“Journalists who think they know communities of color end up writing stereotypical stories. ” In the following viewpoint from her interview with Lena-Snomeka Gomes, Elizabeth Llorente states that unequal and inaccurate representations of minorities still persist in the media, and media professionals who are minorities continue to face prejudice in the industry. In Llorente’s view, reporters of color often feel unwelcome when entering white communities. In addition, she claims other journalists continue to draw upon harmful ethnic and religious stereotypes.
Diversity and opportunities for minorities in newsrooms also are lacking, she contends, compounding these problems. Llorente is an award-winning senior reporter for The Record in Bergen, New Jersey. A former newswriter, Gomes is a program support specialist at the Homeless Children’s Network in San Francisco. As you read, consider the following questions: 1. According to Llorente, why is covering one’s own ethnic community not necessarily easier? 2. What barriers do reporters face when reporting on immigrants, in the author’s view? 3. Why are there still very few minorities in newsrooms, in Llorente’s opinion?
Elizabeth Llorente, senior reporter for The Record in Bergen, New Jersey, was recently honored with the Career Achievement Award from the Let’s Do It Better Workshop on Race and Ethnicity at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Llorente was honored for her more than 10 years of reporting on the nation’s changing demographics. Her series, “Diverse and Divided,” documented the racial tensions and political struggles between Hispanic immigrants and African Americans in Patterson, N. J. Llorente spoke with NewsWatch about the nuances of reporting on race and ethnicity.
Lena-Snomeka Gomes: What are some of the major barriers journalists face, especially journalists of color when writing about race and ethnicity? Elizabeth Llorente: Well it depends on what they look like. For example, I know that some of the African American reporters that I have worked with have spoken about feelings of being unwelcome, especially when they’re covering white areas. And there are also other reporters who feel different because they stand out from the time they walk into a room. People make assumptions about them. I have been told that it’s hard to tell what my race is.
Is this positive or negative? Maybe it helps when I’m doing a story about tension and whites are part of the tension. Sometimes, I suspect, they open up more because they don’t know that I am Hispanic. Perhaps, they would not have been as candid had they known. However, it’s not necessarily easier to cover stories in your own ethnic community or communities similar to yours. If you criticize people and they didn’t like it, they are usually less forgiving. They take it personal and see you as a traitor, especially when the stories involve a politically charged group.
Do you think journalists of color are resistant to writing about race and ethnicity because they don’t want to be typecast so to speak? There are people who believe that and I don’t blame them. Sometimes that’s all the papers will let them do, and the papers don’t value their work. In that regard, it’s a thankless job. When you come back with a great story, they don’t see the skill and the talent it took to report and write that story. They think, of course, you wrote well because you’re one of them. They automatically assume it was easy for you to get the story.
They may even question your objectivity. But, when [Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist] Rick Bragg went to the South to write about the life he knew, no one said, of course its easy for him because he’s from the South. No, they said, wow he’s a great writer. Do you think stories about race and ethnicity still face being calendared for special events or has there been more sustained coverage and focus? It’s gotten much better. Stories used to be covered for Black History Month or Cinco de Mayo, but now beats have been created around race and ethnicity.
Beat reporters have to write all year. Reporters are interested in writing about race and ethnicity. They want to cover these issues. Now the next level journalism needs to go to is to spread the responsibility of covering race and ethnicity among all reporters, in all sections of the paper, business section, education, transportation, and municipal. Coverage has to be more comprehensive. It cannot be reserved for certain reporters, because race and ethnicity is such a huge area. Immigration Stories How do stories about immigration differ from other stories about race and ethnicity?
If you’re writing about second or third generation Cubans, you’re writing about Americans, a minority group that has some stake here. With immigrants, you’re writing about people who are newer, who don’t necessarily feel American. They are still transitioning into this national culture. They are rebuilding their identities. For example, they may not have a sense of (their) civil rights here or of American racism. What skills do journalists have to master in order to report fairly and accurately on immigrant communities? First of all, you need to have a completely open mind.
This is especially important when you’re covering immigrant communities. So many of us think that we know the immigrant groups, but many of us only know the stereotypes. Too often we set out to write stories that end up marginalizing people in harmful ways because the stories tend to exacerbate those stereotypes. Or we ignore the stories that do not conform to the stereotypes. For example, if we’re going to write about Hispanic communities, instead of looking for Hispanics in the suburbs, we tend to go where we can most readily find them, in Miami, Spanish Harlem, and in the Barrio.
We keep telling the same stories and giving it the same frame, because it’s an easy thing to do when you’re on a deadline. The result is an ok story. But immigration stories are diverse. They are not only in enclaves, but also in places we never thought about finding them in, such as in once exclusively white suburbs and rural America. Perhaps Hispanics in the barrio is a valuable story, but that is no longer the Hispanic story. It is a Hispanic story. Okay, once you find (immigrant communities) how do you communicate with them? It’s tough.
Not knowing the language can be difficult. But the key is to start out with the attitude of not settling for less. Start out speaking with the leaders, but only as a vehicle to reach the other people who are not always in the papers. Too many of us stop with the leaders and that is not enough. Ask them to introduce you or ask them if you can use their name to open up a few doors for you to speak with others in the community. However, covering immigrant communities doesn’t mean encountering a language barrier. Many people have a basic knowledge of English.
You can still conduct an interview with someone who only speaks survival English. But, you will also run into a lot of people who don’t speak English. If you make the effort, if you’re patient, if you speak slower and are conscious of the words you use, if you make sure they understand what you are asking them, if you tune in, you’ll make the connection. Finally, if language is a barrier and you’re not comfortable, find someone who is bilingual to help you interpret. How can journalists write balanced stories if they operate from the stereotypes?
Ask the person you’re interviewing to break down those stereotypes. You can tell the person that there is a particular stereotype and ask them if it is true or not. Journalists have the unique role and power to help break the stereotypes down. What does receiving the Career Achievement Award mean to you? I was hoping that it would mean that I could retire and go sailing and write my novels from a log cabin. After I checked my retirement savings, I realized, that ain’t gonna happen for a long time. Its nice to get awards, but when you get one it’s usually for a certain story or project.
This is like a wonderful embrace that says, you know, you hit the ball out of the park again and again. You set a standard in this business. At a career level, you have done great work. It’s just a nice sweeping kiss and hug to me. The Culture of Journalism Tell me some of the successes Let’s Do It Better has had and some of the ways in which it has impacted the culture of journalism. I think one wonderful thing they did, under Sig Gissler (original founder), was that they targeted the gatekeepers. His model approach was to go directly to the top management.
Gissler wanted to show them good reporting that reached a higher level and how stories about race were more nuanced. He wanted them to read the stories and then to talk to the folks who wrote them so they could learn how to do these types of stories. Did the top respond? Yes! I saw conversions. People who started out cynically were changed by the last day. They were beginning to look at race and ethnicity stories critically. They were going to raise their standard. They left the workshops believing that their news organizations needed more diverse voices.
Why, are there still so few people of color in newsrooms today? Too many employers are prejudiced. Too many minorities are still being hired under a cloud of doubt. I don’t think many minorities are hired with the notion that they will be star reporters. They are not nurtured. Then when minority journalists leave it’s seen as a betrayal, but when whites leave, it’s considered a good career move. I have worked with many white reporters who have had many opportunities in training and promotions, and nobody says they’re ungrateful s. o. b. ‘s when they leave.
Can we keep doing it better? Of course. There are still so many stories we are not getting that are out there. Journalists who think they know communities of color end up writing stereotypical stories and they use photos to make people look exotic. In fact, we need to pay more attention to photojournalism. A story can be fair and balanced, but if that picture projects the exotic stereotype, the story loses its value. Don’t bypass a photo of a person because they don’t look ‘ethnic enough. ‘ Take a picture of the blonde Mexican or the Muslim women wearing Levi jeans.
Further Readings Books * Bonnie M. Anderson News Flash: Journalism, Infotainment, and the Bottom-Line Business of Broadcast News. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004. * Ben Bagdikian The New Media Monopoly. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004. * Michael A. Banks Blogging Heroes: Interviews with 30 of the World’s Top Bloggers. Indianapolis: Wiley Publishing, 2008. * Pablo J. Boczkowski Digitizing the News: Innovation in Online Newspapers. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004. * L. Brent Bozell Weapons of Mass Distortion: The Coming Meltdown of the Liberal Media. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2005.
* Asa Briggs and Peter Burke A Social History of the Media: From Gutenberg to the Internet. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Polity, 2005. * Thomas de Zengotita Mediated: How the Media Shapes Our World and the Way We Live in It. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2005. * David Edwards and David Cromwell Guardians of Power: The Myth of the Liberal Media. London: Pluto Press, 2006. * Robert Erikson and Kent Tedin American Public Opinion: Its Origins, Content, and Impact. Updated 7th ed. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2007. * Dan Gilmore We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People.
Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly, 2006. * Tom Goldstein Journalism and Truth: Strange Bedfellows. Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 2007. * Doris A. Graber Media Power in Politics. 5th ed. Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2007. * Neil Henry American Carnival: Journalism under Siege in an Age of New Media. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007. * Henry Jenkins Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: NYU Press, 2006. * Steven Johnson Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Popular Culture Is Making Us Smarter. New York: Riverhead Trade, 2005.
* Lawrence Lessig Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity. New York: Penguin, 2004. * Charles M. Madigan, ed. 30: The Collapse of the American Newspaper. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2007. * David W. Moore The Opinion Makers: An Insider Exposes the Truth Behind the Polls. New York: Beacon Press, 2008. * Patrick R. Parsons Blue Skies: A History of Cable Television. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008. * Neil Postman Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. 20th anniversary ed.
New York: Penguin Books, 2005. * Metta Spencer Two Aspirins and a Comedy: How Television Can Enhance Health and Society. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2006. Periodicals * Dennis AuBuchon “Free Speech and the Fairness Doctrine,” American Chronicle, March 19, 2009. * Greg Beato “The Spin We Love to Hate: Do We Really Want News Without a Point of View? ” Reason, December 2008. * Jeffrey Chester “Time for a Digital Fairness Doctrine,” AlterNet, October 19, 2004. * Edward W. Gillespie “Media Realism: How the GOP Should Handle Increasingly Biased Journalists,” National Review, April 6, 2009.
* Nicole Hemmer “Liberals, Too, Should Reject the Fairness Doctrine,” Christian Science Monitor, November 25, 2008. * R. Court Kirkwood “What Did or Didn’t Happen at Duke,” New American, September 18, 2006. * Richard Perez-Pena “Online Watchdog Sniffs for Media Bias,” New York Times, October 15, 2008. * Eugene Robinson “(White) Women We Love,” Washington Post, June 10, 2005. * Joseph Somsel “Megaphone Envy and the Fairness Doctrine,” American Thinker, March 19, 2009. * Adam Thierer “The Media Cornucopia,” City Journal, Spring 2007. * Evan Thomas “The Myth of Objectivity,” Newsweek, March 10, 2008.