Reporter’s Notebook: How I’ve learned to report on my own community

Being a local reporter who is also deeply embedded in the community comes with its challenges, writes Julie Chadwick.

As many of you know, I am a fan of the “deep dive” feature story. I feel like many issues just cannot be properly understood in a two-minute sound bite or a 500-word news story. At The Discourse, I am encouraged to look at stories, and the community, in a way I’ve never been able to before.

My latest series, It Takes a Village, looks at The Nanaimo Affordable Housing Society’s (NAHS) management of the Buttertubs low-income seniors complex. Though our second part came out today, NAHS had actually come onto our radar more than a year ago. 

After surveying residents for our multi-part investigation into the rental crisis in Nanaimo, my editor Lauren Kaljur mentioned that several people had come forward with concerns about NAHS-run buildings. She ended up writing an article about it but said she felt like there was more to the story.

At the time, I didn’t pursue it. I was hesitant to criticize a non-profit society that, from what I could see, was attempting to address a burgeoning housing crisis with limited resources.

However, when we heard that seniors, many of whom are living with disabilities, were taking to the streets to protest conditions at their NAHS-run building, I decided to take a second look.

When Lauren sent me the address of the protest, I realized it was at my own father’s low-income housing complex.

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Though we are close and talk about many things, he had never told me about what was going on there, aside from grumbling about the hall coming down a few years ago, and I didn’t interview him for these stories. 

But this does make things complicated. I have my own personal connection with the history of the complex where he lives, as my grandmother also lived there for more than a decade before she died. My dad also hosted my wedding reception in the hall there in 2006, and I have memories of visiting it both before and after it was renovated, the residents calling out greetings as I entered.

There was one summer when I struggled as a single parent, working long hours as a magazine editor without reliable childcare. My dad stepped in, and my kids practically lived in the hall, playing shuffleboard with my dad’s friends and going on long walks around Buttertubs Marsh.

In some cases, this might make me hesitate, for fear of appearing biased. But to be honest, reporters grapple with questions of bias all the time; sometimes you go into a story with assumptions you never even realized you had, or think you know how it’s going to turn out, only to be completely surprised.

I’d prefer to recognize that objectivity is complex, and analyze bias with honesty and a commitment to fairness and to following a story wherever the facts lead — which was my intention with this series.

Many of the stories I report on involve personal connections. Intimate knowledge of your community is part of good local reporting, and that can come from growing up with people and knowing their extended families.

Sometimes I end up interviewing people who are already my friends or strangers who — through telling me about their life or their beliefs or their experiences — end up becoming friends.

This is something journalists don’t always talk about and can represent the messier side of reporting, especially in small communities. In my years at the Nanaimo Daily News, whenever a story would break, my editor would often yell across the newsroom, “Who do you know that’s involved, Chadwick?” And chances were it was an old high school friend, someone’s uncle, or a friend’s little sister.

The point is, being engaged in a community and being familiar with a story and its history can at times enhance the reporting. In this case, we discussed the implications of my personal connection and decided that digging into the past and present of a housing complex that has had an impact on my own family has only added to the story and my passion for telling it. 

In my investigation — which involves more than a dozen tenants, former board members and employees, archive news stories, tenancy documents, contracts and meeting minutes — I explore the changes that tenants, former board members and employees describe since NAHS took over the complex.

I dive into specifics like the loss of the residents’ community hall and their concerns around dwindling services in the midst of a housing crisis. I look at the broader context of how the needs of renters change as they age and why we should be paying attention to that. 

We decided to put a significant amount of resources into this series because the extent of the concerns and allegations from the people I interviewed called us to. While local non-profits like NAHS play a critical role in our community, this should never shelter them from scrutiny and accountability. 

I hope you are as engaged with reading this as much as I was writing it. Read the series here.  [end]

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