How we reported on the life of Mario Gonzalez

The Oaklandside recently released a detailed report on the life of Mario Gonzalez, a young East Oakland resident who was killed by officers from Alameda nearly two months ago.

We thought it was important to provide a space for people who loved Mario to share what they wanted others to know about him, the experiences that shaped him, and the impact he had over the course of his too short life. They represented a thoughtful young man who loved, cared for and protected his family and community, sometimes while facing serious challenges.

In keeping with our newsroom’s values ​​of transparency, we also believe it is important to share more about our reporting process and address any concerns and questions our newsroom has received about this story, especially about our thoughtful decision to include information and views shared by close people. to Mario about the dangers he faced as a teenager and his involvement in the criminal justice system at age 15.

We’ll share more on that decision below and a number of the story changes we’ve made after it was released in response to comments, but there is one major concern we’d like to address immediately. Some have suggested that by including this information, The Oaklandside damaged a potential litigation the Gonzalez family or others could bring against the Alameda Police Department. Based on our newsroom’s collective years of criminal justice reporting experience, we strongly reject this assumption. No party to such a lawsuit would need to rely on a local report to learn about this incident in Mario’s past.

If such a dispute were to materialize, it is likely that information about Mario’s youth involvement with the criminal justice system would be made public through other local media. In our report, we included perspectives that contextualized the dangers Mario faced and the lack of good options available to him at the time. These perspectives were shared with us, with the knowledge and intention that they would appear in a published story, by people close to Mario. We thought it was important to put these views on the record.

We send our deepest condolences to all those who knew and loved Mario. We recognize and are saddened that our reporting caused pain to a family member who we did not speak to for our story, but contacted us after it was published to share their reactions and concerns. While we know that this accounting of our reporting and editing choices is unlikely to alleviate this pain, we believe it is important to provide transparency.

Connect with people who knew and loved Mario

When Oaklandside arts and community journalist Azucena Rasilla first learned of what had happened to Mario Gonzalez, she immediately thought of her own family.

“I didn’t want to watch the video because I felt so close to home, growing up in East Oakland with my siblings and some of the things we’ve been through,” she said, referring to footage from body-worn cameras captured that day. She wanted to disengage from the story, knowing that early reports were likely to focus entirely on the circumstances of Mario’s death, not his life.

Eventually, Oaklandside editor-in-chief Darwin BondGraham asked Azucena if she would be willing to team up with local freelance journalist Zack Haber on a story that aimed to do just that.

Azucena agreed and contacted Edith Arenales, Mario’s mother, and explained what The Oaklandside hoped to report. Ms Arenales agreed to an interview at her home, which lasted several hours and was conducted in Spanish. All subsequent follow-up calls and messages to report further and verify the facts of the story were also in Spanish, and we released the final story in both Spanish and English. (We’re also working on a Spanish translation of this article.)

At the start of their first conversation, in accordance with his usual practice as a journalist, Azucena explained that Ms Arenales could stop the interview at any time, for any reason, and how to go “off the record” if he did. there was something she wanted to share with Azucena but not make it appear in the published story. Whenever Ms Arenales has indicated that she wishes to withdraw from the case, Azucena has honored her request.

“I learned her family was even more like mine than I initially thought,” Azucena said. “Like the Gonzalez family, my family includes members who were previously undocumented. My mother, like Edith, moved to this country when she was very young. I remember what it was like for us kids to have to take the bus somewhere in East Oakland and be afraid to walk down the wrong street.

As a local newsroom, hiring and supporting journalists who represent the communities, perspectives and life experiences shared by the people we speak to during our reporting is part of our guiding values. We value and trust the ideas and expertise they bring to their work, and believe that responsible journalism, especially in a city as diverse as ours, requires such commitment. We certainly have a long way to go to deliver on that promise, and we’re proud of the small team we’ve assembled so far.

Much of what Ms. Arenales shared with Azucena has to do with both the joys and the intensely painful challenges that Mario experienced in his childhood and adolescence. She pointed out that Mario was a devoted son and a protective and loving brother who took on far more responsibility than most people his age. She told the story of two incidents that occurred when Mario was 15, when he and his younger brother, Victor, were assaulted and robbed by a group of older men as they returned home from the school on foot.

The incidents led to a confrontation and ended with Mario staying in a juvenile room, Ms. Arenales explained. One of Mario’s high school teachers and mentors, Art Mola, later told us that he felt Mario needed to stand up for himself and his brother, and if he hadn’t responded like he did. did, they could have been targeted again.

Mario’s mom “wanted me to know he never got into trouble again,” Azucena said. “She wanted us to talk to other teachers and friends who loved him and his family to share the story of how he came out of the juvenile room and supported the family. She emphasized how much of a supportive son he was despite the trauma he had suffered. She wanted people to understand.

Ms Arenales shared the names and phone numbers of people who might learn more about Mario’s life, particularly those involved in Elev8, a nationwide program that sought to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline in at-risk communities in which Mario got deeply involved with his high school, Coliseum College Prep Academy. Azucena and Zack Haber followed all of these suggestions and chatted with Mola, who ran the Elev8 program and taught at CCPA, and others who got involved when Mario was detained, writing letters of support and introducing themselves. to his audience.

In the story, we detail several ways Mario volunteered or was selected for leadership roles through Elev8 and the unique connections he was able to forge through his own life experiences, including mentoring the most young members of the program. A director of Elev8 described to us the kindness and patience he offered to these young students, and how he “knew how to connect and be real with them”.

The Oaklandside based our account of Mario’s hardships as a youth on conversations with his mom and mentor in high school. Both knew the situation intimately and were told that anything shared with us “officially” could appear in a published story. We did not rely on the records of the arrest of minors, as some have asserted in their reactions to our story. In fact, these youth files are prohibited to journalists and the general public. We searched the Alameda County Superior Court records to confirm that Mario was never charged with a criminal offense as an adult again.

Our reporters also tried to interview Gerardo Gonzalez, one of Mario’s two living brothers. Zack introduced himself to Mr. Gonzalez, who goes by his name Jerry, at an April vigil for Mario, and Mr. Gonzalez asked Zack to set up an interview through a member of Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice, or CURYJ, which handled media relations for the family. Zack shared his contact details with this staff member and requested an interview. The staff member said he would try to set up an interview with Jerry, but did not follow up on this.

We regret that we did not follow through on our own and continue to request an interview with Mr Gonzalez, who has since informed us that he never received our request. We assumed Mr. Gonzalez knew we were seeking an interview and had chosen not to speak to reporters about a family trauma. We shouldn’t have assumed that, and we apologized to Mr. Gonzalez.

Respond to concerns

We understand that Mario’s brother Jerry feels deeply hurt and outraged by our article. After our story was published, Mr. Gonzalez contacted us directly and in conjunction with members of the Anti-Police Terror Project and CURYJ, demanding that we either delete the story or remove parts of it. We have met with members of these organizations and listened to their concerns.

We’ve made several changes to the story posted at Mr. Gonzalez’s request, including removing a number of details related to the death of his brother Victor and clarifying his mother’s immigration status.

Mr. Gonzalez also asked us to remove all references to his brother’s involvement in the criminal justice system. We believe it would be irresponsible to erase from history the information and views that Mario’s loved ones shared with us about the danger Mario experienced as a teenager and how those experiences brought him to him. affected, and that it would present an incomplete picture of his life. For example, as we detail in the story, Mario’s experience defending himself and his younger brother intimately informed his participation in Elev8, the social justice-based high school program that was deeply important to him. .

The Oaklandside is also committed to listening to community feedback and protecting our editorial independence. We do not believe that these values ​​are mutually exclusive. If changing a story after it’s published can avoid unnecessary pain without obscuring painful but necessary truths, we are ready to consider all possibilities. We hope we have demonstrated it with this story, and we stand by the story as it appears today.

About Geraldine Higgins

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