PD reporter Emily Wilder: The transformative power of storytelling
“Behind the Byline” introduces you to those who write stories, shoot photos, design pages and edit the content we deliver in our print editions and on pressdemocrat.com. We’re more than journalists. As you’ll see, we’re also your neighbors with unique backgrounds and experiences who proudly call Sonoma County home.
Today, we introduce you to Emily Wilder, our public safety and criminal justice reporter.
I have always been steeped in stories.
Growing up in the Orthodox Jewish community of Phoenix, Arizona, each holiday, tradition, lullaby and scripture was in one way or another a retelling of the religious history of my people.
Encouraged by my mother, I devoured books, listened to public radio during car rides to school, and filled spiral bound notebooks with poetry and prose.
But the stories I had access to were also relatively insular, as orthodoxy generally is. I knew few kids outside my religious day schools and spent most of my weekends at synagogue services or observing the Sabbath with friends. I had little exposure to communities different from my own and little insight into how other people thought.
It was online that I encountered perspectives and people I never had before.
In high school, I created a clandestine account on Tumblr, a microblogging social media platform that particularly appealed to disaffected and angsty youth searching for friendship beyond their physical reality. Scrolling through my Tumblr feed at first was like looking into a kaleidoscope, inundated with the colors and shapes and memes and hashtags of unfamiliar worlds.
I began to make sense of that virtual universe through the relationships I built with my peers on the platform. I met teens from Ferguson, Missouri, and befriended others from Palestine, just as Black Lives Matter emerged in Missouri the same summer as Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s offensive in the Gaza Strip.
They shared with me the stories of their struggles, families and communities in exchange for my own. Some of what they said challenged what I had been taught to believe — about the Palestinian perspective, for example, or racism in America.
Some of the exchanges also revealed how alike we could be, even separated by oceans and cultures. We listened to the same music, laughed at the same jokes or had the same dreams for our futures. I experienced the transformative power of storytelling firsthand — that personal experiences, verbalized and entrusted to others, could build bridges of understanding and empathy across great divides.
To me, that was the purest purpose of journalism.
Now, I’m a little over a year into my career and two months into my role as public safety and criminal justice reporter for The Press Democrat, where I cover crime, policing, prosecution and incarceration. I’ve recently realized that while my introduction to different worlds birthed my love of journalism, my approach to this work is as much informed by the world I come from.
It was my Jewish community and schooling that demanded from me relentless curiosity and rigorous critical thinking. I was encouraged to interrogate every stanza of scripture in the tradition of Talmudic study, never taking even a single letter for granted. Questions of rites and rituals were not only welcomed, but expected.
And it was my family, teachers and elders who taught me that curiosity requires humility and compassion: To ask the best questions, you must first accept how little you know and how much you have to learn. And to fully understand the answers, you must be willing to ponder why people believe what they do and stand in their shoes.
All of these lessons, the ones I learned from my upbringing and the ones I learned in spite of it, guide my reporting on criminal justice.
One of the reports I’m most proud of was about a man in jail for a probation violation on a marijuana conviction from nearly two decades prior. He had been written off by the system, condemned to state control for nearly the entirety of his adult life. When I learned about him, I committed to following his case through to the end.
Over the next several months of checking in, listening to him on a jail phone line detail his painful experiences behind bars, I was able to help tell a story about the criminal justice system that was complicated and human. It had both emotional and material impacts on him while he was incarcerated.
Since then, I’ve grown in my reporting, but the spirit of that storytelling is what I hope to bring to my role as criminal justice and public safety reporter at The Press Democrat.
The stories on this beat have massive, far-reaching impact — on policy, on lives, on how we talk about and to each other. If I can help even one person by telling them a story they’ve never heard before or support them by telling their own story, then I've achieved my goal.
You can reach Staff Writer Emily Wilder at 707-521-5337 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @vv1lder.