April 30, 2021

Not every journalism student can study under a four-time Pulitzer winner.

But members of the Investigative Reporting Program at the UC-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism said the lessons they’ve learned can be applied by students everywhere.

Gisela Pérez de Acha, Kathryn Hurd and Ellie Lightfoot contributed to “American Insurrection,” a collaboration between Berkeley Journalism, PBS’s “Frontline” and ProPublica. Their work is the latest installment in an ongoing series that examines the evolution of far-right extremist groups. The Investigative Reporting Program is run by David Barstow, who’s won four Pulitzers and has been a finalist several other times for investigative, explanatory and public service journalism. 

The Berkeley team’s work focuses on Steven Carrillo, a U.S. Air Force sergeant and member of the anti-government Boogaloo Bois, who killed two law enforcement officers and wounded others in California in mid-2020. To date, he’s only granted interviews with one journalist: Pérez de Acha.

“This is a story about the importance of having a diverse newsroom,” she said. 

The team had approached Carrillo’s brother about the story, and he put them in touch with Silvia, Carrillo’s girlfriend.

“I came in to talk to her and interview her in native speaking Spanish,” said Pérez de Acha, who was a human rights lawyer in Mexico and Paris before turning to journalism. “My Spanish is the same Spanish that Silvia speaks. Mexico and El Salvador were pretty much cultural neighbors. And that just created a link of trust that I don’t think would have existed … coming from a different cultural context.”

Silvia eventually connected Pérez de Acha with Carrillo, who’s being held in a California jail awaiting trial. Their interviews created a key component for the documentary and reporting project.

“We wouldn’t have this access if we didn’t have a person on the team who spoke perfect Spanish,” said Pérez de Acha, a 2020 graduate who works as a reporter at the IRP. “We’re a multicultural society, and that’s how newsrooms should be like as well.”

The team also emphasized the importance of patience.

“(You need) copious, copious amounts of curiosity and persistence,” said Lightfoot, who grew up in Seattle, graduated from Columbia in 2016 and freelanced before attending Berkeley. “I can’t emphasize the persistence enough, because (investigative journalism) takes a long time. And a lot of the times, you know, you go through lulls, where you’re not certain that the story will be published, you might be scooped. … A lot of it is waiting for the right moment. Which is grueling in and of itself.”

Pérez de Acha said that investigative reporting is never boring but it requires resiliency. 

“You need to be able to also be in touch with your emotions and learn how to process them. You can’t just suppress them when we’re interviewing extremists, and people accused of doing horrible things.”

She said her school and this team work constantly to dismantle the notion that talking about feelings demonstrates weakness. 

“We would do resiliency checks, where we would just vent for an hour, or cry, or really feel a lot of empathy for an alleged murderer’s family,” Pérez de Acha said. “Those sessions, to me, were a lifesaver.”

Hurd said that journalism professors don’t need to take on the role of therapists.

“But you should be clear to your students that they can create space for things that they are experiencing.”

She said the team environment meant they could commiserate and be truly understood.

“I didn’t understand the emotional toll that this work can take until I was actually in it,” said Hurd, who grew up in the Bay Area and graduated from Wake Forest, working in public relations before attending Berkeley.

She said the school’s instructors have been helpful in building that communicative environment.

“I think Berkeley’s really, really good at having our male editors be like, ‘Alright, let’s sit down and actually talk about how this is weighing on you,’” Hurd said. “And it’s not always easy to do that in a professional environment. … It’s been really cool to have them create space for that.”

Hurd said Barstow checked in at the beginning of meetings and asked concrete questions like, “Are you sleeping? Are you eating?” Pérez de Acha said he usually started meetings by asking, “How do you feel? How does everyone feel?” and allowed them to actually answer in some detail.

From left, UC-Berkeley journalism graduate students Ellie Lightfoot and Kathryn Hurd, along with recent graduate and fellow journalist at the Investigative Reporting Program Gisela Pérez de Acha. (Courtesy)

I asked Barstow what “creating space” really meant for his students.

“One thing that I stress to every single team of student reporters is that we have to find moments to come together in love and forgive each other,” he said.

He said the team spent a lot of time talking as a group about seeing the project through.

“One of the truly difficult things about investigative reporting is having the discipline to be patient, for your story, in the most impatient of businesses,” Barstow said. “That’s always a tough thing, especially for journalists who are at the beginning of their investigative reporting journey, to absorb that.
“I think one of the silly conceits of investigative reporting for a long time has been that investigative reporters are kind of these swaggering badass tough guys who like, spit nails. And that’s just nonsense.” 

The three said Barstow has been a great mentor and editor, pushing them when they needed to be challenged but displaying a kind-heartedness that made them want to see the project through.

“He’s super strict, but in a kind way,” Pérez de Acha said. “That’s what you need in a professor.”

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Barbara Allen is the director of college programming for Poynter. Prior to that, she served as managing editor of Poynter.org. She spent two decades in…
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