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‘Battle for Truth’ at Colorado College Brings Out Challenges Covering Social Justice

By Tyler Shepard

Julian Rubinstein (left) and Wesley Lowery (right)

In a modern world where the so-called “24-hour news cycle” permeates the media industry, journalists must be vigilant to find the truth in their stories.

Award-winning journalists Julian Rubinstein and Wesley Lowery discussed this, among their experiences covering social justice movements and underprivileged communities, at an event at Colorado College last week. Entitled “Battle for Truth,” and co-sponsored by Colorado College and the University of Denver, the event spotlighted the two journalists, who have both worked at multiple publications and taught at universities in Colorado.

The event took the form of a double interview, where each guest speaker took turns questioning the other about their experiences relating to their recent work, before shifting to a Q&A format where members of the audience were able to voice their questions. Beyond giving a clear demonstration of interviewing skill for many of the young journalism students in the audience, Rubinstein and Lowery provided a window into their processes and experiences surrounding their endeavors into social justice movements.

First, Lowery allowed Rubinstein to speak about his experience covering a situation he’s engaged with over the last four years. That would be the case of Terrence Roberts, an anti-gang activist who found himself in the midst of a controversy after shooting someone in the Holly, a neighborhood in Denver. In recent years, Rubinstein has produced a documentary and written a book, The Holly: Five Bullets, One Gun, and the Struggle to Save an American Neighborhood, about Roberts.

Rubinstein spoke about the problems he faced while speaking to people in the Holly who were close to Roberts’ shooting of another resident, much of which centered around his identity as a white independent journalist. While his white skin color was somewhat of a boon in that it made many of the majority black Holly residents less skeptical of his role, it was his position as an independent journalist, unassociated with a major newspaper or TV station, that widened his potential to find the truth.

“Over the years I could see that the stories I was hearing directly from people involved were very much different from stories I was hearing in the media,” Rubinstein said. Big media often doesn’t have the means or incentive to cover these events in such high detail, and oftentimes get their information from the police, who are typically distrusted in Black neighborhoods, and call it a day. “[The journalism industry] need[s] people of color, but we also just need people who are going to really look harder at those issues.”

Lowery agreed. He mentioned problems with the initial coverage of the George Floyd case, where the 46-year-old black man was killed by Minneapolis Police Department officers after trying to use a counterfeit bill. “A piece written that night on the law enforcement statement would have misled your reader as to what happened,” Lowery said. It required further investigation, as well as some citizen journalism from the bystander who took the now-infamous video of Derek Chauvin restraining George Floyd, to determine the truth of what happened in that altercation. 

Lowery stressed the caution a journalist must use when interacting with police departments, especially when it comes to stories involving African Americans or other minorities. “I don’t think about these always as law enforcement stories, right, I think about these as stories of people and their lives,” said Lowery. “The collective ‘we’ in journalism can become so reliant on the official sources in part because they’re easier to get to.”

Rubinstien and Lowery are both teaching as well as continuing to work as journalists. Rubinstein’s documentary about Terrence Roberts and the Holly is planned to be released soon.

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