Language Can Create Barriers for Young Journalists

By Mejias-Rentas, Antonio | Nieman Reports, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Language Can Create Barriers for Young Journalists


Mejias-Rentas, Antonio, Nieman Reports


One news director considered a reporter's Spanish `not Mexican enough.'

During my newsroom years, I've never felt any discrimination for being Latino. I don't recall that my ethnic background was ever taken into consideration when being assigned a beat or a story.

Like hundreds of journalists working in Spanish-language media in the United States, I never had to deal with being a minority--one of only a hand-fill of Latinos on staff. All of my peers and most of my managers--even at the upper level--were Latinos, too.

I've been fortunate to work at some of the top Spanish-language news outlets in the country. My very first journalism job fresh out of college was as a news writer at KMEX, the Los Angeles affiliate of the number one Spanish-language network, Univision. Years later I enjoyed an 11-year stint as an editor at the country's largest Spanish-language daily newspaper, Los Angeles's La Opinion.

While Latino journalists are usually the majority at Spanish-language newsrooms across the country, there are still specific barriers they confront. Surprisingly, a lot of these have to do with the very language in which we make our living. It isn't enough that we have to master the language of our viewers or readers. But, as any reporter knows, most of the sources available to journalists in the United States--from medical and academic experts to politicians, civil servants and community activists--speak English.

Even when interviewees do their best to hablar espanol for a 30-second sound bite, the reading, research and real interviewing is usually conducted in English. That means that Spanish-language journalists have to be perfectly bilingual--a skill not required of most English-language journalists. And they must do a lot of translation to get their stories broadcast or published. Despite needing to possess this additional skill, journalists who work in Spanish-language media still earn much less, on average, than colleagues with the same assignments in English-language media. In many cases, it turns out to be a great deal less money for much more work.

Mastering Spanish can be a tricky proposition. Young journalists who were born in the United States, usually as members of a second or third generation of Latino immigrant families, have been attracted in recent years by the huge explosion of Spanish-language media in this country, especially TV news. While they see career opportunities, a chance to stay in touch with their cultural roots, and even the possibility of doing something for their struggling communities, the job itself can be very demanding.

This is especially the case when these young journalists go to work for older, Spanish-speaking, foreign-born editors who constantly challenge their abilities to perform in the sacred linguistic tradition of the most revered of Spanish novelists, Miguel de Cervantes, the author of "Don Quixote." Rather than being encouraged or being helped with their Spanish, I've seen young journalists shot down for being too Pocho (Mexican American) or Nuyorican (New York Puerto Rican)--part of that hard to define, in-between group that is neither completely American nor Latino. Similar conflicts arise when the young reporter is trained in the United States and the editor's primary experience has been in Latin America. …

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