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Every story starts with a question.
Sometimes those questions are easy to find the answers to, and sometimes, well, sometimes they’re not.
In this week’s edition of the Herald Times you’ll find a story unlike anything we’ve printed for a very long time, if ever—an in-depth investigative journalism piece.
How did we get here, and why?
As I’ve said in this space before, I have no “formal” journalism training, just on-the-job learning. None of that learning is in investigative journalism, which is a specialty in this field much the way orthopedic surgeons are specialists in the field of medicine.
So when questions about the officer-involved shooting in Rangely last December remained unanswered and I didn’t know where to start looking, I mentioned my predicament to a colleague. Susan Greene is the editor of the non-profit online news organization The Colorado Independent. She’s also a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her work as an investigative journalist. She had the skill set I needed, and she agreed to help me.
I don’t think either of us realized exactly what we were getting ourselves into.
Her first question to me was, “Did you get the autopsy report?”
“I can do that?” I asked. We were on the phone, but I’m pretty sure she rolled her eyes.
She’s been patient, informative, and pushed me way outside of my comfort zone. It’s been a steep learning curve. I can honestly say I’ve never worked harder on a story, and never learned so much in a short period of time about producing high-quality journalism. I’d liken the last few months to journalism boot camp.
This is the question asked most often during the almost three months we’ve been working on this story. Why (why bother, who cares)? Why now (it’s been almost a year, can’t you let it go)? Why do you need to publish this (why does it matter)?
It matters because a man who fell through the cracks of our country’s healthcare system died at the hands of a Rangely police officer who believed he was forced to defend himself and his fellow officers.
It matters because the careers of two veteran officers ended without so much as a how-do-you-do or a see-ya-later… Just a deafening silence after decades of public service.
It matters because public officials who represent the community and carry its trust were either unprepared or unwilling to be transparent when asked for information. In fact, they discouraged us from covering this story out of fear of public backlash.
Fear seems to be the main reason for the silence. It’s easy to be silent. Speaking up is risky. I have tremendous respect for the people who agreed to be interviewed for this story. It’s a story that needs to be told. It’s a story we, as a community, need to have discussions about in the future, on several levels.
I know not everyone will be pleased with this story, and I accept that. It’s not our job to make everyone comfortable. We’ll leave that to the likes of glossy magazines and partisan news sources that tell their readers just what they want to hear and nothing else.
I’m not going to apologize for doing my job. I am going to apologize for not doing it a lot sooner. When Daniel Pierce’s mother says she doesn’t understand why no one seemed to care or contacted her after her son died, I take that as a rebuke. We didn’t do what your local newspaper is supposed to do: we didn’t tell the story. We allowed ourselves to be silenced right along with everyone else.
Our job is to tell the stories, as best we can, with as much integrity and honesty and accuracy and fairness as we can muster. I believe we’ve done that with this story.
This wasn’t an easy story to tell. Without Susan’s expertise and assistance, it wouldn’t have come together. My dip into the pool of investigative journalism was intense, educational, and exhausting. And now I have a new set of tools in my tool box for future use.
Everyone has a story. Those stories deserve to be told.
Here’s Part One.