Also underscores need for more bilingual reporters
It’s been a little over a week since I wrote about the Houston Chronicle’s culturally insensitive coverage of Houston Astros player Carlos Gomez, when sports columnist Brian T. Smith quoted Gomez verbatim in broken English. The piece has generated a lot of discussion and a bit of controversy (as evidenced by the fact that this site was attacked, unsuccessfully, by hackers), as well as an apology from the Chronicle (though Smith himself has been notably silent about the incident).
Houston Chronicle editor Nancy Barnes told Journal-isms: “With regards to quoting Carlos Gomez: We sincerely apologize for any offense that was taken. Our writers are encouraged to adhere to AP style rules… I reviewed the rules myself after this arose and found the guidelines on quotes to be less than adequate… I’ve asked some top editors to review this policy, research best practices, and recommend guidance for all of our writers in the future. We always want to be respectful of those we are interviewing.”
The Chronicle’s apology, however, falls flat, as it’s a classic non-apology. Barnes says the paper is sorry “for any offense that was taken,” as opposed to perhaps saying: “We’re sorry for the offense we caused with our actions.” The latter indicates a willingness to take responsibility for harm caused instead of deflecting blame onto those who were offended and the inadequate AP guidelines.
It’s worth noting, as Richard Prince at Journal-isms did, that sports columnist Jose de Jesus Ortiz had left the Chronicle just a month before the incident. Ortiz is bilingual and had been covering major league baseball for the better part of two decades. This is crucial context for the blunder, because it tangibly shows just how important it is to have a diverse newsroom, and reporters who are culturally reflective of the people they’re covering.
As Hugo Balta, a senior director with ESPN, has noted here previously, being bilingual is necessary to storytelling, especially when sharing information with growing Hispanic audiences. “There certainly is a distinct way to speak to Latinos in English that the media needs to apply,” Balta said. “I think the bilingual approach is one that covers the whole market because it is reflective of the majority of households in the United States.”
Some of the most lively discussion around my piece has been generated by the fact that I happen to be a white journalist. It’s a point that was raised when I appeared on ESPN’s Max y Marly podcast, as well as by Prince. The idea that racial and cultural diversity in newsrooms is just an issue that matters to people of color is dangerous. As white reporters, we should hope to be as accurate as possible in our reporting. Diversifying newsrooms is a matter of journalism ethics, and should matter to all of us. it leads to better journalism all around. And as white people who may be covering people of color in our stories, it’s on us to do the extra leg work to be as culturally competent as possible when doing our jobs. That, too, is a matter of ethics.
But the fact that there has been so much discussion about the issue means that, hopefully, things will start to change. The Chronicle has committed to reviewing their policy, researching best practices, and recommending guidance for all of their writers, as Barnes told Journal-isms. I can only hope that other publications will follow suit, and along with being more culturally sensitive in their reporting, will truly commit to diversifying their newsroom — as opposed to just paying it lip service.