‘Walk the talk’: Detroit PBS reporter brings lived experience to covering criminal justice

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Joe Dzenowagis

Mario Bueno (right, facing camera) interviews Terrell Topps, a faculty member of Wayne State University in Detroit, while Bill Kubota shoots video on March 28, 2023.

Within a week of meeting Mario Bueno, veteran news producer Bill Kubota knew he had the potential to shine as a reporter.

Kubota first met Bueno in 2018 while filming a Detroit PBS piece on the nonprofit LUCK Inc.  Bueno, who served 19 years for second-degree murder, co-founded the organization to help returning citizens like himself navigate life after incarceration. 

In the video, Bueno, casual in a sweatshirt and black-and-white–striped track pants, explains the importance of mindset across a diner booth to a man who was recently paroled.

Bueno is charismatic and speaks with intensity about working towards goals and making a plan for life on the outside. He passes the man two whiteboards to map out short- and long-term goals, then downshifts to chatting about how good the diner’s food is. The young man is rapt, and it’s clear that Bueno has established a rapport.

“I’m just watching this going, ‘There’s a connection,'” says Kubota, senior producer at Detroit PBS (previously Detroit Public Television until a rebranding announced Tuesday). “And that’s why I thought when I saw that … we have a better chance to reach more people with Mario being a reporter.”

Since then, Kubota and Bueno, now a special correspondent for Detroit PBS, have collaborated on three pieces for One Detroit, the station’s weekly news program. Each of the stories, which aired on television between May 2023 and January and are also available online, highlights different challenges returning citizens face when trying to move forward after incarceration.

The vision for the series, says Bueno, is “to highlight the true, tangible, real barriers to entry into the job market, the job place, as it pertains to felons.”

With a number of other ideas in the works, the content Kubota and Bueno are producing — and their partnership itself — is a quietly radical departure from how public media stations typically cover criminal justice issues. 

Bueno’s life experiences and connections make him uniquely qualified to bring “that perspective,” to stories about people with felony convictions, something coverage of the topic often lacks, says Kubota. 

“We as journalists, we go and we do this story and that story, but what do we know?” says Kubota. “I suspect most of the people I’m surrounded by haven’t been to prison, haven’t been arrested. But here’s somebody that knows it and can speak to a big part of our population that experienced it, too, that I can’t. So I knew that we needed this kind of voice.”

‘A different perspective’

The stories that have aired so far all detail how returning citizens are surmounting systemic barriers to education and employment — a salient topic in Michigan, where an estimated 40% of college grads leave the state after graduation and employers struggle to recruit and retain skilled workers

“In the state of Michigan, we’re still losing people, and we’re losing workforce,” says Kubota. Finding ways to help successfully reintegrate into returning citizens into the workforce is “super important for us at the station.” 

“Part of how we’re doing coverage [is] looking at where we’re going as a state,” Kubota continues. “This is one part of that economic sector that needs more coverage to address those issues and try to solve some of those problems. So this is how it fits really well into our mission.”

Each of the videos run around eight or nine minutes, a slightly longer format that reflects Kubota’s background in documentary filmmaking.

“It’s kind of an amalgam of documentary style with a regular TV news report,” says Kubota. “And so then you’re looking at your correspondent or your contributor as being a visual and audio element to your piece that drives the story forward in a way that, as a viewer, you better connect to it.”

In the first segment, Bueno candidly explains his criminal history within the first 30 seconds. His interview questions — “You know, we have expectations before we come home. True or not true?… And then life hits you, right? Life hits you with a brick” — come from a place of deep experience and empathy with the people he talks to. 

“He knows a lot about this issue in so many different ways,” says Kubota. “This is a great opportunity to really get into these stories from somebody that’s lived it, somebody that has a lot of contacts in the field and brings a different perspective that I think a lot of times we don’t air.”

‘Felon for life’

Kubota’s eagerness to partner with a returning citizen is unusual, at least in Bueno’s experience. During reentry, he was denied everything from admission to college programs in social work to being allowed to coach his daughter’s soccer team.

Perhaps most ironically, when Bueno interviewed for a job with a faith-based prisoner reentry program, they said they couldn’t hire him because of his criminal history. 

“There’s no ‘ex’ felon — you’re a felon for life,” says Bueno, who has a bachelor’s degree in accounting and a master’s in criminology. “I was denied that job … because of my felony.”

As an independent contractor, Bueno’s criminal record was never a problem at Detroit PBS — quite the contrary. His history and expansive network of formerly incarcerated people have been a vital asset to the station.

“[F]rom the age of 16 to 36, I was incarcerated in 16 different Michigan Department of Correction prisons,” says Bueno, which he says has led to “me knowing a lot of individuals, having a lot of relationships throughout the system [and with] impacted individuals.”

In addition to some previous on-camera experience, Bueno also brought skills honed during incarceration to his reporting role at Detroit PBS.

While serving time, he took part in a conflict resolution program aimed at taking “the most influential men on the prison yard — obviously not for the good” and training them in critical thinking, effective communication, servant leadership and conflict mediation. 

Bueno successfully completed more than a year of training to become a certified mediator, eventually mediating serious disputes in the prison yard and teaching classes to some of “the most violent offenders” on “how to resolve internal and, therefore, external conflicts,” he says.

“I would educate myself in different areas of thought and theory, and then teach other men and break it down and communicate with them,” Bueno says. “I was gifted at developing relationships with guys who aren’t necessarily known for wanting to communicate. I did that in an arena that was unfriendly, and … that gave me the ability, I think, to communicate and connect and express myself.”

Bueno’s communication, teaching and relationship-building skills all serve him well as a reporter, though he still hasn’t fully embraced the title.

“That’s not what I pursued, nor am I trying to be a reporter,” he says. “I’m trying to report what truly is as it relates to the criminal justice system and how we’re doing a disservice to ourselves and to our own community by [continuing] business as usual. It’s more so my passion to disrupt that and to try to add value and to try to change it. That leads me to do the work with Bill.” 

‘The student is ready’

Under Kubota’s mentorship, Bueno has learned everything from the technical aspects of laying down tracks — which they’ve done in a basement belonging to a friend of Bueno’s from his time inside — to the importance of staying humble. 

“He’s dissected my interviews, and they were atrocious in the beginning,” says Bueno. “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear, you know, and so he’s made me a way better interviewer, but I think, more importantly, a listener.”

For his part, Kubota leans heavily on Bueno’s Rolodex of returning citizens and defers to his instincts about which stories need to be told.


When Kubota first reached out to Bueno about a year after doing the LUCK Inc. story, he wanted Bueno to help him with a piece on prison gerrymandering — counting incarcerated people in the district where they are serving time rather than where they actually live — “because of stuff going on with redistricting and the Census,” he says.

Bueno told him, “I don’t give an F about gerrymandering.” Kubota laughed and asked what he did care about.

“I said, ‘I care that I’m still a slave,’” Bueno remembers. “And I quoted the Thirteenth Amendment that [says] slavery is abolished except for those branded a felon. I said, ‘I got more degrees than a thermometer, but I can’t get a job at Costco.'”

They ended up not pursuing the gerrymandering story. 

“That was not the biggest issue regarding people in prison,” says Kubota. “And so we came up with a ton of [other] ideas.”

Bueno has since done two interviews — not yet aired — with former Detroit mayor and now pastor Kwame Kilpatrick, who was convicted on 24 felony counts in 2013 and released seven years later when then-President Trump commuted his 28-year sentence. The pair is also currently working on a segment about returning citizens finding housing.

“There’s a whole list of stories we want to do,” says Kubota. “But I only get so much time and I get assignments to do all sorts of other stuff, so we can’t get to that many of them.” 

Expanding the rules

Partnering with Bueno has enabled Detroit PBS to bring depth and authenticity to criminal justice stories while also working with the confines of a lean budget, something other public TV stations may want to emulate.

“We just don’t have that many employees that are actively making content because of budget issues,” says Kubota. “That’s why I felt really excited [about] having Mario do stories, because I’m not seeing it anywhere else. … It’s still journalism. That’s what I like about it. It’s not like we’re bending the rules. We’re just expanding them a little bit to be more inclusive as to who is reporting, which I think is important.”

Whatever they’re doing, it seems to be working. 

Last year, the series won a Michigan Association of Broadcasters Continuing Coverage Award. 

Kubota has also received positive feedback from criminal justice organizations like the Michigan-based nonprofit Nation Outside — which he and Bueno are working with on an upcoming piece — and the Vera Institute of Justice, a national organization focused on dismantling systemic issues within mass incarceration.

“I would love to see more public media stations using returning citizens to report, not only on criminal justice, but politics, the economy, and art as well,” wrote John Bae, director of Vera’s Opening Doors to Housing initiative, in an email. “Returning citizens can bring a unique perspective and value to reporting on criminal justice — their lived experience may help others open up and their familiarity with the system certainly informs and improves their reporting.” 

To stations that want to try the Detroit PBS approach to criminal justice reporting, Kubota recommends being willing to “take the chance” and not worrying about the “stigma of having an ex-con on your staff or on the payroll.”

“You always hear, ‘I can’t find enough people to do the work’ or ‘We can’t find the people to represent communities,'” he continues. “Mario is more than qualified in different ways and probably [more qualified than] most of the people at our TV station just from his academic achievements. Not to say TV reporting is the easiest thing in the world, but it’s trainable.”

Creating opportunities for returning citizens like Bueno and finding new ways to expand criminal justice coverage dovetails with the PBS mission of “empower[ing] individuals to achieve their potential and strengthen the social, democratic, and cultural health of the U.S.”

“Part of it is reporting stories that other people won’t do or won’t go as deep on, and part of it is to talk about the issues of justice and that sort of thing,” says Kubota. “You gotta just take that step and do it. If you’re gonna talk it, you gotta walk it.”

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