we as a country—even as a species—could get on the same page and fix some stuff.

But the people whose attention I’d grab if I could are not talking to those people and reading those books. And it’s no longer enough for people with an eye to social justice to live in an echo chamber, endlessly refining their own positions and basking in the sounds of their own voices while pretending those who disagree don’t exist. They do exist—people whose opinions on climate change were handed to them by Big Oil. People who refuse to acknowledge structural racism. People whose capitalist convictions have never been questioned. They exist. And in order to engage them, it’s time to appreciate the power of the most accessible, populist avenue for change we have: the viral article. (Especially contained within a viral tweet.)

Imagine this: a bill is being debated on the House floor that would impose some sort of controversial measure. Like a way to federally control rent, let’s say. A legitimate news outlet assigns a journalist to the story. The journalist crafts a beautiful, heart-wrenching, factually impeccable story about a few victims of the housing crisis and the way this bill would transform their lives. The story grabs you by the shoulders with its lede, lyricism, and pathos, but teaches you much through an excellent amalgamation of expert opinions and statistics. It offers nuance: interviews with people who have been affected in contradictory ways, experts with diverse opinions. The story goes viral.

In classic internet fashion, it owes its reach to the style of the writing and the appeal of the “characters,” rather than the bill’s crucial civic implications. But viral is viral. And it’s ubiquitous on platforms like Twitter and Instagram—hundreds of thousands see it.

Hypothetical Reader Amy is a conservative from the Midwest who thinks the bill harkens back to the days of Soviet Russia. Or maybe she’s a wealthy woman who considers herself liberal but is nonetheless worried about anything that would deflate the income she receives from her Airbnb. She could assume any number of identities that makes her inclined to oppose the bill. Whoever she is, she finds the article because her son sends it to her, or an old friend reposts it on Instagram, or someone she follows on Twitter posts something criticizing it. But for whatever reason, she clicks.

And that’s all you need. Because true stories told well often speak for themselves.

Probably, Amy’s mind isn’t changed forever, just like that, happily ever after. But if the journalist did a good enough job to keep her reading, then something changed for Amy. A spark of empathy, some facts she never thought to consider, even a flash of curiosity that leads her to do some research. Because of the journalist’s skillful storytelling, Amy was able to bear witness. And because of that, somehow, things look a little different.

I think that’s how we save the world.

Above: Photo of Zella Hanson by Rebecca Schneid — The 9th Street Journal

Reflections: Flashing lights, a warning, and a real-life lesson on race

The flashing lights of the police car caught me by surprise. 

It was dark out, and my friend had asked if he could turn the music louder. I said yes – I, too, like my music loud. But as I continued down Chapel Hill Street, enjoying the rap music, I saw the lights flash in my rearview mirror.

“Am I being pulled over?” I asked. 

“Yes,” he said. 

For what? I wondered.

It seemed an odd time for me to get pulled over.  For many weeks, I had been doing investigative reporting about a presentation on traffic stops given to the Duke football team by the sheriff’s office.  The timing  seemed ironic after I spent the last three months talking to players, legal experts, team representatives and the sheriff’s office, to piece together what happened at the meeting and to ponder what it meant about the fraught relationship between police and Black people.

Five Black players had told me they were bothered by the presentation because they felt the Durham Sheriff’s Office was justifying traffic stops of Black men. Law professors told me the sheriff’s office had used misleading statistics and told an incomplete story.

I, myself, had never been stopped – until this moment, which happened to be a week before the article came out. I am a white 20-year-old from Los Angeles. My friend in the front passenger’s seat is a 6-foot-1 Black man. “I’ve never been pulled over before,” I said to my friend as we waited for the police officer to walk up to the car.

“Really?” he asked. “Wow.” He had been stopped several times.

I asked him to tell me what to do, because he would know better than I did. I never got a lecture from my parents about being stopped by the police. My parents don’t have to worry about my life in a situation like this.

You might expect a cop to come to the driver’s side first. Instead he went to the passenger window, where the Black man was sitting. My friend rolled down the window. 

Looking past him, the officer told me I was going 11 miles over the speed limit. I gave him my license and braced for a scolding when I added that it was a friend’s car and I wasn’t sure where the registration was. He said that was fine, and walked to his police car with my license.

I got a text message from the owner of the car, a friend from Duke, that her registration was in the glove compartment. I told my friend in the front seat to grab it for me, but he said it would look suspicious.

“Alright, then I’ll grab it,” I said, as if that were any better. He repeated himself. I stayed still. 

I was texting my friends in a frenzy, but I was most worried about my mom’s reaction to whatever ticket I was about to get.

“My mom is going to slit my throat,” I said. I wanted to take that comment back the second it slipped out. 

“I’m sure she’ll be happy you’re safe,” my friend said with a reassuring tone.

What he said next underlined the utter ridiculousness of my comment. 

“I’m just trying not to get shot.”

He was right – I was not the one in danger. I started to say something else, but he stopped me because the officer was walking back towards us. I prepared for a citation, a ticket, a fine. I had my phone ready in case I needed to call the owner of the car. 

Once again he came to the passenger window.

“Here’s your warning,” the cop said, and handed me a single piece of paper. “No charges. You’re just in our system.”

(“You really got off scot-free,” my friend would later tell me, noting that he got pulled over for speeding in January. He got a ticket.)

I took the paper. It was my friend, not me, who said, “Thank you, sir. Have a good day.”

I started the car and drove away.

At top, photo of Charlotte Kramon by Simran Prakash – The 9th Street Journal

Reflections podcast: Compassion in courthouse reporting

In December, we published Milla Surjadi’s elegant essay about how she is learning to do her reporting with both rigor and humanity. She has now followed that up with equally compelling insights in the third episode of our Reflections podcast, in which she expounds on the theme of her essay. Milla’s work is the latest in our Reflections series, occasional pieces that feature 9th Street Journal reporters writing and talking about lessons they’ve learned – about themselves and about journalism.

Grace Abels and Lilly Clark wrote the first two pieces, and you can listen to all three students discuss their insights on our Reflections podcast, available on Spotify and Apple. Reflections is funded by a generous grant from The Purpose Project.

Above: Photo of Milla Surjadi by Winnie Lu

Reflections: Can reporting spotlight truth — and honor humanity?

I’ve been thinking about what journalists promise readers and our sources. We promise them the truth. We promise accuracy, honesty, credibility. We promise that they can trust the words we write. 

But these promises mean nothing if the stories we tell aren’t told with care, if we forget that journalism is, at its core, an inquiry into what it means to be human. 

I’ve been thinking about what it means to honor that humanity. 

* * * 

On my first visit to the Durham County Courthouse, I’m so worried about being turned away at the doors, as some of my classmates have. When I finally sit down in domestic violence court, it dawns on me that I didn’t consider what to look for once I got in. 

I tell myself I’m just here to observe, that I’ll find a story next time. I watch the session unfold, listen for words I recognize, and feel the same way I do at sports events — the most basic rules apparent, but the technicalities, procedure, and players unfamiliar. I always end up watching the fans for most of the game anyway.  

At roll call, an assistant district attorney mentions that a defendant is being brought in from custody. I’m surprised by the prospect of seeing something I’ve only read about in the news. I wonder if this man and his case are a story worth telling. 

I don’t have to wait long. Halfway through the docket, a bailiff leads a man in a Durham County Jail jumpsuit to a seat at the front of the courtroom. I later learn his name is Juan Gomez. He’s 32 years old. And he’s looking for a plea deal after assaulting a woman. 

But his case isn’t what I find most interesting. His case isn’t really what I end up writing about. 

Minutes before Gomez’s case is called, two older women quietly slide into the bench next to me. The younger of the two fumbles with her phone to silence it, then asks me to help. These women are nervous — the older woman wrings her hands and the other picks rhythmically at a scab. I follow their gaze and I realize why. 

They look at Gomez with sad eyes and sigh deeply. They watch a loved one sit just out of reach, his fate out of their control, and I feel my chest tighten. These are the scenes in the courtroom that I rarely read about.  

His victim, it turns out, is also in court. And suddenly, the two women are sharing a knowing glance with each other when they hear the ADA say her name, craning their necks to find her in the benches. 

There’s palpable tension all around the courtroom and no one’s saying a word to each other. I scribble down every sigh and every glance and make mental notes of how the air in the room feels so that I can relive it later when I write. It is startling to see the effects of a crime ripple in front of you.  

This is the story I end up telling. 

I realize, later, that this silent conversation won’t be recorded in the court transcript. In Gomez’s case file, there will be no document that describes how these two women held their breath when the judge accepted the plea. There will be no mention of the two women at all. 

* * *

There’s a line I once read from a T.S. Eliot poem that goes, “At the still point of the turning world.” This is how that courtroom felt in those fifteen minutes, how it’s preserved in my mind. A still point. 

But the world keeps turning — the cases that come to court play out beyond the courtroom and the stories journalists tell continue off the page. It is easy to forget this. 

After the judge hands down her ruling, the defense attorney whisks the two women from the courtroom. I never found out how they knew Gomez. For days after, I kicked myself for this, for being too scared to approach them, too terrified that my questions would translate into violations of their privacy.   

But even if I’d found out, I don’t think the story would have changed much. 

What this piece illuminated for me is that what happens in the courtroom, and thus, the pieces journalists write, don’t just implicate the names listed on the case file — the defendant and victim. Those two women could have been his mother and grandmother, his siblings, his friends — it was the fact that they could have been so many people impacted by this case and my reporting that struck me. 

Rarely do we talk about this effect, the sadder echo of both victims’ and defendants’ loved ones, disassembled and undone by the justice system. But before that day, I also hadn’t given much thought to how it played out in journalism. 

The legal system does not always promise compassion. In journalism, the truth does not always promise humanity. 

But maybe I can promise it in my reporting, when I remember that the people who grant me their stories are trusting me with not only the present, but the future — that of their own, their loved ones, and the people they have yet to meet but one day might. 

This doesn’t mean sacrificing truth for compassion, but rather recognizing that sometimes the truth is far larger and more complex than we initially understand it to be. I am still trying to reconcile the necessity of telling a story and the impossibility of knowing it in all its totality. 

And maybe I can promise humanity in the stories I choose to tell — stories that unfold when no one else is watching, when journalism becomes a testament to the still points in a world that never stops turning. 

Editor’s note: Reflections is a feature that encourages student journalists to explore how they have learned and grown from the stories they have written for The 9th Street Journal. It is funded by a grant from The Purpose Project.

PHOTO ABOVE: Milla Surjadi

Reflections: Should students vote in local elections?

Few journalists covered the Durham elections more closely than the student reporters of The 9th Street Journal. They spent hours with the candidates, attended campaign events, and talked with local groups about their endorsements. But despite all that effort, some members of the 9th Street staff said they still felt like outsiders in the Bull City and wondered if they should vote. In a conversation after the election, they discussed their feelings. (The transcript is edited for space and clarity.)

Bill Adair, Co-Editor: How did your journalism change the way you look at Durham?

Jake Sheridan, Student Editor: I understood Durham as a really progressive place and as a place where people cared a lot about what’s going on. And I think I expected a certain civic interest that didn’t develop, that certainly wasn’t reflected in turnout, in the general interest people had in the race. I was surprised that Durham didn’t go vote.

Bill: I wonder if the people who did vote are the people who have lived here a long time and the people who didn’t vote are the people who moved here more recently.

Jake: Yeah, and I think that’s really interesting because, as a Duke student, I’ve seen a couple of elections. When it was a national election, Duke and the areas surrounding Duke — Ninth Street — it was like a paramilitary operation to register voters and to get people to vote for Democrats. And I think Duke is particularly emblematic of that newcomer aura in Durham. A lot of the students here aren’t from here, and they’re kind of coming and going, maybe even less invested than people who live here.

Caroline Petrow-Cohen, Reporter: I’ve always kind of thought that it’s a shame that so many Duke students are not more engaged in the Durham community, and I still think that. But my roommate the other day asked me if I thought Duke students should vote in local elections and I was like, “Of course.” And she was like, “But isn’t that unfair to the people who actually live here? Why should we be voting for our interests if we’re leaving in four years?” And I thought that was interesting because my instinct is of course you should vote, you should read up on the issues and vote. But (her point) is kind of valid. Why do we deserve to have a say if we don’t really live in Durham? We’re just here for four years. I voted, obviously, because I covered it. But not many of my friends voted, even though I was like, “Look at The Ninth Street Journal and read about the candidates.” 

Becca Schneid, Reporter: Well, it’s almost worse when they vote. I think a lot of people change their address to North Carolina for the presidential election because they are from California or somewhere or Texas, so they’re like, “my vote counts more in North Carolina,” haven’t changed it back since and now are here with this power. You’re asking an important question. People have texted me and been like, “I’m going to vote right now, who should I vote for?” because they know that I’ve covered it. That’s so bad (that they have to ask me).

Charlotte Kramon, Reporter: We can’t make that decision.

Caroline: Just because we covered it doesn’t mean that I have the same interests as someone who lives in the city. I think I’m doing the right thing, but am I? I don’t think it’s ever the right thing to not vote, but maybe it is. I don’t know.

Bill: Yeah…that’s an interesting question. At what point is someone suitably up on the candidates and issues so they can make a wise decision? And some people argue, “Well, you should really know the issues and you should know the candidates before you vote.” And so therefore a low turnout is not necessarily a bad thing. It reflects people who aren’t engaged and therefore maybe should not be voting.

Julianna Rennie, Student Editor: I’m pretty sure Javiera Caballero got at least a thousand-something votes and she had dropped out of the race. So how informed are those people if they didn’t even know she wasn’t running? Or are we assuming those people made a conscious decision to vote for her because they preferred her policies?

Becca: I know some of them didn’t (support her) for her policies.

Bill:  Yeah, we probably all know at least one person who voted for Caballero.

Charlotte: When I spoke to Professor Mac McCorkle for my turnout article, he was saying 10 percent of people voted. How is this democratic? That begs the larger question if we’re saying like, “Well, maybe it’s good that the people who turned out are the ones who are most engaged.” But then on a broad level, that can also be a slippery slope to “Well, if people aren’t informed, they shouldn’t vote.” I still think that ultimately, if we’re looking for purely democratic purposes, everyone should vote and they should be informed. But if they’re not informed, the logic of “they should be excluded” can lead to other issues.

Olivia Olsher, Reporter: I think something I would have really appreciated coming into Duke would have been a kind of local news orientation – where can you get your local news, outlining here’s who you can follow on Twitter, here’s what the local government is doing, who they are, and the main issues that are happening and being discussed this year. I feel like a 30-minute debrief on Durham, where you’re going to be living for four years, would be really helpful. 

Editor’s note: Reflections is a feature that encourages student journalists to explore how they have learned and grown from the stories they have written for The 9th Street Journal. It is funded by a grant from The Purpose Project

Above, a sign points the way on Election Day. Photo by Josie Vonk – The 9th Street Journal

Reflections: The Podcast

In September, we introduced Reflections, a series of occasional pieces that feature 9th Street Journal reporters writing about lessons they’ve learned — about themselves and about journalism — as they’ve worked on articles for the site. Grace Abels and Lilly Clark wrote the first two stories.

Now comes the Reflections podcast, available on Spotify and Apple, in which our reporters further explore how they’re learning and growing. In this first episode, Grace continues to offer insights about how her interview with Satana Deberry, Durham’s District Attorney, propelled her to think in new ways about issues of identity, especially her own. In the coming weeks, Lilly will more deeply examine how journalists cover the courts – and whether they sometimes do more harm than good. And as other reporters write their Reflections, we’ll follow those up with podcasts from them too.

Reflections is funded by a generous grant from The Purpose Project.

PHOTO ABOVE: Grace Abels, by Josie Vonk – The 9th Street Journal

Reflections: Does courts coverage do more harm than good?

It’s the fourth week of school and I’m crying in my editor’s well-lit office. 

It’s nothing serious — I cry frustratingly easily, often about things that I’m mildly stressed about or invested in.  It’s involuntary and annoying. 

I’m crying in my editor’s office, across his honey-colored desk, because I want to leave the names out of my story, and he wants to leave them in.

I wrote the story about something I watched happen in traffic court, a moment of simultaneous justice and mercy in a place where seemingly mundane rules can transform people’s lives.

The judge sentenced a 30-year-old man to 10 days in jail for driving while impaired with a revoked license, despite his attorney’s plea that he’d been coping with the aftermath of his mother’s unexpected death. While security personnel sorted the man’s belongings and took him to jail, a college student read an essay about traffic school to the court. The judge dismissed the 19-year-old’s speeding and marijuana charges and sent him back into freedom with a “Good luck to you, sir.”

Stephen Buckley, my editor, gave me this working definition of journalism in a moment of crisis the week before: true stories for the public good. I scrawled it on an empty page in my notebook three pages before the traffic court scene went down.

If it were up to me, despite the 11 hours I spent in court this week, I’d have written nothing at all, I tell Buckley. I don’t think this story does much for the public good. I ask him if we can leave the piece unpublished or take the names out, and he says that’s not up to us to decide. Everything that happened in that courtroom is already public information. 

This point I still disagree with. Just because information is public doesn’t mean it’s ethical to amplify. I believe that in general, it might be a good thing that you have to visit the courthouse or pay a website to find a person’s dismissed charges. 

However, Buckley gently explains other important ways my thinking is wrong. I’m paraphrasing my impressions here because I didn’t take notes or record.

This is why you have to try to talk to people and not be a chicken, he says. (He doesn’t say the chicken part.) They might be completely game to talk to you for an article and you’re missing out on an important perspective — theirs. 

Also, you’re assuming readers will think the worst of the people in your story, he says. Have a little more faith in them. You actually paint this teenager in a good light. People won’t judge him just because the police charged him.

But because I’m guilty of skimming news articles and missing humanizing details, I’m skeptical of the reader.

It’s an easier and more straightforward process to clear your name in the courts than in the newsroom, at least in Durham. I think this might be because what the court sees as punishment, journalists see as information. Also, when you’re writing an article due at 11:59 p.m., it can be hard to imagine what it’ll be like for someone to have that story still tied to their name on Google in 30 years. 

Some newspapers deny unpublishing requests on principle, and some use nebulous criteria. Some will add an addendum about dropped charges but not alter an article’s original text. Editors often decide on a case-by-case basis.

In North Carolina’s courts, you fill out a form and pay $175 to clear your record of prior charges and convictions. There are how-to websites. You can get free legal assistance. The DA’s office itself has petitioned the court to do this for juveniles prosecuted as adults. 

Not everyone is eligible, but the 2020 Second Chance Act allows people a new legal start. They can erase from their record non-violent misdemeanors, dismissed or not guilty charges, and certain juvenile convictions.

“In a lower level case, having your arrest and your mugshot easily called up on Google anytime someone searches your name for the rest of your life might actually be a stiffer consequence than the crime itself,” said Sarah Willets, spokesperson for Durham’s District Attorney’s office. “That could follow you for far longer than any sentence that the law would allow.”

I went to Willets looking for expertise on the collateral damage of courthouse coverage because she’s had a foot in both journalism and prosecution. She worked as a crime reporter for years and now she manages communications in an office where prosecutors typically can’t comment to journalists.

Willets thinks the press play a vital role in the courts. But, she said, they could play that role more ethically.

“Are you going to follow through when you report on an arrest or a pending case? Are you going to follow through and say what the outcome was?” she said. “And if not, if it’s not worth following that case to the end, is there really a public interest in covering it?”

Consider whether you’re writing for the public good or just because a story’s kind of interesting, and someone might want to read about it, Willets said. I believe my story fell into the second category, even though I was hoping to write something of the first.

Willets told me she fought with her editors too. She wrote about a reentry program and one man’s experience leaving prison for her last story at Indy Week. She wanted to leave the man’s crime out, her editor wanted to leave it in. 

The city — Durham — had decided he should move on, she said. “And who are we to stand in the way of that?”

Her editor countered: that’s a big thing to conceal from readers. The editor won — the man’s conviction sits in the fifth paragraph of the published story online.

I left Buckley’s office thinking he too had won, that we would publish the story, and with names. But to spare me the stress, and because the primary goal of this class is to learn, not just to publish, he told me later that we wouldn’t.

Before I keep complaining about being a “student journalist” who doesn’t seem to want to publish any journalism, I’ll flash us back to last fall. I was among a crowd of protestors in head-to-toe black that set off fireworks outside Durham County jail. 

Earlier in their march they’d chanted, “News is cops, news is cops,” and blocked TV cameras with umbrellas. I’d chanted along the rest of the night, but in those moments I hesitated, not sure what to say.

I was in a news writing class at the time and thought I wanted to become an audio journalist.

Four days later I was back in journalism class and still thinking about it. If news is cops, should I be writing news? Can journalism avoid this?

A friend who was there that night graciously gave me some of their time on the phone. They told me a local TV station had posted mugshots of their friends arrested for protesting earlier that summer. Then those friends got doxxed, which means readers found and published their private information online, a particularly vicious revenge tactic. The news cost them.

My traffic court article was a different situation entirely. Buckley told me so while I objected, and he was right. But I do think about how what my peers and I write can reinforce the judgments of a broken criminal legal system.

How do we balance readers’ trust with future costs to our sources, costs exacerbated by internet longevity? Is every omission an effort to conceal? How do we minimize harm while maximizing the public good?

Willets gave me a few recommendations. In essence, she said, look for consent and context. Talk to the parties involved — especially victims — and make them understand how this story could follow them, she said. Situate the criminal case within the social issues forcing people to come to court, like lack of mental health care or community investment. Study the research around crime. Stick around and follow through.

This advice is hard to follow on deadline. Court cases can take forever: even the simple ones may drag on for months or years. 

Sarah Koenig and Emmanuel Dzotsi spent a year reporting Serial season 3, the podcast that inspired the creation of the 9th Street Journal’s courthouse reporting project. Each vignette they present from the Cleveland courthouse consists of months of interviews. Our vignettes, or “Courthouse Moments,” pan out over one week.

Maybe that’s where I land: I’m unwilling to do quick journalism, even if that means I won’t be employable in this field. Maybe one day newspapers will make different decisions about whether their quick news should last forever in its original form; maybe we’ll make unpublishing guidelines more transparent to the people we report on. 

I don’t think I’ve come to any solid answers. I have a feeling I’ll squirm closer to a conclusion in the coming years, talking through these conflicts with editors (and unfortunately probably after shedding a few more tears).

Photo Above: Lilly Clark, by Josie Vonk — The 9th Street Journal

Reflections: My rainbow epiphany and Durham’s DA

Editor’s note: Reflections is a feature that encourages student journalists to explore how they have learned and grown from the stories they have written for The 9th Street Journal. It is funded by a grant from The Purpose Project.

June was my first Pride Month since I came out as queer. 

In the year after I shared my secret with my parents on a futon in a Columbus, Ohio Airbnb, I had tried my best to fully embrace my new identity. I’m talking a homemade flag, a rainbow Apple Watch band, and some funky laptop stickers (I’m really into the branding, I guess). 

While I had celebrated Pride Month before, somehow being “out” gave this June more meaning. I was feeling, well, proud. So while writing for The 9th Street Journal this summer, I went to my editor and proposed a Pride Month story.

My editor, Bill Adair, suggested profiling Durham District Attorney Satana Deberry, a black queer woman who was elected in 2018 on a platform of criminal justice reform. She was “out” as a queer woman, but in the many profiles written about her she had not publically discussed her sexuality in any detail. We decided to ask if she would do an interview. 

To our surprise, she agreed.

All of a sudden, we kicked into high gear. I had a story to write. The end of June was fast approaching, and we had to get it done not just for The 9th Street Journal, but also to meet a print deadline for our partner, Indy Week. 

As I began my research, I felt some anxiety. I know I may sound all gay and confident, but that’s not entirely true. 

I was beginning to feel a bit like a fraud. 

A bit of background about me: I’m bisexual. This is something I have known about myself for quite some time, but it is a truth I only began to publicly embrace about a year ago. 

To be clear, my delay in embracing my sexuality is no fault of my upbringing. I grew up in the accepting community of Durham, and my parents were Subaru-driving, NPR-listening, reusable-sandwich-bag liberals. Nor was it the fault of my peers. In fact, at the arts high school I attended, being queer might have earned me some social capital. So I knew that whenever I came out, I would be met with open and loving arms. 

But for years, I kept it to myself. It wasn’t because I wasn’t attracted to women around me, I just never got around to the critical part of actually dating one. (Upon reflection, maybe not telling anyone was part of the reason I could never get a date…) And to this day, I still have not been in a relationship with a woman. So for years, nagged by deep insecurity, I told myself that even though I knew I was bisexual, until I dated a women I didn’t really “count” as gay. 

I hadn’t suffered the weight of discrimination like many of my loved ones, and while I couldn’t choose who I was attracted to, I could choose who knew. Many people in my life happily assumed I was straight, and I just chose not to correct them. 

Because I hadn’t dated a woman yet, it felt wrong to say I belonged in the queer community. It felt wrong to take up space. I felt like I hadn’t earned it. 

In the past few years, through conversations with my queer friends, I have come to understand that this thinking was harmful and denied me part of my identity. There is no one way to be authentically queer, and while I can never claim to relate to the wide range of queer experiences, I have full right to claim my own story. 

So over the course of 2020, after my friends inspired my rainbow epiphany, I worked tirelessly to unravel much of this shameful thinking. I bought a pride flag on Amazon, claimed my queer identity, and — the big one — told my parents. I was certain I had overcome my previous backward thinking and was on the path to gay enlightenment.  

But as I began my research on Deberry, the doubt began to bubble back up. I was preparing to write a story about a queer woman who had faced true discrimination. Who in the world was I to act like I could relate? Did I even have the right to tell her or any other queer stories? Did I even count as a queer woman? 

Was I right before? Was I a big fat fraud?

My anxiety grew and by the morning of the interview, I was a wreck. Not only was I grappling with my own imposter syndrome, but I was also about to sit across from one of the most powerful people in Durham and ask probing personal questions. After unraveling all my worries to my mom across the breakfast table, she reminded me of something. 

“Grace, if you are this anxious about the interview, imagine how she feels? You are about to ask her a bunch of personal questions about her sexuality.” 

My mother had a point. (They often do.) But despite her reassurance, it was hard to believe that a woman like Deberry ever got nervous about anything

Still, that morning I went to the courthouse, rode the elevator up to the eighth floor, and did the interview. Deberry could no doubt tell I was nervous but treated me with kindness and patience. I shared a little about myself, but I mostly listened to her story. I returned to the office and spent the next two days writing the story that Indy Week would headline “Her Best Self – For Pride Month, Durham DA Deberry discusses life as a queer woman, justice for all, and her inspiration.”

People who read the story didn’t know it, but they were reading a story about me, too. 

I think, deep down, I originally wanted to write a Pride Month story to smother those deep feelings of inauthenticity. Perhaps, I thought, if I published a story in the paper for all the city to read, I could assert my queerness enough to “count.” If I openly celebrated the LGBTQ community, I could finally claim it as my community. 

But that’s not quite what happened. It wasn’t seeing my byline on the page that really helped me to grow. It was Deberry herself and learning about how she defines her own queerness. 

“For Deberry, her choice of the word queer reflects her belief that sexuality and identity are about more than who you love. ‘For me, queer is about culture, and about a worldview.’” 

This phrase has stuck with me. It reminds me that being queer colors the way I see the world, affects what I value, and defines how I love myself. Deberry’s words emboldened me to share myself honestly — enough even to write a whole story telling you about it. 

I have wholeheartedly embraced Deberry’s perspective, and I hope those who read my story did too. Because the truth remains: no matter who I will love, I will dance through life seeing the world through my rainbow-colored glasses. 

Photo above: Grace Abels by Josie Vonk – The 9th Street Journal