The Walla Walla Union-Bulletin’s Sheila Hagar on What’s Wrong (and Right) With the Media

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Sheila Hagar.

Your newsroom, like so many others, has been downsized in recent years. How has that affected the shape of your coverage?
We used to do all kinds of special projects, and we won awards. We got lots of glory in our little community — and beyond — for that kind of coverage. And we just don’t get to do that anymore, because we’ve all got a lot of busy work: advances, press releases, briefs. There used to be other people who could do that — like a copy editor might do those things. But the copy desk has gotten whittled down and they’ve been given more responsibility.

I did a series last year on Seventh-Day Adventists who are gay. It took me about three months to get it all. We’re nestled up against College Place, Washington, which is a Seventh-Day Adventist university town. My understanding is that Walla Walla Valley has a little conservative bubble. We still have a lot of old-school Adventist thinking. And people who are influential and have a lot of money can donate to the churches and college and hospital, so there’s a barrier to accessing many of the newer thoughts.

So this kid — well, he’s about 28 — wrote a play called something like SDA and Gay. It comes into our Arts & Entertainment email, and he wants us to advance it. And I’m looking at it, and I think, Wow, that seems really unusual and pretty risky. So I called him, and it just snowballed. I learned about this great film called Seventh-Gay Adventists. And I started being able to talk about the huge issues of being gay within the Seventh-Day doctrine. It’s a hot issue within that community … The package ran over two days, and it had five stories. Lots of it was local, but some of it was national. And I got to pull in a lot of sources from other areas.

Did it get a good response?
It did. A lot of anger, which I consider a healthy response, from Adventists. I had these old, old Adventist people calling me up, and they were just so mad. But I was able to explain that I didn’t actually create any of that, I just reported it.

But you haven’t been able to write as many of those stories?
Right. I’m going to do this series on families that have lost their kids to drugs. I’m going to have to just work on it piecemeal, as I can — instead of diving in and staying under, which I think serves that kind of piece better. Because when you constantly have to climb out of the pool, you have to go back and figure out where you’ve already swum and what temperature the water is again. Things that occur to you while you’re writing, that you didn’t somehow message yourself about, are lost often.

How do you think it affects readers when you write fewer of those stories?
I think people with that kind of story to tell are less hopeful that they can get something done by the paper, so then I think they seek other venues. So then it’s a long Facebook post, or it’s a different paper … It does damage the public’s institutional history, so to speak.

… In a smaller town, you find yourself hoping that nobody recognizes you when you’re grocery shopping, because you don’t want to hear about how they hated this or that in the paper. And sometimes it’s your story that they really hated or they’re mad about or they said was wrong … I’ve done stories about physicians who have been accused of this or that. I recognize it, when I’m writing the story, even though it comes from the Department of Health, and I’ve got all the official sources, I am fucking someone’s life. Sometimes I will wake up in the middle of the night and think about how I worded something. You wake up and you think about the mom who wanted you to write about the little baby with cancer, and your editor said, “Well, that’s not really news, because lots of kids have cancer. Is this a really rare cancer?” “No.” “Well, it’s not a story then.”

I had a guy that told me in Starbucks that I had ruined his life. He owned four nursing homes where he did really not-good things. He didn’t use the money that the state was giving him for appropriate care. Not like anybody was getting hit, but people weren’t getting changed, and they weren’t getting proper nutrition. He was making people work double shifts and he wasn’t paying them. It was spiraling downward, and finally the state came in. And so by the time you looked at all the reports for all four homes, I could only put some of them in, and they were pretty horrific. Those were people who were vulnerable, and they were taken advantage of by this guy. They got shut down, and I reported it. I saw him months later, and I said, “Hi, Aaron, how are you?” And he goes, “Sheila,” in this big tall voice — and he’s this big tall guy — “You ruined my life.” Right in Starbucks. You know how big a Starbucks is, which is not very. So everybody got to hear that and look at me.

I think sometimes, without a deep and balanced story, the side that shouts the loudest gains the most power. Without that kind of coverage, what hope do people who don’t have money or power have? Their situation isn’t going to be something that a pro-bono legal advocate would take on.

The Transcripts: A Master Class in What’s Wrong (and Right) With the Media by Those In the Know