USC

Award-winning journalists Cerise Castle and Mc Nelly Torres on the strength it takes to run toward danger

From public arrests to digital hacks, Cerise Castle and Mc Nelly Torres’ groundbreaking investigations inform the imperative to protect female journalists in newsrooms and beyond.

Cersie Castle (left), Mc Nelly Torres (Middle) and Elisa Lees Muñoz (right) talk with Dean Willow Bay at the IWMF Courage in Journalism awards event on Oct. 27. (Photo courtesy of Philip Salata)

Journalist Cerise Castle was covering protests in response to George Floyd’s murder for a local radio station in 2020 when a Los Angeles Police Department officer shot her with a rubber bullet. She was left with a severe leg injury and a doctor’s mandate to leave the field for six months of bed rest.

“In that moment, as a Black woman in journalism,” said Castle, “I just did not feel comfortable sitting down and being still.”

Days after she was shot, Castle read about an 18-year-old security guard who was killed in Gardena by two L.A. sheriff deputies as part of an initiation into a deputy gang in the Los Angeles Sheriff Department.

“I needed to meet the moment here and start investigating,” she said.

On June 27, the International Women’s Media Foundation awarded Castle the 2022 Courage in Journalism Award for “A Tradition of Violence,” a 15-part investigative series she developed during her six-month recovery. The report exposed 18 deputy gangs, 19 documented murders — all of whom were of people of color — and over $100 million dollars in paid lawsuits by the LASD as of March 2021. A year later, the Los Angeles County Civilian Oversight Commission launched a formal investigation into deputy gangs as a result of Castle’s investigation.

Castle joined USC Annenberg Dean Willow Bay, 2022 IWMF Gwen Ifiil award winner Mc Nelly Torres and IWMF Executive Director Elisa Lees Muñoz in conversation with USC students and faculty Thursday.

“The IWMF first created the Courage in Journalism Awards to give global recognition to the bravery of women journalists covering the post-Soviet Union [era],” said Muñoz. “Which, as we have found over the years, actually does give them a mantle of protection. When they go back home and they are an internationally recognized journalist, it’s a little bit harder to attack them and imprison them.”

The safety of women and non-binary journalists in both newsroom and state politics, Muñoz said, has become the IWMF’s priority since its founding in the 1990s. The organization provides resources, training and assistance to female and non-binary journalists for issues such as sexual harassment, digital doxxing, government oppression and censorship, unequal pay and attacks on press freedom, according to its website.

“This award represents [Gwen Ifil’s] spirit,” said Torres. Ifil was an American journalist, author and television newscaster who became the first Black woman to host a nationally televised news program with Washington Week in Review in 1999.

“We have that in common — doing this job with integrity and love. We do this because we love it, because the job doesn’t love us,” Torres said.

Torres is an editor at the Center for Public Integrity, where she manages a team of reporters investigating issues of inequality. She worked as an investigative producer for NBC6 in Miami and co-founded the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting in 2010. She was also the first Latina to be elected to the Investigative Reporters and Editors’ Board where she served from 2008 to 2014.

“Mc Nelly has been a powerful proponent of journalists of color in the newsroom, and we’re proud to honor that work with this award,” Elisa Muñoz said in a September 8 announcement of Torres’ award. “She’s not only broken barriers for Latinas in investigative journalism, but she continues to reach back and lift up young journalists as a mentor and leader in her field.”

Torres also covered education for the San Antonio Express-News, where her investigation into a San Antonio school board contributed to the conviction of a school building architect accused of bribery. She said she was regularly harassed by the architect, who sent her multiple letters threatening legal action against her.

“By the time I finished my reporting, [he] was headed to prison,” Torres said.

Castle, a lifelong Angeleno who grew up in the Black and brown neighborhoods patrolled by the LASD, said she was forced into hiding at an undisclosed location for two weeks after her report was published. Under the advice of the IWMF and nonprofit publication Knock LA, Castle said she could not use her cell phone or access the internet due to the LASD’s surveillance technology.

“I worry about having my office raided and hard drives taken,” said Castle. “[LASD] even tried to subpoena me in several proceedings asking for all of my notes, my computers, my cellphones.”

On September 14, the LASD raided the homes of L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl and L.A. County Civilian Oversight Commissioner Patricia Giggans, two prominent critics of L.A. Sheriff Alex Villanueva. On September 22, a judge ordered the LASD to turn over seized items to the California Attorney General’s Office following concerns that the raid was politically motivated by Villanueva.

“I’ve learned that the sheriff department has a team of people that monitor my every move online,” said Castle. “I know that I’ve been followed at certain points.”

Castle is the only freelance journalist among a few reporters covering the LASD, all of whom are also women, she said.

“We’re all under investigation by the sheriff’s department,” said Castle. “[Working] freelance has resulted in me just being banned outright from entering some government buildings. [LASD] even tried to arrest me a couple of times a day for that.”

As a Black and queer journalist, Castle said the rampant bigotry of the industry also barred her from entering buildings she worked in. On her first day at local radio station KCRW, Castle said a colleague verbally assaulted and interrogated her about entering the building.

“They said, ‘You don’t look like someone who would work here,’” said Castle. “And I had that interaction repeated at minimum once a week. Sometimes there were employees who would take it upon themselves to physically prevent me from entering the building.”

Castle accepted a buyout and left KCRW in February 2021, detailing the various racist and homophobic microaggressions she experienced there in a Twitter statement. In her conversation with USC students, she recalled colleagues regularly confusing her for the only other Black woman at the office who was a foot shorter than her, had different colored eyes and worked in a different department.

“[Colleagues] would tell me I sound like a gangster,” said Castle. “They said, ‘You sound like someone from the streets.’”

Torres said she left NBC for similar reasons. She recalled her manager frequently ridiculing her accent in front of the entire newsroom and taunting her to “just speak English.” While reporting on police in Oklahoma, she remembered a colleague remarking that she “doesn’t look like a cop reporter.”

“This is a very racist industry,” said Torres. “And now that I’m an editor in a newsroom I started last year, I’m not going to sit down and allow anybody to come and attack my reporters who are people of color.”

Castle said she wishes her journalism professors at Emerson College warned her about the risks of being a journalist. It wouldn’t have changed her choice of career, she said, but rather prepared her to prioritize her mental health.

“After I spoke out, I heard from all kinds of people, like Asian reporters, even men, whose experiences in other newsrooms mirrored my story,” Castle said.

“Before I opened my mouth, I was a husk of a person,” she added. “It was hard for me. I have depression, and unfortunately, that is not a unique experience in this industry.”

An attendee at the event asked Castle and Torres why newsrooms don’t provide post-traumatic stress disorder counseling to journalists the way governments do for police officers — another profession exposed to trauma and aggression.

“I think it’s a cultural problem,” said Torres. “I had to be tough because I was always competing.”

Torres recalled her first time covering an execution. She said her manager asked her if she was OK, to which she felt obliged to respond with a simple and straightforward, “I’m fine.”

In Torres’ current newsroom, employees now have access to resources for talk therapy and a culture that values mental wellbeing, she said.

“When Roe v. Wade was overturned, we said, ‘If you need to take a day off, take time off, you need to walk away, do it. … When you’re a leader, you have that power to make a change.”

When a group of anti-vaxxers doxed and leaked private information of an employee covering the COVID-19 vaccine, Torres said she used the digital safety and mental health resources provided by the IWMF to protect her.

“Her address was posted on InfoWars for a couple of hours. She was harassed and got voicemails threatening to kill her and her children. It was just horrendous,” Torres said.

The IWMF website has an online violence response hub that provides safety protocols to journalists covering stories with significant backlash. Muñoz encouraged students to institute digital privacy measures before it could be too late, pointing to services such as DeleteMe that erase all private information from the internet.

“Online violence is leading to so many women and girls of color leaving the profession, but also some extreme amounts of self-censorship,” said Muñoz. “Not just in what you write but in whether or not you decide to take up a story that is going to lead to tremendous backlash.”

Earlier this year, Villanueva threatened to post Castle’s home address online, which prompted her to move to a new place.

“I’m constantly thinking about my digital security,” said Castle. “That means using a [virtual private network] any time I go online. Everything I write digitally is encrypted. I never write a source’s real name anywhere. I backup everything to the cloud, with multiple hard drives for a select group of folks. They keep that in a secure location from the safe that I use for my hard drives and SD cards.”

As a millennial, stepping away from social media has also been a challenge, said Castle.

“There was a deputy gang member that went after my makeup artist after I posted her on my Instagram,” said Castle. “I had to stop posting personal stuff online because it led to threats against my family members and friends.”

When a student asked Castle what keeps her going, she accredited her motivation to internal outrage and external impact.

“We are living in a time of climate disaster. We are in the midst of a multi-year pandemic. We are seeing a rise in hate and white supremacy. All of those things are very present in my mind at any given moment,” said Castle. “It breaks my heart to hear my grandmother tell me, ‘Things are worse for you today than it was for me at your age.’”

But moments of validation and impact make the challenge worth it, Castle said. She recalled a student’s email about Castle’s reporting on misconduct by a high school principal. The student thanked her for relieving years of emotional weight and self-doubt rooted in the principal’s abuse.

After her deputy gang report was released, Castle remembered her awe at seeing “Google LASD Gangs” spray painted in large letters across the L.A. Hall of Justice Building.

“I can sleep well at night knowing I’m doing truly everything I can to fix all of these fires that are blazing so strongly at this time,” she said.

Torres said letters and emails of gratitude from strangers reinforce her sense of responsibility as a journalist. She remembered covering a sexual assault case involving a stepfather accused of abusing three young girls. For months, Torres said she fought off harassment from the defendant and their relatives. She was almost taken off the case after a heated argument with the judge.

“On the last day of the trial, I got into the elevator to go to the courtroom. The kids were in there,” said Torres. “One of the girls looked at me and she said, ‘Miss Torres, I want to thank you for how you have treated this case with integrity.’ And then she gave me a hug.”

“I’m sorry, but no Pulitzer can beat that,” said Torres. “That’s what keeps me going.”