Tips to leverage your cultural identity to produce better stories

This column originally appeared in Navigator, GroundTruth’s newsletter for early-career journalists. You can subscribe to Navigator here.

Although the media industry in the United States has made some progress in addressing the lack of diversity in newsrooms, it’s still far away from reflecting the demographic reality of the country.

The absence of people of color in news organizations at all levels leads to gaps in coverage, and a growing distrust from the community. According to 2018 Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data, newsroom employees are more likely to be white and male compared to overall U.S. workers.

Along with that, a 2014 study by the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that only 25 percent of African Americans and 33 percent of Hispanics say the news media accurately portrays their communities.

Initiatives like NPR’s Code Switch and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists’ Palabra are opening new avenues for journalists of color to tell stories, but as a 2015 Nieman Reports article pointed out “journalists often find it difficult to have open, honest conversations about race and ethnicity—even compared to other contentious newsroom issues, like gender imbalances—for fear of damaging relationships with editors or colleagues.”

Remaining silent would only hurt your reporting and your possibilities to effect a broader change in your newsroom. The good news is that you can take steps to help your editors, and your community, understand your role as a bridge between them.

For this Navigator, we asked Los Angeles Times reporter Esmeralda Bermudez, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has covered both sides of the U.S. border with Mexico and currently chronicles the lives of Latinos in LA, what journalists should consider when reporting on people who look and sound like their own. Her responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Don’t allow others to box you into what they think a person of color journalist should be writing about

Bermudez recalled both Latinos and non-Latinos telling her that she was pigeonholing herself by writing about her own people, but for her, it’s a call to action: “My whole existence, my whole purpose of being in journalism is to make space for Latinos and their stories in all different shapes and colors, with all their difficulties and all their beauty and their warts … as regular any other human being,” she said.

Other beats don’t come with those labels or expectations, and are considered or even expected to touch on different aspects of society, Bermudez pointed out. “You would never approach an environment reporter and be like ‘Hey, you know what, you’re pigeonholing yourself. You shouldn’t cover the environment, you should really think about covering politics,’” she said.

When facing those comments, and every time you pitch a story, Bermudez recommends to place the ethnic and race elements in the context of society and culture, since they touch on so many other aspects of life. “Race and ethnicity is such a profound part of who we are and how the world is run, and also how the story is told. When you ignore race and ethnicity, you’re ignoring so much of our history,” said Bermudez.

Do not prioritize familiarity or trust above your reporting

One of the advantages of reporting on a culture that you know is that it is much easier to gain access, said Bermudez. “There’s this inherent trust that often comes with that, where you are allowed in people’s homes more easily. People tend to trust you more. Families, when they see me, don’t tend to see me as the LA Times. They say ‘Esa muchacha, Esmeralda’ (that girl, Esmeralda). I become someone that reminds them of their cousin, or their daughter, or their aunt.”

However, that trust can become a pitfall if you take it for granted. “Just because it might come easier to you than someone who looks different than you, you have to be incredibly respectful of how you handle people’s lives,” said Bermudez. “Don’t get too comfortable. Just because you walk into that house and everything in that house might look like what you grew up with […] that does not mean that as a reporter, your notebook should be any less filled.”

Bermudez recommends questioning your own assumptions about the community—as you would do with a topic or a place you don’t know. “Don’t think, ‘Oh, I actually know this community, so I don’t have to ask questions A to Z.’ No, you still have to ask questions A to Z. Don’t assume that because there’s a similarity you don’t have to do as thorough of a job as any other reporter.”

Remind yourself that your job is to tell the full story

A lot of the portrayals of communities of color in the news reflect negative content such as crime and poverty, so when a journalist finally starts to cover other topics, sometimes, people expect only good coverage. “Don’t fall into the trap that, because you’re Latino and they’re Latino, that means you have to tell all the positive stories. I’ve been in that situation in the past where I’ve been told ‘Oh, I’m so glad there’s finally a Salvadoran or Latino writer, we have so many positive stories to tell and you’re finally going to tell them.’ But your job is not to just tell positive stories. Your job is to make space for real stories,” says Bermudez.

To be true to the community, you cannot ignore the variety of stories that come with it, adds Bermudez. As with everything in life, there’s good, bad and everything in between. She offered her own family as an example: “I have a cousin who’s a priest, I have a cousin who’s done time in federal prison for smuggling, I have cousins who can’t speak English, I have cousins who hardly speak any Spanish, I have some that have very high-level education, and some with a fifth-grade-level education. There’s all this variety. That’s exactly how Latinos are and that’s exactly how humanity is.”

Bermudez suggests to take a step back and consider the community as a whole and your responsibility to your audience: “If you only want to talk about the priest or the perfect immigrant—that person’s real, but I’m thinking about the whole picture. Show the different layers.”