Home > Diversity, Journalism, Personal, Rant > What if we are part of the voiceless community?
27 Jun

What if we are part of the voiceless community?

Posted by 22 comments

NOTE: Republished on Online Journalism Review: http://www.ojr.org/ojr/people/webjournalist/201106/1987/

I hate hypocrites… especially when they’re journalists.

I’ve been a bit disappointed with how some journalists have been writing about Jose Antonio Vargas‘ recent announcement that he is an undocumented immigrant. Many are questioning Vargas’ journalistic credibility because he had to hide his immigration status.

Jose Antonio VargasAs if journalists – including columnists and editors – have never lied before or broken any laws. (Just think about your college years.)

Like the communities we cover, newsrooms are filled with sinners and saints… perfectly flawed human beings.

But lies have different degrees, don’t they?

It wasn’t long ago that people had to hide, or lie about, being gay. They had to conceal a part of their true identities to avoid discrimination or to get a job, including one as a reporter.

While they felt forced to hide a part of themselves, something tells me they still made strong journalists and did not lie in their reporting.

If I recall correctly, when the gay marriage issue erupted in San Francisco, The Chronicle pulled a gay photographer off the story because editors assumed a conflict of interest. What Chronicle editors failed to note is that straight people also have opinions about gay marriage that may also pose a conflict of interest.

The bottom line is, as far as I know, Vargas never lied in his stories. And just because he had to hide about being part of a certain community, it doesn’t automatically nullify his journalistic credibility or achievements.

Being a part of a community does not disqualify him as a journalist.

Just like Diane Sawyer, for example, isn’t disqualified as a journalist because she worked in Republican Party politics before, during and after President Nixon’s administration and subsequent resignation. Same as George Stephanopoulos isn’t disqualified after working for President Clinton’s administration.

They are just two of many examples.

What has bothered me the most, really, is how journalists are treating Vargas as “other” … as if his reality is not a common one. As if undocumented immigrants, or illegal aliens or whatever label you use, aren’t part of our communities.

We are all made up of different communities, and these often are the same communities we attempt to cover through our journalism. Some communities we praise, others we tolerate and others go unacknowledged.

I, like many others, believe that a diverse newsroom – comprised of different communities – makes for stronger, more relevant journalism. But the sad reality is that not all communities are seen as equal – or as newsworthy.

Our job is to give voice to the voiceless… but what happens if we are part of the voiceless community?

That’s the position Vargas found himself in. And he, like others from different communities before him, decided to come out and remind people the “other” is really a part of “us.”

About a year ago, I actually wrote a post about this topic, but under advisement from my closest editor I deleted it.

The post was inspired by Harvey Milk‘s powerful message: “You must come out” to give a real face to a community that is under attack. This was around the time of Arizona’s SB1070 bill.

My editor thought my post could be taken out of context and hurt my career.

I don’t know how these words will be taken… and quite frankly, I’ve debated whether or not I should ever publish them… but I hope my editor is not right.

In light of Vargas’ story – one that took more courage to share than my story – I feel that I am obligated to share my experience.

Allow me, however, to frame the reason why I am sharing my story now:

  • I’m not asking for any political action. (Don’t call me an activist.)
  • I’m not trying to ride Vargas’ coattails. (Don’t call me a poser.)

I’m writing this because as journalists we can’t afford to forget that we are part of the “other” … that good journalism is truly inclusive.

I, like everyone else, am part of multiple communities: I am a father, a husband, a renter (former homeowner), college graduate, an educator, a Roman Catholic (but I often disagree with the church) and the son of immigrants from El Salvador.

While my mother entered the country by plane with the right papers, my father entered by crossing the border illegally in the 70s.

He quickly became a U.S. citizen.

But let’s be honest here, the act of an immigrant crossing the border without the right papers in pursuit of a better life often overshadows their accomplishments as legal citizens.

To clarify, I was born a U.S. citizen. But all my success as a person and as a journalist, I owe to my immigrant parents.

My father, like millions of other immigrants, reflects the story of America – whether we want to admit it or not. Coming to this land (by any means necessary) with nothing, working [expletive] hard and making a better life for himself and his family.

For the record, my father graduated at the top of his high school class in El Salvador, which earned him a scholarship to Germany. He worked there, but giving into the request from my mother’s family, he moved to the United States after marrying her.

My father ran several small businesses and was a homeowner for more than 40 years. He lost them in the bad economy, but had relaunched his auto repair shop early last year. He passed away in November and the outpouring of support from the local community was a true testament to his accomplishments. That man helped so many people… I had no idea.

My mother struggled and worked hard in her own immigrant story. She made a small living by cleaning houses and other service jobs, including working at the food court of Cal State University, Northridge. She joined my father as an entrepreneur until they separated.

I can tell you more about their story, but let me just say this: “Their” story is part of “my” story. And “my story” is part of “our” community. And all of that is part of journalism. To shun someone, even a journalist, for owning their story, their community, is bad journalism.

If you invalidate Vargas as a journalist for being an illegal immigrant, you are a journalist in denial thinking that he is not part of your community (the one you are trying to cover).

Again I ask: Our job is to give voice to the voiceless… but what if we are part of the voiceless community?

If you are part of a community that is being attacked or politicized, as a journalist it takes courage to step forward and speak up, not as an activist… but as someone who wants facts to prevail. Not talking points.

I applaud Vargas for his courage. He’s a reminder that the “other” is really within “us.”

  1. June 27th, 2011 at 21:26 | #1

    Robert,

    Well said. It’s partly about putting the citizen back in journalism, and recognizing that identity is not an inherent conflict of interest. I think a perceived decline in trust of journalists has led to some “boxing in” that actually has damaged that trust and distanced journalists from their communities. It sounds like that’s what your editor was doing, although with good intentions. I think you’re right to speak up.

    There’s a line to be walked between activism and relentless pursuit of the facts. Activism is just when you ignore the inconvenient ones.

    That said, the media does love covering the media, and I hope Jose’s story becomes a larger discussion about immigration. Thanks for contributing to it.

    Cheers,
    Brandon Ballenger.

  2. wjchat (a fake name -RH)
    June 27th, 2011 at 21:57 | #2

    Robert, I don’t think this hurts your career. Thanks for posting. Let me offer a few incoherent thoughts:

    I’ve always wondered what disqualifies us from reporting certain stories as journalists. Take for example the group of bicyclists that got hit by the driver in Los Angeles recently. Should the reporter disclose if she is a bicyclist? Or hell, should a reporter disclose that she owns a car? It’s gotten to the nit picky point that I’m not sure how our profession would deal. As you said, should you disclose in your reporting that you are a Catholic? Homeowner? Former home owner? Does that “experience” give you insight? Or does it blindside you and handicap your ability to report on something fair and balanced?

    Check this out: I was googling NAHJ members on YouTube (I have too much free time on my hands.) And I came up on an interesting story by Mekhalo Media (cool guy all around) Nice guy. The story was on Facebook privacy or something or other. The story doesn’t matter. But check out the poster that hangs behind Medina.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NbMLAsTiwKo

    That’s right: the popular poster urges people to “STOP ARIZONA” (on the whole SB1070 thing.) Full Disclosure (here we go) I’m making an assumption that Medina knows the poster is there or has some power about framing his web cam. Either way, I thought, huh?, NBC allows this??? Sure enough, we can count careers that have been destroyed through such alliances of community, and yet, Medina stays on the NBC payroll. And perhaps the argument can be made- Yes, Medina shouldn’t be disciplined for having that poster there. And moreover, it’s totally ok.

    This won’t hurt your career. It hasn’t hurt Medina’s! And maybe there’s a second chance for Vargas.

    • Robert
      June 27th, 2011 at 22:03 | #3

      Thanks for your comment… I wish you identified yourself. (Not a fan that you used wjchat as your fake name.)

  3. June 27th, 2011 at 22:30 | #4

    Nice job, Robert.
    Interestingly, Vargas is also gay. But of course his immigration status was the thing he needed to keep in the closet because revealing that could (and may well) force him from what he considers his homeland.

    I’ve always relished the idea of media diversity. I believe in filling newsrooms full of people who know something about all corners of our communities. We need people who can point us toward stories others of us might never see or recognize.

    Journalists, don’t be mistaken: There is a little bit of the activist in all of us. We want to give voice to the voiceless, shine light on dark and murky things .. otherwise none of use would ever sit through a town hall meeting on eminent domain.

    We are human. But we are also professional. And unless newsrooms implode completely, we have a professional series of checks and balances that make sure that all sides are represented and our stories are as fair as possible.

    + Should I turn in my j-card because I (a proud gay woman) see marriage equality as a civil rights issue and not a religious one?
    + Should I ignore a tip from a young reporter with military experience who tells me about difficulties veterans are having getting medical services?

    Our experiences are what help us inform our work. And our professionalism keeps it fair and balanced.

    I thought there was a harshness last week from journalists to journalists discussing both Vargas and the NY marriage equality stories. It is not our role to shut each other up. Thanks for writing this, Robert. This is a good discussion to continue.

    Robin J Phillips (RobinJP)

  4. Jackie B. Diaz
    June 27th, 2011 at 23:28 | #5

    Very well written!

    It’s a shame that we as journalists have to worry about harming our careers by voicing our opinions. I truly hope that is not the case with you.

    I too think it’s hypocritical of journalists to question Jose’s credibility. We can all be classified into many categories and/or communities…many of us just choose not to share which one we belong to.

    The fact of the matter is…we ALL have biases, opinions and beliefs but as journalists/professionals we keep them out of our reporting. That’s our job.

    All the best,
    Jackie

  5. Jackie B. Diaz
    June 27th, 2011 at 23:41 | #6

    @wjchat
    Great example…wondering how long it took you to find that vid : p

  6. June 27th, 2011 at 23:57 | #7

    I agree 100 percent. I have come across several instances where my bias or lack thereof has been questioned because of my membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Never have I let my personal beliefs impact or affect my journalism, just as agnostics or atheists or any other religious people do as well. As you said, “Being a part of a community does not disqualify (anyone) as a journalist.”

    Jose Vargas’ story is an amazing one — amazing because he has been brave enough to step up and tell his story. Hopefully, as a result, there will be changes or at least the spark that ignites the flame of change in how our immigration laws are dealt.

    To me, inspiring change is what journalism is all about.

  7. June 28th, 2011 at 18:15 | #8

    I think as journalists the hardest thing is to tell our own story. We are taught to put aside the “me” and not become part of the story. But there are times when it is appropriate. Like for Jose Antonio Vargas, the time is now. I’m sure we can all think of some thing(s) about ourselves that if they were known would call our credibility into question. That doesn’t mean we are bad people or bad journalists. That just means we are human. And some day – when the time is right – we will have to courage to tell our stories, too.

  8. Mekahlo
    June 28th, 2011 at 23:14 | #9

    This is Amazing!

  9. June 28th, 2011 at 23:38 | #10

    Robert,

    A truly OUTSTANDING post. Awesome.

  10. Rebecca Aguilar
    June 29th, 2011 at 00:01 | #11

    Robert,

    Thanks to Ivan Roman, I saw this post. Wow! Wow! Wow! Thank you for your excellent message.

    Thank you also for not being afraid to give your opinion. As I’ve said over and over–just because we’re journalists it doesn’t mean we lose our freedom of speech. My mother and father, also immigrants from Mexico always told me—do not work or walk in fear.

    I don’t and thank God you don’t either.

    You are so right, just because Vargas is undocumented—it does not mean he is a bad journalist, and it doesn’t mean that we as journalists should turn our backs against him or treat the issue like it shouldn’t concern us.

    Keep up the great work Robert!

  11. Monica
    June 29th, 2011 at 00:05 | #12

    Robert, you are so right. It is our job as journalists to give a voice to the voiceless but so often in our newsrooms when we try we are told that we have a specific agenda. In my case, I’m a Latina that worked in CNN’s newsroom and when I brought up positive stories of Latinos, immigration, hoping to shed a different perspective as oppose to the drug wars that is so popular, I was often accused of having a Latino agenda. My supervisor labeled me the “journalist for the underdogs.” But, isn’t it our jobs to give write about the plight of our communities, regardless of what and who they are. That’s the whole purpose I became a journalist, to give my community a voice and a positive voice. I no longer work at CNN and hope to launch a career as a freelance journalist writing about Latino issues that mainstream media is ignoring because they rather cover the sensationalism of the narcos and drug wars. Great piece!

  12. Mekahlo
    June 29th, 2011 at 00:07 | #13

    Hi, I’m Mekahlo (who you mentioned your post).
    Id just like to point out some facts for the record.
    The poster is a Shepard Fairey print, but not the one used in the Arizona issue.
    This print was auctioned off by the Asian American Legal Defense Fund. It was part of a series of prints designed by Fairey and Ernesto Yerena originating from photographs taken during the historic 2006 may day march.
    Out of fame, I have a framed picture of the LATimes the night Obama was elected, another framed newspaper the day 9-11 happened and currently have a frame LATimes the day Osama Bin Laden was killed.
    I believe these items reflect history, not biased.

    To the print in question, Fairey took this print and re-purposed it for the Arizona protest.
    If you look at the video, the show was recorded in October of 2009. The AZ law his re-purposed print fights against was sign in April 2010. I believe the AZ print first made it’s appearance in the summer of 2010.

    I understand you saw this video after the re-purposed print became more popular than its original… So, I totally understand you need to go “uh?”

    I just wanted to take the time to explain.

    @wjchat (a fake name -RH)

    • Robert
      June 29th, 2011 at 00:33 | #14

      Mekahlo, Thanks for responding!

      As I said, I don’t know who “wjchat” is because they did not really identify themselves. They used the name of the Twitter chat I co-organize.

      It’s interesting how a quote or an image can be taken out of context, and people’s projects and assumptions can misinterpret things.

      Thanks again for commenting and responding!

  13. Kiah Haslett
    June 29th, 2011 at 00:23 | #15

    Great post, Robert, and you made some good points. You failed to mention obvious examples such as: should students not write for a student newspaper because they are part of the community they cover? same thing for female reporters/feminists covering women’s rights.

    I decided to add my mother’s maiden name to my byline this spring. By putting in “Lau,” I share a little part of my grandmother’s decision to be a mail-order bride to come to the U.S. and the immigrant story that she and my grandfather started. I consider it my “coming out.”

    • Robert
      June 29th, 2011 at 00:44 | #16

      Yes, there are many examples and I had to cut a few for pacing and length. I had no idea “Lau” was connect to mail-oder brides. What a great way to honor your grandmother and her decision!

  14. June 29th, 2011 at 00:38 | #17

    Robert,

    I admire your courage. As a young journalist, you are always told to be as politically correct in practically everything because it can hurt your career. I can relate to your story in some many ways. So not only do you live in fear of losing credibility, but also losing your job! It takes someone with “muchos cojones” to do that and I truly admire that. Thanks for sharing this post.

  15. jackie b diaz
    June 29th, 2011 at 03:29 | #18

    @Monica
    I wish u all the best in ur endeavors : )

  16. Keta
    June 29th, 2011 at 03:33 | #19

    Thanks for this post. After reading the aforementioned story (Vargas) and the comments being made by journalists and people in general two things became explicitly clear to me:
    1) After 3 years of hard work and a 3.89 GPA from an accredited j-school, I don’t want to be a news journalists.
    2) I will complete this last year of school and try to find a less critical place to live- say Costa Rica.
    I can’t stand this ‘Holier-than-thou’ crap in America. Folks always worried about what everyone else is doing and then of course putting their two cents in on why it’s the wrong thing to be doing. I can’t, and wont, take it.
    Adios.

    • Robert
      June 29th, 2011 at 21:33 | #20

      Well, I’d say you have to remember why you got interested in journalism… always keep that in mind. And, if you want to improve it, then you need to roll up your sleeves and help change it. This is often quite frustrating, but if not us, then who?

      Chances are you’ll find these same challenges in Costa Rica and in any industry… we’re at an incredible intersection in media evolution. You can help shape it… or you can bail. Your call.

      That said… thanks for your comment!

  17. Stephanie DeCamp
    June 29th, 2011 at 05:05 | #21

    Excellently written! I agree very much with your viewpoints on the matter, and love your use of the word ‘communities’ in doing so. I do have one thought to bring up though, and I hope it isn’t too far off subject, diverting the topic to another altogether. If you’d like you can delete the comment altogether for it’s irrelevance to the conversation. But bear with me— it was prompted by LiciB’s words “That doesn’t mean we are bad people or bad journalists. That just means we are human.”

    If one were to take out the word ‘journalists’ and insert the word ‘politicians’ … Well, what would you think of that? The idea has been proven through the ages (just look at the exploits of Benjamin Franklin or JFK), that one need not be ‘squeaky clean’ to be good, or excellent, at what they do. And while I don’t condone a silencing or control of the press as there was in those days regarding those expoits, might we consider this viewpoint as a way to counteract the sensationalism we see in the media now? What if we were to take these thoughts about ourselves, and insert them into other viewpoints we may have regarding such immense subjects as politics and religion?

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