Column: When newsrooms are depleted, key questions go unanswered
In the wee morning hours of Oct. 31, long before the ghouls, goblins and zombies made their rounds through western Washington County, Mirella Castaneda had an even scarier visitor.
At about 12:50 a.m., Steven Teets, drunk and angry, set his bleary sights on her Forest Grove home. He kicked her Ram pickup in the driveway, setting off an alarm. He then pounded on a flag hanging against her garage and rushed Castaneda when he saw her peeking out her front door. After kicking and banging on the door for about seven minutes, terrifying her and her family, he finally left.
The attack on her house did draw media attention in early November, including some good reporting by Maxine Bernstein, The Oregonian/Oregonlive's tenacious police reporter. She jumped on the story, and others followed, because of a few key facts.
• Steven Teets is a Forest Grove police officer.
• The flag that seemed to enrage him proclaimed "Black Lives Matter."
• Law enforcement officials refused to give Castaneda even a general description of the suspect, let alone reveal he was one of their own.
In January, the Forest Grove News-Times — part of Pamplin Media alongisde the Portland Tribune — followed up with an in-depth article about community protest centered on the Castaneda case and an October incident in which a Forest Grove man died after being Tasered by police.
The article amplified concerns shared by many community members and offered lengthy responses from the mayor and police chief.
And yet, key questions remained unanswered: Was the attack on Castaneda's property a bias crime? Did local law enforcement officials give Teets preferential treatment? Why were key facts missing from the crime report and withheld from the victim?
Journalism that holds institutions accountable is extremely labor-intensive. It requires requests for public documents and appeals when those requests are denied. It requires cutting through evasive answers to pin down public officials who would prefer to work in secret. It requires fighting the rumors on social media to get to the facts. And, it requires putting in the long hours needed to gain the trust of both crime victims and members of the law enforcement community — which have different, but understandable, reasons to be wary of the press.
A decade ago, three news organizations had full-time reporters assigned to cover local governments in western Washington County. But as Google, Facebook and other out-of-state tech giants sucked up local advertising, local media took a huge hit.
The Oregonian/Oregonlive closed its county bureau about seven years ago. The Washington County Argus stopped publishing in 2017 and the News-Times in Forest Grove, where I served as editor and publisher, has had to cut its staff in half, continuing a painful decline that started on my watch.
The past 12 months have been particularly tough, as media organizations are struggling just to keep up with the daily news of a pandemic, protests and political upheavals while battling a dramatic COVID-related drop in advertising revenue.
So, it wasn't that editors and reporters in the region's news shops didn't care about this story. It was that they simply didn't have the resources to do the needed digging.
Luckily for Castaneda, the local chapter of SURJ, a racial-justice group, was keeping the issue alive. And among its members was a former journalist who couldn't shake this story.
I've known Jill Smith for 30 years. We'd both migrated to Portland from Chicago, a few years apart. We met working together at Willamette Week in the early 1990s and then jockeyed for scoops later, when she worked at The Oregonian's county bureau while I was at the New-Times. By then, we were dear friends.
In 2012, Jill joined the News-Times staff, where she served as editor until retiring in 2017.
Jill is one of the most scrupulous journalists I've ever worked with. She checks. She double checks. She makes yet another call to confirm her facts.
So, when she started telling me this winter what she was learning about the Teets case, after a chance encounter with the Forest Grove police chief and subsequent conversations with Castaneda, I was intrigued.
She felt there was an interesting story there. And the more we talked, the more I realized there were multiple stories.
Jill was concerned, however, that her involvement with SURJ would preclude her from writing about what she learned. She offered to share her material with a reporter, which she has done, and we have posted Nick Budnick's first article, which grew out of Jill's inquiries and his own follow-up reporting.
But after three months of interviews, Jill had assembled a different kind of story line: a poignant, powerful narrative from the perspective of the victim. So while Pamplin journalists will continue to dig into this issue and report their findings on our news pages, we also are giving Jill a forum to share Castaneda's side of the story in a series of columns showing why this incident was so traumatic for Castaneda — and how this patriotic woman lost her trust in our local law-enforcement agencies.
The result, I hope, is the kind of journalism that will hold our public agencies accountable, amplify the voices of those too-often ignored by our industry and foster a community conversation about how to learn from what happened.
It's hard, it's expensive and it will piss some people off.
And if you believe, as I do, that a healthy, unfettered press is essential to the democratic process, then support your local media. Subscribe. Listen. Watch. Advertise. And support those who do the same. Otherwise, one day there may be more frightening stories to tell and no one you can trust to tell them.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.