Reporter Derek Maiolo: The hardest stories matter most
As I studied and trained to be a journalist in college, I knew I was not carving an easy path for myself. But I believed, as I still do, that journalism serves a necessary purpose in our society. It gives voice to people and issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug. Authentic journalism forces us to face the facts, even if it hurts.
When my editor proposed an eight-week series on sexual assault in Routt County, my stomach lurched at the thought of covering such a sensitive topic, particularly in this small town I grew up in and care about. My two assignments —first, to do a comprehensive analysis of the number of sex crimes in mountain communities, and, second, to explore sexual assault in the LGBTQ community — would require multiple records requests, late hours digging through court cases and tear-soaked interviews.
One snowy night in April, I tossed in bed, unable to sleep. For the last three hours I had scrolled on my computer through at least 50 assault cases, each laden with egregious criminal charges. They ranged from drugging to raping a woman to giving a 12-year-old alcohol.
Like first responders who daily see death and suffering, journalists are advised to distance themselves from their work. Try as I might, that night I could not get images of these victims out of my head. What pained me more was seeing how few of those cases ever went to trial, and how often assailants got off on lenient punishments or none at all. I was angry. I felt helpless.
I walked outside into the snow, barefoot and shivering. The white flakes shone in the glow of my kitchen, spewing from the darkness like fireflies. A question from one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver, flew in with them.
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“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
It is a question I try to keep close. I have a copy pinned to my desk as a reminder that my plan was never to lead an easy life, but a full one. To face all that this world brings, even if it hurts.
Oliver’s question continued to guide me throughout the “In Our Shoes” series. When I reported how sexual assault unequally impacts the LGBTQ, I realized the only way I could do the story justice was to describe my own experience as a gay man. Confessing my sexuality and the difficulties I have faced came with a certain amount of dread over the possible repercussions.
It is a testament to the kindness of this community that I received nothing but positive feedback from the article. What is more, a handful of locals from the LGBTQ community said it made them feel understood. In an email, one woman said it was the most important work I had done for this newspaper thus far.
This job is not easy, nor is life. Moments like that make the struggle worth it.
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