David Olson: Giving a Voice to the Underrepresented

David Olson

Photo courtesy of Twitter account @davidolson11

As a teenager, David Olson had a love for writing. On a whim in high school, he joined the school newspaper and wrote for the opinion column; it was here that his interest in the field of reporting sparked.

During college at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Olson joined the university publication his sophomore year. His time spent at the newspaper made him decide on majoring in journalism.

“I entered college not knowing for sure if I wanted to be a reporter for the rest of my life, but writing for the U of I publication just felt natural,” said Olson.

Now, 30 years later, Olson has found a place for himself at The Press-Enterprise out of Riverside, California where he has been a reporter since 2005. His current beat includes immigration, religion, and multicultural issues.

“I get paid to learn about different ways of life and how people live,” said Olson.

Olson expressed great passion for other cultures and spending time with people of other countries. It is important to him to raise awareness about different people, topics, and issues, because it can lead to societal changes and public education.

“People tend to have negative feelings about others,” Olson said. “Writing about an issue humanizes rather than demonizes those people.”

In 2006, Olson reported on the housing crisis in the Eastern Coachella Valley, that shed light on the poverty and inhumane conditions that thousands of farmers, resort house-keepers, and packinghouse employees were living in.

Olson did a three part follow up to this story last June.

He investigated leaky roofs, blackouts, and stopped sewage that were the conditions of Duroville, a trailer park which housed 4,000 people. Once these problems were exposed, the government intervened to relocate families to healthier environments. In June 2014, Duroville was officially shut down.

During this investigation, Olson dealt with immigrants trying to make a life for themselves while making the public aware of what was happening.

“Knowledge of the public is often limited to what they know and who they know,” said Olson. “Most people don’t realize what’s going on in their own communities.”

Olson claimed this piece as the work he is most proud of. He told a detailed story and helped provoke a change to an impoverished society.

“David is really great for our immigration beat because he speaks fluent Spanish, so he is able to tell both sides of the story,” said John Bender, Editor at The Press-Enterprise for San Bernadino County news.

His bilingual skills also allow him represent those who are normally underrepresented in mainstream media. In sharing both sides of a story, he shows fairness.

According to Bender, Olson is dedicated to being fair. “If an editor is pushing for a certain angle, and David doesn’t feel right about it, he won’t write it that way. He writes how he thinks is most fair.”

In all his fairness, Olson is also in-depth. Both of his colleagues mentioned the thoroughness of his reporting.

“He doesn’t hesitate to call someone back with a follow-up question or to double check the accuracy of his reporting,” said Janet Zimmerman, a staff writer at The Press-Enterprise.

No matter what the subject or length of a piece, Olson won’t do a story half-hearted. According to Bender, even when Olson is asked to write a short blog, he provides much more information than is required.

“He goes above and beyond to get the information he needs for a story, and never stops short of calling everyone he needs to call,” Zimmerman said.

His knack for details shines through in his writing too, enabling him reveal people’s personalities. Zimmerman recalls a story of Olson’s called “Losing to Live” which followed a 500 pound woman through a weight loss surgery.

“This story sticks out in my mind because it was so full of detail, from her uncontrolled eating to her methamphetamine addiction,” said Zimmerman.

Journalism is not always easy. According to Olson, there aren’t as many journalism jobs available as there once was, with the industry going through changes. Gaining the trust of potential sources can also be difficult.

“As a reporter, one of the biggest challenges is getting people comfortable with you enough to give you the information you need,” said Olson.

Olson expressed his concerns for the rise of social media as it plays out in journalism. With so much news, it’s hard for people to tell what’s true or false, and they click and share stories they believe to be true, but aren’t, he explained.

Journalists have to find a way to work with and around social media. Twitter and Facebook prove to be helpful to Olson when looking for new stories or sources.

“Social media helps me keep up with my beat; it can tell me a lot about a potential source,” Olson said. “It has it’s pros and cons.”

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