In 2015, The Corpus Christi (TX) Caller-Times launched “Behind Broken Doors,” a long-term reporting project to explore the strong correlation between homicides and domestic violence, hoping “to inform and engage the community to reverse the deadly trend.” Here, journalists from the Caller-Times, a daily paper with circulation of about 45,000, tell the story of how the project evolved to incorporate the solutions approach – and how the resulting reporting has moved the needle in Corpus Christi.
BRO KRIFT, former managing editor: We had a virtual editors meeting [for Journal Media Group, which then owned the Caller Times] in January, 2015. Tina Rosenberg gave a presentation on solutions journalism. What I saw was an opportunity to fund awesome work, but also to develop staff to do that work at a paper this size. We already had in mind a project related to domestic violence, so it was a matter of fine-tuning that and seeing how we could apply solutions journalism.
In June, 2015, Caller-Times reporters and editors participated in a workshop with the Solutions Journalism Network.
KRIFT: The idea of solutions journalism was easy for our staff to understand. The concept is simple: Don’t just sit there and say we have problems. Take the opportunity to bring back solutions to the community. Our young staff wanted to do this, because they saw it could make change.
KRISTA TORRALVA, staff reporter: The workshop was inspirational; it came at the right time. The previous year had been pivotal because I had my eyes opened to the criminal justice system. That February, I came off covering my first capital murder trial. I was starting to have a lot of questions.
BEATRIZ ALVARADO, staff reporter: We started talking about the domestic violence series back in the last quarter of 2014. I was on the cops beat, and we were seeing a lot of deaths linked to domestic violence. We wanted to see why. Why the trend? But as a working reporter, I never really fathomed going past that why. [The workshop] automatically connected to the goals we were trying to make, to shine a light on our struggles, but also to aim at something more.
KRIFT: Once we learned about solutions journalism, it became obvious that part of us doing a look at a large issue affecting the community was also about looking at who else is facing these problems and if they solved them, how did they do it.
ALVARADO: Before we kicked off the series, we met with the District Attorney, police chief, and sheriff in Corpus. The DA mentioned that El Paso was doing things a different way, and she saw merit in that.
KRIFT: El Paso caught our attention with its 24-hour Contact Domestic Violence Initiative, which began as a pilot program in August, 2008. The program has since been credited with effectively bridging a time gap between a domestic violence crime and building a case against a suspect.
JENNIFER KILLIN-GUADARRAMA, deputy city editor: Krista and Beatriz traveled initially to El Paso to explore successes those communities had seen through domestic violence prevention, victim outreach and criminal justice intervention.
The El Paso story, “A Path to Change Domestic Violence,” appeared in October, 2015.
KILLIN-GUADARRAMA: That story pushed us to look at other communities and what we found were stories in Connecticut and Minnesota.
TORRALVA: We looked at a program in New Haven, which has been replicated in more than a dozen other cities, that helps children. New Haven police officers and clinicians from Yale’s Child Study Center partner to respond to and follow up with children who have experienced or witnessed trauma. The photographer and I accompanied an officer and clinician on a 6-hour ride-along, responding to scenes and following up with families who had requested services. We attended the officers and clinicians’ weekly meeting at Yale. We conducted several interviews in New Haven and toured the police department and city to get a feel for the community to compare to ours.
The reporting in Connecticut led to “New Haven police’s approaches aids children of violence” in February, 2016.
The paper also published three stories based on its Minnesota reporting, including “Officials: ‘Women’s state’ curbs domestic violence.”
KILLIN-GUADARRAMA: As time progressed, and the killings continued to mount, we were in a strong position based on our reporting to tell our law enforcement and community leadership, “enough is enough,” and that it was time they stepped up to the plate. Our publisher, Libby Averyt, penned a front-page commentary on the dire and deadly situation women in our community faced. And when an elected official said [the Caller-Times] was good at pointing out problems, but not offering solutions, we were able to provide example after example that that statement wasn’t grounded in fact.
ALVARADO: There’s been a huge response from the community; [people are saying] thanks for investing the time in exploring domestic violence. As far as concrete changes, I don’t feel comfortable taking credit for any of that. But one thing did happen: Our police department adopted a vetting process for domestic violence victims to connect them to different services.
TORRALVA: Our police department had a culture change in the way they respond to family violence cases. A lot of the things they’re implementing sound very similar to the solutions that we mentioned in our articles. For example, they’re now doing assessment interviews with victims and then putting them on the phone with women’s shelters. That’s something we had identified in El Paso, the first solutions story we did.
KILLIN-GUADARRAMA: The police department’s family violence unit – once a 9 to 5, Monday through Friday operation – expanded to include weekend shifts after our reporting revealed two women killed at the hands of their lovers filed police reports only to have them languish in the system for days because family violence detectives didn’t work weekends. Our police department received grants based on our reporting to implement domestic violence screening programs. The Women’s Shelter used our data to apply for and receive additional funds for training and victim outreach.
Sadly, the numbers [for domestic abuse] remain unchanged. Half of our city’s homicides remain directly linked to domestic violence. What has changed is the conversation. People are now more frequently and more publicly talking about what used to remain “Behind Broken Doors.” The reporting also led to the creation of a monthly coalition with the sole task of creating and implementing solutions to our deadly issue.
KRIFT: With smaller newsrooms, you have to pick your spots. You invest your time in the things that matter most. We realized, this sort of project is doable. And the question started coming up naturally [in newsroom discussions]: What’s the solutions part?
TORRALVA: I’m evolving. I’m constantly thinking, how can I incorporate solutions journalism into this story? I’m going to be writing about a new judge on the juvenile court who is ordering kids in drug court to do a GED program with local college. I’m already thinking, how do I write that from a solutions perspective?
KILLIN-GUADARRAMA: We are definitely incorporating SoJo principles and strategies in other aspects of our reporting. We are preparing to launch a data-heavy series on voter trends in the Coastal Bend, and we’ve been brainstorming and searching for areas with higher voter turnout to see how those communities made it happen. Even the daily stories have some elements of solutions journalism. A simple crime story on gun theft, for example, morphs from a statistic-heavy brief into a “here’s how to protect yourself” piece. It’s now common in our newsroom to go beyond “just the facts” and find out how to tell a broader story of value to readers that can help change how people see a situation.
The “Behind Closed Doors” project continues. In August, 2016, the Caller-Times published “Why he killed,” the product of Torralva’s year-long investigation of Jacob Gonzalez, who shot and killed his girlfriend and two others in 2011. Bro Krift is now executive editor of the Montgomery (AL) Advertiser