A Journalist Struggles with Objectivity vs. Obligation

By Marrero, Pilar | Nieman Reports, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

A Journalist Struggles with Objectivity vs. Obligation


Marrero, Pilar, Nieman Reports


With a Latino readership, is coverage of certain issues likely to be biased?

Last year, while covering the U.S. presidential election, I definitely entered territory that was unfamiliar to me as a journalist. As a worker in the news business, I am accustomed to asking questions, to seeking information, and to making stories out of what happens to others. Recently, however, I've seen some of my colleagues in the Spanish-language media become the story. And it's happened to me, too. I've seen them be interviewed and called for information, just as I have been sought out and questioned by others in the media.

Why have we become a story? It's because we are caught in the long overdue awakening of the sleeping giant, the slow but certain social and political empowerment of the Latino people living in the United States. As journalists, we are sometimes regarded as people who can speak for all Latinos who, despite being so vast and varied--many with roots planted in this land for generations--have yet to emerge as central participants in the nation's political arena. Being thrust into this role is difficult and uncomfortable for many journalists, especially those schooled in the traditions of U.S. journalism in which objectivity is considered paramount, and we work to keep distance from our stories.

Journalists are not supposed to be activists. But at times some of us walk a very thin line, particularly when we engage in our craft with some measure of civic and social responsibility.

As an immigrant from Venezuela and a journalist working for La Opinion, a Spanish-language newspaper, I confront very different dilemmas than those of my Latino counterparts who work in mainstream media. I write in Spanish for a readership comprised mostly of immigrants who are not totally proficient either in the language, the culture, or the politics or civic organization of the country in which they now reside. Beyond their need for news about their homelands, our readers often look to us for help in navigating the troubled waters of assimilation and, sometimes, for assistance in defending themselves from difficulties they find along the way.

Back when this "awakening of the sleeping giant" started a few years ago in California, I was covering the immigration beat. At one point, this beat was considered the most important subject for our newspaper. Almost every day I wrote about issues of immigration laws and policies and how they impacted many in the Latino community. I became such an expert in the intricacies of those laws that colleagues joked with me about opening up one of those paralegal services where I could make a better living. My office phone would ring constantly with calls from readers seeking my advice on immigration matters. I often spent much of my time at work trying to steer people away from fraud schemes that offer "amnesty" for a few thousand dollars. I would tell people that there was no such program. This exchange of information with readers became as much a part of my job as reporting and writing.

Instead of feeling conflicted by this role, I often felt great satisfaction at being able to serve people in a way that was a lot more tangible than just writing a story and going home. Sometimes I was pleased to learn that what I did or said make a difference in somebody's life. Readers would call me with the good news that they had gotten their green card or their citizenship or that they were able to legally bring their spouse and children to this country. That is the best feeling I've ever experienced in my few years as a journalist. And these conversations also refreshed my list of story ideas, constantly giving me new angles to report on for the paper.

Something similar happened when Proposition 187 [an initiative to take away the right of undocumented immigrants to attend public schools and receive basic medical care] came along in 1994, and a whole wave of anti-immigrant hysteria emerged out of the political opportunism of California's then-Governor Pete Wilson. …

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