We have a really good Q&A this week with crime and courts reporter for the Virginia Gazette, Steve Roberts Jr.
Roberts, who started at the Gazette in July 2018, talks to us about the emotional burden that comes with covering crime, the philosophy behind covering news, a story that he can’t shake, being a chef, hiking barefooted and more (believe it or not).
Please introduce yourself.
I’m the crime and courts reporter at the Virginia Gazette in Williamsburg, which means I get to cover people — victims and perpetrators — on the worst days of their lives up to that point. I get to look at the more horrific parts of our society and make as much sense of them as possible for my readers. I got my start at the Virginia Gazette on July 8, 2018, a little more than a week before my official start date after a helicopter crash killed two people in Williamsburg. My editor graciously called me and tasked me with finding the story underneath the story: who was the pilot of the helicopter? That story took me far and wide from Fairfax to Norfolk, and through my reporting, it came to light that the pilot had flown illegally at the time of the crash.
I’m a proud native of Hermon, Maine and the first person in my family to graduate from college. I studied International Affairs at the University of Maine and at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario through a Fulbright Canada fellowship. I didn’t have too much interest in writing news as a kid. When I was 14, I met my first reporter at a school career day and he looked ragged and beat down. To say the least, I took news for granted. I thought that the truth would always come to light. Now, I know that not to be true. It takes a village of newsgatherers to get the facts to the people. In college, I worked as an industrial sign maker and a chef at a concert series.
Crime and courts is a historically rough beat to work. What is it like having to cover bad news on a regular basis?
To be frank, I just keep my head down and keep my eyes on my enterprise stories and investigations. If I got mired in the daily spectrum of crime stories, from people arrested for bathing in restaurant sinks (yes, that has happened) to senseless sexual assaults and murders, I’d be unable to function. I try never to forget the stories of the victims. It’s hard to describe, but I find myself thinking about a lot of other people’s lives in the few quiet moments I have; who they would be now, if they’d ever have found self-fulfillment, if they’d have families. It’s impossible for any reporter to separate our stories from the stories we tell. Journalism’s perspective is supposed to be as neutral as possible and always factual, but that doesn’t mean journalists can’t feel empathy for victims, perpetrators and everyone in between.
“It’s impossible for any reporter to separate our stories from the stories we tell.” Can you explain what you mean by this?
We must feel empathy for people. In bad situations, both sides often lose. For example, with the helicopter crash, the pilot’s family lost a father and grandfather, the pilot’s wife lost her home and was forced to move into a care facility at last check, meanwhile ten families lost their homes here in Williamsburg. One woman died in her home from the crash. To not see the suffering of all parties would be a disservice to the soul. It’s all part of the story.
“It’s impossible for any reporter to separate our stories from the stories we tell.”
What’s one story that you’ve written for the Gazette that has stuck with you, for better or worse?
I think about this one every few nights. Jared Antle is 19-year old from Williamsburg and he suffered a traumatic brain injury in a hit and run just two days after his mother dropped him off for his sophomore year at James Madison University in Harrisonburg. He wasn’t expected to survive.
Jared was a star baseball player at Lafayette High School with loving parents and siblings. He had a bright future ahead of him, but now everything’s up in the air. His parents remain ever more steadfast in their faith and hope for a full recovery, that said, it’s practically impossible to tell how much of a recovery he’ll make, his doctors and therapists told me. The Antles just want their son back.
My editor and I worked with the family so that I could visit Jared at the “Place of Miracles” in Atlanta — it’s a hospital that specializes in brain and spinal cord injuries. In less than 30 hours, I witnessed key turning points in Jared’s recovery. I saw the love and patience of his parents, holding his hand when he was frustrated, telling him they were proud, calming him down when he was angry, encouraging him to say his first words in months.
I could see my own mother and father’s love in his family. These scenes are universally understood. They’re part of the human experience. I talk to Jared’s father Ed at least once a week, just to check in, and Jared continues to make progress. That’s all anyone can hope for.
On a lighter note, I have a question about your Twitter bio that I can’t help but ask. It says you’ve been hiking barefoot since 2010. Do you in fact hike barefooted and if so, why?
I do hike barefoot! To be quite honest it’s because I have very flat feet and shoes tend to either hurt me or get destroyed when I hike. When I was a freshman in college I set out to hike every single hill and mountain in one summer at Acadia National Park. I did just that and found myself in the process of getting lost on unmarked trails. While I was in Ottawa I went to a tattoo parlor to get a topographical map of Mt. Desert Island tattooed on my left shoulder. It’s just a little reminder for me to remember who I am on the inside and where I come from.
It sounds like you’ve held many different positions between being a sign maker, a chef and now a reporter. What do you like most about being a newspaper reporter? What satisfaction do you get out of the job?
I’ve done a lot of different work. I grew up pretty poor, so the base level requirement in life was learning new skills and using them as prudently as possible. I truly enjoy telling stories. I wrote a lot of fiction and creative non-fiction in college — enough for a novel — but I only published a few shorts. With those stories, I wanted to show people the world as I saw it, and with news, I tell the stories of others through my own perspective on their own worldviews.
Favorite book: “Mother Night,” by Kurt Vonnegut
Favorite piece of writing advice: “Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted,” again Kurt Vonnegut.
Favorite current journalist: Dave Ress of the Daily Press (a colleague I never get to work with, but he writes about topics that matter with pinpoint precision).