Reporters of color from The Union’s past and present discuss experiences in Nevada County, what they make of America’s moment
As the coronavirus, an economic recession and, particularly, widespread protests calling for racial justice rage on, many people believe the media is changing — specifically those inside the industry.
Staff members of news organizations, which publish stories on a variety of print, online, television, radio, podcast and social media platforms, are challenging the publication of certain stories and are questioning who makes up a newsroom and why.
After publishing an incendiary column by U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas), much of the New York Times staff revolted, leading to the resignation of one editor and reassignment of another. Variety’s editor in chief stepped down after members of her news organization said she wasn’t doing enough to promote diversity. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s top editor left after the paper published a story that read “Buildings Matter, Too,” which garnered ire from the paper’s staff.
What is acceptable to publish is changing, and some journalists are hoping to change the landscape of newsrooms, increasing the hiring of journalists that reflect the makeup of the country’s demographics. Today, 77% of newsroom employees are white, non-Hispanic, and 61% are men, according to the Poynter Institute.
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Locally, over the last two decades, The Union has hired a number of journalists of color.
Ivan Natividad held several positions at The Union between 2014 and 2018, and is currently a writer at the University of California, Berkeley in its communications and public affairs office. Natividad said the biggest problem Nevada County faces is not being exposed to enough people from different backgrounds. As such, Natividad, who is Filipino-American and still lives locally, said county residents often treat non-white individuals as a monolith.
“There’s a tendency to homogenize people of color, so there’s a lack of nuance understanding people’s ethnic backgrounds,” he said, adding that he and Elias Funez, a Mexican-American multimedia reporter at The Union, were often confused with one another by residents. (Funez said this phenomenon still occurs, though Natividad is no longer at the paper.)
Natividad also had an experience where his family was racially attacked with verbal abuse at the Yuba River. The next day, after sharing the experience on social media, he received significant support from community residents. But the more explicit incidents aren’t the ones that Natividad holds on to. Rather, he said, it’s the small things that say more.
“You don’t have to be ‘a racist’ to have racist thoughts and perpetuate racist ideology,” he said. “As a community it would be great if we could really talk about the issue of racism.”
When Funez first applied to The Union, he came to Nevada County to scope out the area with his then-girlfriend, who is white. He said a group of homeless individuals said to them, “‘Damn it, why can’t girls date their own races anymore.’” The Union’s multimedia reporter said he was more determined to take the job after that moment to try changing the way locals interact with people of color.
But he’s had more uncomfortable experiences. At a pro-Trump rally, Funez said one individual asked him, a second generation American, where he was born.
Millete Birhanemaskel — who worked at The Union in the early 2000s, and currently owns the Whittier Cafe in Denver — said that while she felt accepted and comforted in The Union’s newsroom, that was not the case outside its walls. Birhanemaskel remembers one experience with a white man who said, “‘At least you’re not black and ugly.’” She also remembers being stared at by passersby, signaling to her that they were discomforted by her presence.
“People are so ignorant and don’t have exposure to people from different backgrounds,” she said., “It never felt like home. It never felt like I could stay (there) for a while.”
Teresa Liu, a reporter with The Union from 2015-16 and who now works for the China Daily USA and is Asian-American, said while she mostly had positive experiences in Nevada County, she was once categorized by a local police officer as having broken English, which deeply hurt.
“It kind of affected my mood,” she said.
Zuri Berry — a sports reporter at The Union from 2007 to 2009, and currently a senior managing editor at WAMU, an NPR-member station in Washington, D.C. — said Nevada County was the last place where he was recognized on the street for his work in journalism. As a black man, Berry said he never experienced explicitly racist attacks, but noted that he’d often see a pickup truck waving the Confederate flag — something he noticed across northern California.
“It undercuts the claim that it’s about heritage and it’s about history,” he said, adding it was really about white supremacy. “I found that to be disturbing.”
Other previous non-white reporters said they only had good things to say about Nevada County.
Keith Jiron — a sports reporter with The Union between 2000 and 2004, who now works in real estate in Tucson, Arizona — said he was never confronted by others because of his Hispanic identity.
Soumitro Sen — an education and features reporter at The Union from 2006 to 2008, and currently a public relations professor at California State University, Long Beach — said that although Nevada County is not racially diverse, it is diverse in thought.
“In the depth of rural, northern California, there are two ashrams,” he said, adding that he never felt he was given “the look,” or subliminal disdain for his heritage, which stems from India.
Both Jiron and Sen spoke highly of Nevada County as well as their time in the local newsroom.
“I’m still in touch with (Union employees) over Facebook,” said Sen.
Many journalists are questioning how newsrooms should be run amid questions of how to live in a more racially just world. Berry asked why newsrooms allow for columns and letters to the editor to be conducted with less journalistic rigor and include hate speech that is not otherwise allowed in the standard reporting of a publication. Why, he asked, should a newsroom’s platform be used to promote spurious information and hate?
“Are we expressing our values for allowing this conversation to take place?” he asked. “What are we allowing to happen in our name?”
While at The Union, Berry said there were untruthful claims about presidential candidate Barack Obama in the paper’s letters to the editor during the 2008 campaign that would never be allowed in the publication’s reporting.
“There were these wild, wild accusations about Obama, about others and particularly people of color that were not grounded as fact,” he said.
Conversations about what is appropriate to be published, said Berry, are occurring at WAMU and in newsrooms across the country. People are asking, he said, is it bad to call out white supremacy as a journalist? Can you preach values without being considered an activist?
Acknowledging that a publication’s audience may contract if the newsroom projects its values, Berry questions whether the newsroom should desire such an audience in the first place, and whether it can be completely objective.
“We didn’t always do this fake-objectivity thing,” he said. “The act of producing a newspaper is participation in its own right.”
Birhanemaskel said that newspapers need to have more people of color in positions of power.
“Diversity’s not enough,” she said. “We need to get people of color making decisions.”
Birhanemaskel recalls one experience while at a Tennessee publication where she was asked to cover a Ku Klux Klan rally without any regard for her or her future child’s safety (she was pregnant at the time). Media outlets, like the Denver Post, often lack perspectives of black people in its coverage, she said, which is why she prefers media outlets like ColoradoPolitics, Denverite and The Root.
“Editors,” she said, “should be saying (to black reporters), ‘Your contribution is important and I want to know what you think we need to cover.’”
Natividad agreed with Birhanemaskel’s general point, noting that individuals of different backgrounds need to sit on the editorial boards of newspapers.
America has changed, said Sen, and today many white Americans feel emboldened to express their xenophobia. He believes the sustained protests are good if they ladder up to policy change.
Birhanemaskel said people who are confronting racism and who want to be anti-racist should also be asking questions about society that pertains to non-policing matters.
“If black lives matter, look at these schools, we have a number of schools that are failing,” she said of institutions with predominately black and brown students. If the movement is important, she said, “support black business.”
Everyone’s role is different, she said, but the role of white people is nonetheless important.
“We need white people to be interested because they’re the majority in this country,” she said. “We need your help in dismantling some of this stuff. There’s so many things that you can do, and so many different ways that you can show up.”
Berry questioned why it is that so many white people feel strongly about the injustice of George Floyd’s death, but hesitated when questioning the injustices that occurred to other black Americans, like Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Laquan McDonald and others.
Natividad said the protests are not just about black people dying at the hands of police officers, but, rather, about the lack of respect and dignity attributed to those communities.
“We’ve just got to continue to work towards racial justice and making our community better,” he said. “At this point, it’s a matter of will. If people really want it to change than it will.”
To contact Staff Writer Sam Corey, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4219.
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