By ICESS FERNANDEZ ROJAS
At the end of the day, I knew what the real deal was.
It was the end of my first semester as an adviser to a student newspaper at a Texas university. One of my students asked me to be a reference for her as she began her job search. During the semester, I tried to groom her, pushing her to apply for internships and work on bigger stories. She did it. She did it all. She applied for internships, she worked on the big newsy stories for the clips and even covered a major beat during her final semester of college.
When she came to visit the next semester, she was still jobless. Another student who graduated in the same class and didn’t work as hard as she did had already been employed for several months.
The difference? She was black and he was white. And I knew, as they were both preparing for graduation, that was going to happen.
Last year, I accepted a job as an adviser in hopes of saving something I loved — journalism. I believed in the power of journalism to make change, to hold people in power accountable and to do its duty to the readers. In fact, I saw it first hand. As a daughter of immigrants, my parents would be glued to the television watching the news because, back in the home country, the press wasn’t exactly free or protected.
Journalism is a humble profession. We do God’s work. And God’s work isn’t for the money, but the love. I believed in that as if they were my vows.
Even as the slings and arrows were shot at me and other journalists of color in American newsrooms during a time of change and turbulence, I thought that here, in this student newsroom, we can change the discussion of diversity. It can be about the work and the skills and growing the next generation of journalists who would carry on and do God’s work.
But as newsrooms continued to be gutted, it was a harder gospel to preach. And it became increasingly harder as young, talented journalists of color were graduating and becoming jobless while their white counterparts, some with less talent and work ethic, went on to land their first jobs, internships, or fellowships. They were rewarded for doing just enough to get the job.
That’s when I made a conscious decision. While I would teach everyone, I would drill journalism skills into students of color. I would empower and guide them through the reporting and publishing process, even if I had to sit right next to them to do it. Even if I annoyed them. I didn’t care, because an editor would do worse one day.
I didn’t do this because they were my favorites; I did this because I’d already been where they were. I did this to level the playing field. I did this because I was tired of hearing that there were no qualified applicants of color for jobs in newsrooms. These students would have to work twice as hard to get half the opportunities — just because they weren’t white. With opportunities in traditional media shrinking, that hard work would have to be flawless, with no room for mistakes.
And even if they were able to join the Fourth Estate, there was no guarantee that they’d be able to stay there or walk away without battle scars.
That’s why I focus on getting them ready — mobile video, writing, reporting and interviewing. This push on skills also comes with advice. Think outside of traditional media. Learn how to do it all and use these superpowers for your career, whether it’s for a news outlet, a news site, or for yourself.
Here’s the bottom line: Don’t allow anyone else to tell your stories or stop you from telling them, even if you have to start your own thing.
This may be shocking for some. I expect to have some interesting comments come my way. However, that doesn’t change the truth — my white students will be hired in journalism, especially if they are men.
But the student journalists of color will have a steeper mountain to climb. They will have to prove themselves over and over again while navigating newsroom culture, along with editors and coworkers who think they are somehow less of a journalist. They will have to do all this while trying to cover the news.
That is, if they can get through the door first.
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Icess Fernandez Rojas is a writer, blogger, and journalist from Houston, Texas. Her work has appeared in USA Today, Huffington Post, and the Guardian. Fernandez earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Houston and a MFA in Fiction from Goddard College. She is currently working on her first series of mystery novels. Visit her blog at ://icessfernandez.com. Follow her on Twitter @Icess.