By BENÉT J. WILSON
Last week, All Digitocracy shared the story of what led up to the firing of a journalist of color at Stat, a new life sciences start-up created by The Boston Globe. The story touched a nerve, with journalists contacting us with challenges that forced some of them to leave their jobs and even the industry. One agreed to allow her names to be used, while two others declined, one because she is still working in her newsroom and the other is actively seeking a new job.
Joangel Concepcion, 33, is a former broadcast journalist and member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ). She reached out after reading the story, noting that it brought back a flood of memories to what happened to her in her newsroom
Concepcion called herself a “late bloomer” after graduating from college at age 27. “I took my career seriously. My parents moved from the Dominican Republic so I could have a better education,” she said.
Her first job out of college was at a television station in McAllen, Texas, where she covered immigration. “I then went to Rochester, New York, for two years,” she said. “After that, I made the jump to a top 10 market. It was so incredible. It was my dream job.”
But the dream job as a video journalist started to become a nightmare for Concepcion, where she reported, shot and edited all her stories. “The industry doesn’t understand how detrimental this is to the news business,” she stated. “You are doing so many things, that sometimes you forget that the most important thing is getting the facts. I didn’t want to leave stuff behind. I wanted to tell stories.”
It was then that Concepcion discovered she was in a toxic newsroom by the way management treated its employees and how they started picking her apart. “So they zeroed in on me because I was outspoken,” she said. “I will fight for a story that will make people uncomfortable but also start a conversation. But if you’re not quiet, they can make your life a living hell.”
The managers started taking Concepcion’s work apart, being very critical. “I started second-guessing myself. This was so bizarre, because I’m a strong woman and that had never happened to me before,” she said. “I started saving money to prepare for leaving the station.”
The incident that put Concepcion over the edge was an interview with a woman a year after her husband had been killed during a road rage incident. “Her interview didn’t tell me anything other victims’ family haven’t said. She said people need to live life to the fullest, never imagining that her husband would go to work and never come back,” she recalled. “That affected me. I finally listened to people filled with anguish. She was so right, and it was the tipping point for me.”
Concepcion said she decided to leave the newsroom and not go back. “Newsrooms can hold people accountable on the outside, but not in the inside in their own operations,” she said. “They want to hold reporters accountable while working hard for little pay, but when you want to hold them accountable, they turn on you.
“I loved what I did, but it sucked me dry after four years,” said Concepcion. “I made it to the top and fulfilled my dream, but when I got it, I was taken aback.”
Concepcion admitted she was scared when she left the news business. “My friends didn’t understand, but I was working hard in this career only to be treated with disrespect,” she said. “Journalists all live in fear that they are replaceable at half the salary or will have to pick up a camera. Fear can make you sick. Leaving journalism for me is so unfortunate because the media is so important.”
“Anna” is an African-American television producer and freelance writer who asked that her name not be used, as she is still interested in staying in the business. She said fell in love with news after watching local newscasts with her blind grandmother.
“So it was a no-brainer for me to go to college and major in broadcast journalism. I reported in college and was a newshead who wanted to be a television reporter,” said Anna. “I worked hard, did three internships and saw the business from all sides.”
Anna’s first job was as a log editor. “I found it interesting, but I felt I was straying away from my original goal. So I reached out to a former news director from my internship,” she said. “I got a job as a news producer. On my first day, I was told by a former executive that in order to be successful, I’d have to be perfect. That was a red flag on my very first day.”
So Anna said she automatically thought she had to be everything to everyone. “I was working the third shift, midnight to 10:00 a.m. I did that for a year and a half and got burned out,” she said. “Plus our format was untraditional, with a mix of news, conversation, entertainment, political segments and health topics. I had to flip my brain to do these stories. It wasn’t what I was taught in school. I also needed to know how to write, edit video and do social media.”
But she also noticed that people were quitting left and right, but said she remained loyal to the company. “I thought if I stuck things out, it would get better. I was going on only three or four hours of sleep,” she said. “I finally got my opportunity to be on the air. I was still producing, but I also did a five-minute segment.”
Overnight the staffing was scarce, said Anna, but there were ample day side assignment editors. “I kept seeing people hired before and after me leaving the station.”
Anna said she wanted higher pay to reflect all the work she was doing. “But the station said I had to sign a contract for two more years. I was a company girl,” she said. “I thought ‘you think that little of me that you ask me to sign a contract in order to get more money? I had been so loyal and felt I should have been compensated. I was doing the complete package for the station and my pay wasn’t reflecting that.”
Her final straw came as she was going into the restroom to put on make-up for her five-minute news segment. “I asked God if I needed to stay at the station. I heard him say ‘I have something better for you,’” she said. “I did my segment, went to my desk and resigned. I gave two months’ notice.
“I just decided that I couldn’t do this anymore,” said Anna, who had been at the station for three years.
“Lucia Fernandez” also asked that we not use her real name, since she is still working as a newspaper journalist. For her, a career in journalism was the most effective way to change lives, along with highlighting injustice, racial inequality and corruption. “I come to work every day thinking, `don’t think about the BS, and just concentrate on doing stories that change lives,”’ she said.
She has been a journalist for more than eight years, working for newspapers and magazine and freelancing for radio. “I’ve been an investigative journalist for about four years.”
Fernandez said she’s faced microaggressions from elected officials, cops and sources during interviews. “I’ve had to spend time answering questions about my nationality. Most questions start off with a nonthreatening `so where are you from?’ but inevitably that question ends up with the real question `so, where are you really from?,’” she said. “I am an immigrant, so as a result there are instant assumptions people make about who I am. I’ve been harassed by readers, who call threatening to deport my family and asking if I’m a `real’ journalist.”
Inside the newsroom, Fernandez said she was asked by a coworker during a round of layoffs at the paper where she had been recently hired why she had survived, since the paper didn’t really cover Latino issues. “This reporter insinuated that I was only hired to cover my people’s issues. I need to mention that I was hired as an investigative reporter—not a Latino issues reporter,” she stated. “During yet another transition at this paper, another coworker told me that if a certain company bought our paper, I would be okay because that company hired based on minority quotas.”
This coworker has been in the business for 20 years, and cames to Fernandez for help when it comes to numbers and data. “I have gone out of my way to spend time investing in myself. I am a data reporter. I know how to dig for records,” she said. “I know how to map and illustrate those maps. I know how to shoot video and edit video. I know how to do radio. And I’m now teaching myself how to code.”
Fernandez recently had a mid-year review from her supervisor. “He’s a great editor and I really like him. He’s hard on me because he wants me to get better. We have a good working relationship. I have the freedom to take on any investigation I want — even topics that he doesn’t care about,” she said. “Having said that, I’ve been in this paper for one year. During this time, despite the fact that I’m new, I have been more productive than one other team member who is white. I don’t know how my teammate’s review went. But I know that based on work produced, I’ve done more and stories with impact.”
She received a great review — except her editor suggested that she was very opinionated and he was afraid sources and people she interviews could sense her bias. “I must say that I am passionate when I argue for better coverage of communities of color. I do speak up when a racist story in the paper and I’ve argued with plenty of reporters who say racist things. When I fight for records, I am stubborn and strong-minded. I do fight for my rights as a reporter,” she said. “My boss has witnessed some of those fights. I have a strong moral compass. I make no apologies for that.”
However, Fernandez says she never approaches a source or potential source that way. “I asked my editor why he would say that if he’s never seen me interact with sources in the field. He couldn’t answer that. I kept wondering, would my editor ask my white colleagues the same question?,” she wondered. “Why am I being judged differently? I have gone above and beyond to produce a lot of stories and help others so that when I fight for racially inclusive stories I am taken seriously but I still have to justify myself?”
The conversation ended on a good note, said Fernandez, but she decided to share a story about what she encounters as a Latina journalist. “I told him about the time when I was working with a white colleague on a story and we went to interview a high-ranking city hall source. When the source saw me, he looked at my white colleague and told him, “did you bring your beautiful girlfriend to this interview for us to meet her?”
Another time, said Fernandez, she had to spend 15 minutes with a source giving him a history of her credentials. “At the end of those 15 minutes he asked the question he really wanted: `so are you Spanish?’ I said no. I’m Mexican. And tried to move the conversation forward,” she said.
Fernandez then asked her editor if he had ever been in these kinds of situations. “I told him because of who I am and what I look like, I have to explain myself. And I have to navigate those situations without getting mad because at the end of the day, regardless of what those sources said to me, I still need the information,” she stated.
In the end, journalists are the ones filling minds with information, said Concepcion. “But your newsroom leaders don’t step foot into the communities they serve. I wanted to do a story about the rise in police-involved shootings, but they didn’t want me to do it,” she said. “There’s a disconnect between news leaders and the community. We need to demand better from our newsroom leaders.”
Since leaving journalism, Concepcion created a Facebook group, the Toxic Leadership Forum, where she offers advice and encouragement for those who are struggling on their jobs. “I’m taking time for myself. I came back to Rochester and lost 15 pounds. I’m now taking care of myself and it feels great,” she said.
Anna is currently is a freelance digital writer for a website that caters to African-American millennials. “I still want to be a writer. I’m interested in returning to television, but not local news,” she said. “This is the first time I’ve ever said this publicly: I stepped out on faith without a game plan. I’m coming up on two months of looking for a job.”
In the end, you can’t put a price tag on happiness, said Anna. “You can’t sell your soul for a paycheck. I’m 26 years old. We have so any fears of not being able to pay bills, but you will get creative and hustle to get that money,” she said. “I do well, I sleep well, I have a social life and balance.”
All three journalists offered advice for people in color in similar work situations. “Make sure you stand up for what you believe in and the stories you believe in. Demand better from newsroom leaders. Do it for yourself and for the journalists to come,” said Concepcion. “Stay true to yourself, and know that it’s ok to feel and to cry. I’m 33 and I have my whole life ahead of me.”
Journalists need to work but shouldn’t have to put up with nonsense for a paycheck, said Anna. “My mother worked at her one job for 33 years and retired. She said there were many times she wanted to quit, and that she loved me more for being able to quit,” she said.
Fernandez was blunt. “My advice to any young reporter of color is to be twice as good as a white reporter and expect less recognition. Once you come to terms with those two basic facts, things will become easier,” said Fernandez. “Find a good support system, friends, family and mentors. Mentors are crucial, they help you master your craft, but also navigate difficult racially sensitive situations inside the newsroom.”
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Benét J. Wilson is the founder and owner of Aviation Queen LLC, a freelance writing, multimedia and consulting firm. She is an aviation/travel freelance journalist and blogger who has written for publications and blogs including AirwaysNews.com, CrankyFlier.com, ACI-NA Centerlines magazine, Aviation International News, Airport World, the Airline Passenger Experience magazine and the Runway Girl Network. She currently serves on the board of the Online News Association, where she chairs the Diversity Committee. She is also vice president-digital for the National Association of Black Journalists. She is the editor-in-chief of AllDigitocracy.org.