Liliana Segura, a criminal justice reporter for The Intercept, visited Ohio University on April 5 to lecture and meet with students. I was fortunate enough to help facilitate the event and gain a lot from not only hearing her speak, but even more so engaging with her critically on criminal justice and social justice issues of interest to us both.
She agreed to answer a few questions about her career path and her visit to Athens.
Kaleb Carter: Liliana, how has working the criminal justice beat for The Intercept been for you, with the publication still being in its developing stages?
Liliana Segura: The focus of The Intercept, especially at the beginning, has been primarily geared toward national security reporting — so for a while, it was unclear how criminal justice would fit in, exactly. In the earlier days of The Intercept, as we navigated various leadership changes, I did not really have anyone making assignments to me, which gave me a lot of freedom to simply pursue the stories I was interested in — and do lots and lots of reporting. The best thing to come from that period was a long investigative piece I published last year about a bad arson case out of Nashville (See: Playing With Fire: How Junk Science Sent Claude Garrett to Prison For Life). Now we have more staff, more structure and I’m moving away from editing. But I am incredibly lucky that I still have a huge amount of freedom to choose the stories I want to tell — which means I get to do things like go to a forensics conference in Las Vegas.
KC: What led you to the criminal justice/prisons/death penalty beat in the first place? Activism and advocacy led you to it, right? And do you still advocate with your journalism?
LS: Yes. As I mentioned when I visited campus, I was sort of radicalized around these issues by a few critical people: the anti-death penalty nun and veteran activist Sister Helen Prejean, along with the men and women who opened my eyes to the police torture scandal of the 80s and 90s in Chicago, under racist police commander Jon Burge. I was a senior in college at the time, and there was an event sponsored by the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, which introduced me to a man who had been exonerated from death row — the now departed Darby Tillis — as well as a man who had been tortured by Chicago police into giving a confession for a crime he did not commit. He was calling in from death row, and the experience completely altered my perception; it woke me up to the kinds of injustices I wanted to expose in my own work. At that time, I knew I wanted to write, but I did not have a particular issue that I felt passionately about. But really from that day on, I knew I had to do something to work against the death penalty and to fight against this abusive system. And I have done so in various ways since. Being plugged into activist movements has fueled my sense of urgency and motivation to keep on it, too — it has been deeply formative in introducing me to formerly incarcerated people and to death row families. And I do consider my journalism to be part of that advocacy — although I tend to keep my activist family separate from the stories I write.
KC: Why is it so important to remain skeptical of institutions and positions of power on the criminal justice beat?
LS: It’s important on any beat, of course, but when it comes to criminal justice, you can look at the way the media has covered crime, drugs and various moral panics in the past for an example of the serious damage it can do when the press shows a lack of skepticism about the state’s narrative. Today, you see the press probing (Hillary) Clinton’s “superpredator” comments, but the same outlets were often totally complicit in whipping up hysteria around youth offenders in the 80s and 90s. An example that has been on my mind recently is the incredible panic over “satanic ritual abuse” crimes in that same era.
When you are too quick to believe politicians and prosecutors — the people who have benefitted the most from tough on crime rhetoric — it makes it easy not to see the deep, deep flaws in the system. But the same is true when you let yourself get captured by the prestige of reporting from the halls of power. I talked about this in Athens, but there is something that makes you feel quite important when you go and cover the Supreme Court, for example. There’s a lot of pomp and ritual and the great minds of the court are there on full display. At those moments, it is very important to remain clear on the impact those great minds will have on ordinary human beings once they hand down their rulings. For me, while covering the lethal injection case Glossip v. Gross, it was deeply strange to watch these proceedings that were so draped in ceremony and lofty legal language when, at the heart of it, they were talking about the best way to kill human beings using a mix of chemicals of unknown properties and, what’s more, when Mr. Glossip himself, who went unmentioned, was a very likely innocent man. (See our Glossip series for The Intercept.)
KC: What advice in terms of writing and learning would you have for people who are interested in covering the types of things you cover?
LS: Read as much as you can. There’s an incredible about of great journalism being done on this beat now; I might start by exploring The Marshall Project’s newly unveiled collection of criminal justice coverage, called The Record. Follow criminal justice reporters and experts and activists on Twitter. You don’t have to go to law school to cover these issues — I sure didn’t — but you do have to try to cultivate a basic fluency in the (often intimidating) language of the law. I would also say, go see the law in action if you have been fortunate enough never to have found yourself proximate to it as a defendant or victim. Seek out opportunities to watch a trial or a hearing — they are open to the public. Go to forums and events where you can hear from formerly incarcerated people. Do journalism internships, of course — The Nation internship was my education and it changed my life completely. And once you are out there in the professional world, if it is not yet your job to cover these issues, find ways to write about them anyway — freelancing, blogging, etc. Eventually, you can find a way to write these stories for a living.
KC: You have covered the death penalty extensively. Can’t that be daunting? How about the human aspect of it?
LS: It can be daunting in its persistent ugliness, although I have never attended an execution, and for that I am grateful. It can also be very upsetting to meet the invisible victims within the system whose stories tend not to be told.
But I have to say, it has also been gratifying in recent years to see just how much opposition there is to the death penalty now as opposed to even 10 years ago. Executions continue, and there are still a lot of people on death row. But there is no question the death penalty is on its way out. And that gives me hope.
KC: On a related note, how has traveling the nation (and beyond) been over the last few years?
LS: I love it. It can be exhausting, but I love to visit new places and to feel my perspective shift and change with all the people I meet. It’s really important, when you’ve been in New York-centric media for years and years, as I have, to get outside of all that. I recently relocated to Nashville, which has been pretty instructive on that front. I’ve gotten to know people who work in prisons throughout the state, which has been very eye-opening. And I’ve gotten to know the South much more, which is also very important in understanding the historical and racial dynamics of prisons and punishment.
Traveling to do reporting can also be overwhelming. When you see one place, up close, and the amount of destruction a single bad criminal justice policy can do, you really start to feel the “mass” part of mass incarceration. We have built something pretty monstrous over the past few decades. It will be very hard to reverse.
KC: You spoke with students quite a bit. What did you take away from your time visiting OU, and how can people benefit from pursuing advocacy journalism?
LS: I was struck by the broad range of interests among students on campus and the interesting ways in which students are able to combine disciplines — no one was simply an “English major.” I was impressed with the intellectual space provided by the Center for Law, Justice & Culture, which seems to serve a unique and important purpose in demystifying the law in some ways. Everyone was also clearly very informed and engaged and asked great questions. As far as advocacy journalism, a lot of people might shy away from that label, but I would say that if you can find an issue about which you feel passionate, there will be no bigger reward than making that your life’s work, whether it is through writing or some other form of activism. The journalism I do lets me combine both, and that makes me happy — even as the subject matter can be so grim. I would also repeat what I said on campus, which is that developing an area of focus, when it is fueled by this passion, will eventually make you an expert. And this expertise will go a long way toward helping further your career. It certainly has for me, even if I did not realize that is what was happening at the time.