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A journalist’s duty is to use facts and first-hand experiences to tell stories of communities and the people in them. A key and rather obvious aspect of that charge is language.
What happens when reporters don’t know a major language of the communities they cover?
“The immigrant stories, the stories of our parents, the stories that we live and that we are able to report on would not be possible or would not be as easy to report if we only spoke one language,” said Joy Díaz, producer of the Texas Standard, a radio news magazine produced in collaboration with KUT Austin, KERA North Texas, Houston Public Media, and Texas Public Radio.
Díaz talked Tuesday about how to maintain credibility and authenticity while covering the Latino community at “Bridging the Border: Digital Perspectives from Women Journalists in Texas and Mexico,” an event held in concert with the 2017 International Symposium on Online Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin.
Rivard Report reporter Rocío Guenther joined Díaz in the discussion.
While 65% of Texans over the age of 5 speak only English at home, more than one-third of Texans older than 5 speak an additional language at home. Of those, 85% speak Spanish, according to the Texas Tribune. Among Texas metropolitan areas, Bexar County has the largest number of Spanish-speaking residents.
For majority Latino communities such as San Antonio, which is more than 60% Latino, a lack of widespread, in-depth Spanish reporting means many stories simply aren’t being told.
When Díaz, originally from Mexico, started at KUT years ago, she was the first Spanish-speaking reporter they had ever had, she said.
“In a way, I feel a responsibility to tell stories because I am one of a few reporters who speak the language of the ‘other’ in Texas, and who can tell those stories,” she said.
Beyond reporting, Guenther, from Guadalajara, Mexico, noted the significance of translating articles to Spanish, something she has done throughout her career at the Rivard Report.
“If it wasn’t because of that, [the Spanish-speaking community] wouldn’t be able to read their own stories,” she said.
Some publications have begun to acknowledge the value of fluency in other languages as it relates to journalism. The Dallas Morning News, for example, offers free, weekly Spanish classes to its reporters.
But the importance of multilingualism extends even beyond journalism, Díaz said. Politicians in diverse places like Texas, she said, are doing a disservice to their constituents by not speaking, or at least learning, languages other than English.
“How can you govern in a state as big as Texas [by] only speaking one language?” she asked.
For Guenther, amid growing paranoia in the immigrant community, simply speaking someone’s native language and finding that common ground with them can lead to a deeper understanding of their situations, worries, and perspectives.
“People are very afraid to tell their stories,” she said. “They’re very afraid to talk about their life or even open up to someone from the news [media].”
Guenther said her fair skin and hair – contrary to the stereotype that all Mexicans have dark skin and hair – often confuse her subjects, prompting them to be wary and closed off toward her. But when she starts speaking Spanish, her native language, “the walls come down.”
“It’s very interesting to see how just knowing someone’s native tongue completely changes the dynamic and completely makes the person open up to you,” she said. “You need to create an intimacy and it’s really hard when you don’t know that language.”
Using language as a way to find common ground also allows you to reach community members who aren’t typical sources of news and information. It’s easier for reporters to reach out via telephone or email to officials at chambers of commerce or official organizations to get quotes and data on a certain issue, Guenther said, than it is to go into the field and seek out those who are directly affected by the same issues – especially if they speak a different language.
“Sometimes it’s hard to go directly and find those people, but I think it makes stories so much deeper,” she said. “It makes them more authentic and you can humanize the issue.”
Díaz agreed, and said that featuring more diverse subjects has enriched her reporting.
“When you report in Texas we need to be very mindful that we have 2.7 million people or families who have mixed statuses,” she said, meaning that many have lives in Mexico as well as in the United States. “Bridging that means that we are mindful of who they are as people.
“… They have stories, too, and they are so worth it.”
Tuesday’s discussion was one of five that featured topics ranging from reporting on the Texas-Mexico border, covering politics in the era of “fake news,” and investigating corruption as an independent journalist.
To see those presentations, which were in English and Spanish, click here.