The delicate balance of retelling difficult stories

Josh Cohen tells us about reporting on people in vulnerable situations in his recent article about the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s 'peer navigator' program.

a woman and two men pose for a portrait

Left: System Advocates program co-director Dawn Shepard outside King County Regional Homelessness Authority offices on Thursday, April 7, 2022. (Amanda Snyder/ Crosscut) Right: King County Support Services specialists Kirk Rodriguez, left, and Joe Barnhart, Thursday, April 7, in downtown Seattle. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

As a reporter, I never want to take for granted someone’s willingness to share their story with me.

Of course, politicians and those in power owe it to the public to share what they’re doing by speaking with reporters. But everyday people do not owe us, so it’s important we keep in mind our duty to treat their stories with proper respect. That’s doubly true when someone is willing to share something particularly challenging and personal that they’ve experienced.

I spoke with Dawn Shepard and Kirk Rodriguez for a recent article about the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s plans to launch a “peer navigator” program to lead its effort to address downtown homelessness. In short, a peer navigator in this context is someone who has experienced homelessness themselves and uses that shared experience to establish trust and help guide people through the system.

Dawn used to do homeless outreach and is now a co-director of the Homelessness Authority’s new program. Kirk works with King County’s Behavioral Health and Recovery Division on a team of peer navigators doing crisis prevention in Pioneer Square and downtown.

Both of them have experienced homelessness and other traumas in their past. They were open with their stories and willing to share them with me and Crosscut’s readers. And for that I am very grateful.

In sharing their stories, Dawn and Kirk helped Crosscut readers understand why the Homelessness Authority insists on putting “lived experience” at the forefront of its work and how its new peer navigation program will work.

Retelling difficult stories is often challenging for a reporter. I went through many rewrites trying to find the right balance of sharing enough detail to give a full picture of who Dawn and Kirk are and what they went through without oversharing.

Of course, our duty as journalists is to be honest and factual above all else, but there’s a way to do that without being insensitive or voyeuristic, and I hope I accomplished that here. 

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