“Most of the people that become a journalist are highly motivated to be a journalist from the ground up. And so it’s not uncommon to find people who are very well educated, very well-traveled, and then when get into the journalism world, then you kind of specialize.

I’m the opposite. I came in backwards.”

Alain Stephens is the western correspondent for The Trace, an online newsroom that investigates gun violence in America. He’s been with them for nearly 4 years and is based in San Diego.

Alain has a background in law enforcement, military, and sociology – not your typical journalism path. He’s a graduate of the University of North Texas who served in both the Coast Guard and Air Force. And he is a gun owner.

Here are three things I learned from my conversation with him. You can hear the full interview here:

1)An advocate for transparency

“As journalists, we, we are not supposed to advocate, right? For policy. We’re not supposed to advocate for any sort of pro/con, whatever? But one of the things that I had this really great journalist tell me is that you can always advocate for transparency.

You can always advocate for truth. And so one of the reasons that I kind of gravitated towards gun reporting was because my first investigation, I was looking for information and, and I was just told this information used to be publicly available. But lobbyists essentially decided to block it from the American public.”

It used to be something to get on CD ROM for $5, and then after 2003, it is now some of the most secretive information and it kind of hit me at this moment where America was having this conversation in dark. We’re talking about gun violence. We’re talking about something that kills a lot of people, where you’re having all these people die, and so much of this information was hidden, not because it’s not there, but because it’s by design. People don’t want it out there.”

2)How having been in the military helps him.

“We could always use more working class backgrounds, more people with military backgrounds, more people with different racial backgrounds in journalism.

And, and so there’s always a push to diversify the ranks just for  information gathering purposes. But on top of that, it’s just the right thing to do. You, you can’t preach  fairness or speak truth to power if you don’t have those people in your ranks. And so coming from the military and just coming from being Black and coming from this kind of smaller suburb of Texas  You’re kind of trying to prove yourself right to the ranks of people who went to school for this

And so I think  being in the military besides just the practical of understanding firearms and stuff like that, I also think it gives you a great deal of discipline. I think it gives you a great deal of patience, which is a huge thing in investigative reporting. I think you think a little bit more strategically.

So if I have to wait six or seven months for that interview to come in or that right document to come in, I’ll, I’ll do it. And that’s something I think was born from that military experience.”

3)The reporter-editor relationship is key in a job like this.

“He tries to find stuff that gets me excited. There’s a lot of carrot-stick approaches and I think a lot of editors use the stick, but I luckily have an editor who uses more of the carrot and he lets me decide what that carrot is. He’s always (asking), what do you feel passionate about? What do you think is the biggest issue? 

His name’s Miles Kohrman, amazing dude. He also protects me and I mean that in a good way because I really care about this, this gun space, and so I can be easily overwhelmed with requests to, to help people and get involved in all sorts of projects and totally get spread too thin.

And so he works very well with saying listen, this is the most important  product. This is the thing that I think you’re going to do best at because you’re you.”