Q&A: Cerise Castle

The Los Angeles reporter talks about covering City Hall and Knock LA.
Headshot of Cerise Castle. She stands in front of a white background and is wearing a floral blazer.

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In some ways, Cerise Castle and a contingent of boundary-pushing journalists covered the Los Angeles City Council scandal years before it exploded. 

The crisis goes beyond just racist words from city leaders in a secret meeting — remarks captured in a year-old recording that leaked to Reddit in early October and has been a point of focus for mainstream media coverage.

The leaked tapes recontextualize what these officials actually did in the time since – balking on pandemic renter protections that would’ve helped what are often Black and Brown tenants, for instance, and passing localized homeless bans that favored property owners at poor people’s expense.

The tapes, which capture council members strategizing to dilute renter voting power during redistricting, are a window into the direct ways LA leadership worked to suppress the communities they privately disparaged

But it’s an insight that, to some vocal Angelenos online, has (with exceptions) been lost in some of the mainstream media coverage of this year’s upheaval – a section of LA media that’s called homeless activists “idiots” in the past for protesting at public meetings.

In October, Castle spoke with The Objective about another media section — mostly online and comprising smaller street-level sites like Knock LA and LA Taco — whose writers are more openly opinionated and often test the old-guard limits of how far public service journalism should go.

In doing so, and despite the occasional dismissal, they’ve prompted questions during the council scandal about who in the LA media is meeting the moment. 

Castle is a part of this nontraditional media section. The 29-year-old Emerson College graduate is an LA-based freelance reporter who’s well-known for producing the first historical account of deputy gangs at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Dept. Castle’s series ran on Knock LA, a nonprofit newsroom, and won honors from the International Women’s Media Foundation. 

And it’s completely free to read.

But Castle says her reporting still goes unacknowledged by other outlets, even as her series spread the phrase “Google LASD Gangs” online until it was everywhere – in Twitter usernames and on banners hanging over LA’s roadway overpasses

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How have you seen newsrooms and individual journalists recognize their own biases, while calling out systemic power imbalances across LA’s media landscape? 

Well, I mean, in the case of the City Council scandal, when the Los Angeles Times published their original story, they did not use the word ‘racist” in discussing these tapes. Instead, they use the word “racially charged.” It’s also important to note that the article was written by four white people. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that four white people could not conclude that that was racist. 

It’s no secret that the Los Angeles Times has a dismal amount of writers of color. I don’t think they have any Native writers on staff. The numbers of Black and Latino writers are horrific. And another writer, Robin Abcarian, fixed her mouth to get on Twitter and tried to tell me what racism was. And this is all after 2020, when they printed this whole thing about how they were reckoning with racism, right? You know, I think that was all a big lip service. A lot of companies made these statements in 2020, after the death of George Floyd and had zero follow up.

As far as these council members — they say that they are liberal Democrats, but it was evident for a long time, by looking at their policies, that that wasn’t the case. It sort of goes back to your first question – this is stuff that activists have been talking about for a long time. We saw this racism play out in their policy, we saw this hatred for the poor coming out in policy. Then it’s the same thing with redistricting — there was a huge uproar in the activism community over the redistricting process. And people were saying then that it was racist. 

This is gerrymandering. This is something that we were reporting on when it was happening. And the Los Angeles Times, they weren’t asking these questions. And you know, fast forward to a year later, this tape comes out. And it just confirms what we were already reporting at Knock LA, and makes it clear, I would hope, for the people that weren’t listening.

Can you describe some of the challenges of producing more aggressive news coverage of police and City Hall? 

I attempted to attend a press conference at the Hall of Justice for the Sheriff’s Department and I was the only media outlet, for about a half hour, that was not allowed to enter the building. And it was Brittany Mejia, an LA Times reporter, who I think is doing good work, who refused to enter the press conference unless I could also come in. 

I thought that was great. I very rarely see stuff like that from other journalists at these other outlets. And I can’t thank her enough for doing that. They were not going to start the press conference without the LA Times, so it was thanks to her that I was able to come in. 

As I said, I cannot thank her enough for that. I think we need to see a lot more of that from legacy media. My LASD gang series is used by other reporters and not cited. And I think they are comfortable doing that. Knock LA is a small nonprofit newsroom, mostly staffed by volunteers. And we need to see more people using their platforms to help journalists at smaller outlets, newer reporters that come from non-traditional backgrounds that are covering things that legacy outlets have ignored for generations. We just need to see more cross-collaboration between the two. 

[Risks of the job] very much come with the territory — asking these questions and going there. And I think that’s also another reason why I see outlets don’t want to do these things. They don’t want to lose their access to the presser, they don’t want to lose their front-row seat at whatever event that whatever department is putting on and, you know, I really just don’t care about that stuff. 

I think with the same smaller outlets, we don’t care. We care about the story. We care about uncovering whatever malfeasance or corruption there is.

The racist leaked audio tapes scandal hitting the LA City Council has put the motives of local elected leaders under renewed scrutiny, and many in the public are revisiting the council’s voting records with regard to issues impacting poor people of color. Do you think, in its entirety, LA media did enough to watchdog these conditions over the years? 

I would agree that this stuff has always been right in front of us. It’s been evident that the city council does not value the lives of people of color, or poor people, for a really long time now. We have seen members of the city council be federally indicted, and convicted to prison for consequences of some of that behavior. 

Everything that’s on those tapes are sentiments that activists have warned about for many, many years, as far as the city council being racist, and having malintent for populations that they, for whatever reason, feel do not deserve basic human rights. And I think that tape just weighs clearly for people that still had doubts about what activists were saying – it just proves that what people have been saying for such a long time is spot-on.

That’s part of why Knock LA was started, because for way longer than I’ve been alive, legacy media has built itself on advocating for the same principles that the city council members have, and that is: Prioritization of developers, [and] property. I am not questioning the motives of why this stuff is happening. What I feel is just basic journalism — asking questions and following up – you really don’t see that in legacy media organizations. 

I think the most damning places you can see that behavior on display is whenever the police kill someone, and they just print the police statement, call it a police-involved shooting and pat themselves on the back. That to me is not journalism. 

I went to journalism school. And I think a lot of those writers — just as well as myself — are taught that you need to talk to everyone on the scene, get everyone’s perspective, and from there, you can parse out the truth of what happened. And you report that. And that’s what we are doing at Knock. And it’s really unfortunate that mainstream news is content to just repeat these statements and not ask questions. 

I think it’s really dangerous. I think it’s led overall to a degradation of the quality of journalism. It’s why people do not, for the most part, trust mainstream media organizations. There are places like Knock LA and LA Taco that are doing this work, and putting it out there for people free of paywalls, free of ads. 

What kind of practices, strategies do you employ in your coverage that other people can use to cover LA in a way that meets the moment? 

I tell this to journalists, young journalists, new journalists that I mentor — question everything and trust, but verify. Those are probably my two guiding lights when I do my coverage. And those two very basic principles, I think, are severely lacking in other media outlets. 

We’ve seen people in power conflate more aggressive, alternative media journalists with being activists or dismiss them as not real journalists. Have you been the subject of that characterization, and how do you usually respond? 

I have been called that by the sheriff. I have a lot of different feelings about that. I don’t think a journalist telling the truth, in and of itself, makes me an activist. I certainly would not characterize myself as an activist. I’m a journalist doing my job. 

But I do think journalism can inspire activism. I do think journalism should make people feel something and make people want to take action. That’s why I became a journalist, to help people, to make the world a better place. 

What events in your career pushed you toward the type of journalism you’re doing now?

I think I wound up at this point in my career — freelancing and dealing with social issues that are pretty dear to my heart — because one, I’ve worked in traditional news. I’ve worked in a traditional newsroom for, I would say, 90% of my career. And I was really unhappy. 

These are places where racism is very open and festering everywhere you go. From coming into work — how you’re treated in meetings, how you’re treated around the office, interfacing with people — to the kinds of stories that you are allowed to do, what stories are promoted by the newsroom. Authorities are picked up and elevated. 

I just got sick of dealing with all of it and I walked away.  It was just too much for my mental health. I was really blessed to be in a position where I could do that, financially, and take a chance all by myself. I’m really happy that it worked out. And I’ve been able to continue to harness my network to continue making a living for myself and doing work that I think is important work that needs to be done.

What inspired you to report on LASD Gangs? 

It was something that always had my attention from the time I was a kid. It’s something I’d always heard about, something that I always wanted to read about at length. And after I left my last job at KCRW, I decided to pursue it full time. I soft pitched the project to KCRW. They told me that it wasn’t a worthwhile investment for them. And they would not back it and I got similar responses to all the legacy outlets that I pitched it to. 

After I left my job at KCRW, no one wanted to take this story. Except for Knock LA, which I think speaks to a lot of the stuff that we’ve been talking about. And of course, the reporting was explosive, and it went viral. It became a hashtag that has been spray painted across the United States. I have a podcast coming out on the subject on Wednesday (October 19). The podcast is called “A Tradition of Violence.” I encourage everyone to listen to that and to check it out if you want to learn more about LA politics and corruption and how it ties in with the police.

Who are some other reporters that people in LA need to be following? 

Definitely follow everyone writing for Knock LA. They’re doing great stuff. We got Jon Peltz that’s on City Hall and homelessness. Sean Becker-Carmichael and Joey Scott. Emily Holshouser who is at ABC 7. Ben Camacho, who’s reporting on the police down in Orange County, in Santa Ana. Follow everyone at LA Taco. Kate Cagle at Spectrum News, who I think is the best television reporter in Los Angeles. 

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