IS THAT A FACT?
Who are journalism's new gatekeepers?
Season 1 Episode 6
About The Episode
Our guest this week is Rebecca Aguilar, a multiple Emmy award-winning reporter who recently became the first Latina president-elect of the Society of Professional Journalists. Our host spoke to Aguilar about how the gatekeeping role of journalists has been altered by the internet and social media, what’s been lost, but also what’s been gained. They also discussed the need for greater diversity in American newsrooms and what needs to be done to achieve it.
In her 39 years in journalism Aguilar has worked in Toledo, Chicago, Corpus Christi, San Antonio, Phoenix, Los Angeles and Dallas. Today she is a freelance reporter and consultant. She is also the social media columnist for Latina Style Magazine, a national publication. When Rebecca is not working on a story, she is leading two of the largest Latina groups on Facebook. “Latinas in Journalism” has close to 2,000 Latina journalists who have found a place online to network, share advice and find work. Rebecca also created “Wise Latinas Linked” in 2009 for Latinas of all backgrounds. Today, that networking group consists of more than 9,000 members.
Darragh Worland: Welcome back to Is that a fact? the all-new podcast brought to you by the nonprofit News Literacy Project. I’m your host, Darragh Worland. Today, for the sixth episode of our series on the impact of misinformation on democracy, we talk to Rebecca Aguilar, a seven-time Emmy award-winning TV news reporter based in Texas. She just recently became the first-ever Latina president-elect of the Society of Professional Journalists, the oldest and most broad-based journalism organization in the country. In her 39 years in journalism, Aguilar has worked at news organizations in Toledo, Chicago, Corpus Christi, San Antonio, Phoenix, Los Angeles and Dallas. Today Aguilar is a freelance reporter and consultant. She is also the social media columnist for Latina Style magazine, a national publication.
We wanted to talk to Aguilar about how the gatekeeping function of journalists has been altered by the internet and social media. When she began her career almost 40 years ago, professional journalists were solely responsible for controlling the flow of information, funneling their chosen stories into our living rooms and kitchens through TV network news programs, radio stations and on the pages of newspapers and magazines. Today, that funnel has turned into a firehose as the floodgates have opened and anyone can be a publisher, allowing all of us to like, share and amplify whatever news or information we deem worthy of attention. We talked to Aguilar about what’s been lost, but also what’s been gained by having so many more voices contributing to our public dialogue.
Rebecca, you’ve been a reporter for almost 40 years now. What have been the most significant changes that you’ve seen in the information landscape since you started out in the business, particularly when it comes to the gatekeeping function of journalism?
Rebecca Aguilar: Changes since 1981, that’s when I started, is obviously social media, the internet and the cell phone. It has not only changed the way we gather news, but the way we put it out there. And let me just say, it’s quick, we get information right away. We try to turn it around, make sense for our listeners, our viewers, our readers, but at the same time, those three things have pushed out false information. Because suddenly, everyone’s a citizen journalist, suddenly everybody’s a witness with their phone. I think those are the three things that have changed our business for the better. But at the same time, it’s put us on our toes, many journalists on their toes, a lot more.
Worland: When you say on their toes, what do you mean? Like in a good way?
Aguilar: Oh yeah. I mean, first of all, as journalists, we should be on our toes all the time. Because people are always pitching ideas, or conspiracies, or theories, or inventions, you name it, they’re throwing it at us. And they try to get at us any way they can. Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Snapchat, you name it. So we have to be on our toes all the time to find out, OK, is this something I need to look into? Or is this someone that’s trying to pull me in, in order for me to push their agenda? We have to be alert at all times. It’s different from when I started in 1981, where we have the newspaper, the radio, on the television, and that was about it. And you were able to get it on the six o’clock news. I didn’t have to worry about anyone throwing it on, and saying, “Hey, breaking,” on Twitter.
But now it makes me even more alert. I’m not saying that back in 1981 or in the ’90s or the 2000s, I wasn’t alert, but I didn’t have all these darts of information being thrown at me. And I have to figure out quickly what is for real, and what is false, and what is basically – now we know – created propaganda. So yeah, as journalists, we should always be on our toes, but even more today.
Worland: Right. You mentioned the term citizen journalist and at NLP, we deliberately stay away from that term. We actually have a lesson on our Checkology virtual classroom that we call “citizen watchdog” and deliberately not using the term journalists. What do you think of citizen journalists, and that term, and their role as a professional journalist yourself?
Aguilar: Well, first of all, I also don’t consider citizens journalists, unless they’ve gone through the training I’ve been through, and they’ve gone through the experience. They call themselves citizens journalists, but I like the term citizens watchdog because they are the ones that, for example, brought us the issue of Mr. Floyd dying in front of our eyes. And so they are watchdogs. You know, it’s the public with open eyes and ears, and they’re willing to bring us in or share information. I think the public that’s out there with their phone, writing things, taking pictures, they’re important, because they have taken us to places that we’re not there. Mr. Floyd, what happened to him? We weren’t there. You know, this is happening and someone’s getting video. I covered the L.A. riots back in the ’90s, and I remember that video of Rodney King.
That was the beginning. I mean, here’s somebody on his patio with his video camera, and it was kind of blurry, but we saw what was happening to Rodney King. He was being beaten. He was a citizen who finally realized, “Oh my gosh, I’m catching something that maybe no one would believe unless it’s on video.”
Worland: For listeners who may not be familiar with this, in 1991 George Holliday, a civilian, shot the footage Rebecca’s referring to on his Sony Handycam, and then it was broadcast on news stations across the country. And it’s said to have gone so-called viral in the pre-internet era.
Aguilar: The public is very important. As long as they are telling the truth, not a manipulated video, not some meme with some information that’s total lies, the public is important. Good journalists have to be on their toes to make sure that the public is sharing the truth. Because we know there’s some people out there where they throw something out there, we grab it like a hungry little bear eating fish. Yeah. We grab it and we put it out there. Oh, look, look. And then suddenly we realized, oh my gosh, that’s a photo from, you know, 2001, or that was manipulated, taken out of context. Again, if you’re going to be a lazy journalist, you’re going lose your career because you didn’t dig deep. But again, as real journalists, we need to double and triple check that nothing is a lie.
Worland: Absolutely. So like the onus of doing the vetting is on the journalist, which it always has been.
Aguilar: Always and always should be. There are people out there hoping that we will grab something and it’ll end up in the Washington Post or ABC News. And then what happens? We can’t be in a frenzy to beat each other to the deadline or to get it out there first. I would rather be last than fail, because all that hurts your credibility as a journalist, hurts your company. Understand some of these can end up in lawsuits, so it is our job to vet.
Worland: So are you saying that even though in some ways we’re all gatekeepers of information, that the ultimate gatekeeping is still done by, or in the hands of, journalists?
Aguilar: Yes. And their bosses. You know, it’s one thing, me having a story. It’s another thing that my boss is my extra eyes and ears. If you’re a journalist right now, and you don’t have somebody looking over your work, for everything from grammar, punctuation, to making sure they’re double-checking, “Where’d you get this information? Who’s your source?” Even if it’s what we call the deep throat source, from what they called in the Watergate era, that person that you can’t reveal their name, but the bottom line is you need to be vetted. Your bosses, even if you’re a freelancer, they should be asking those extra questions, taking the time. Because in the end, it just takes one piece of information that’s wrong, or a photo. And not only do you hurt yourself and your company, but you’re hurting all other journalists because you know – you know the audiences right now – they’re quick to call us fake news.
It can’t be news if it’s fake, but they’re quick to use that terminology. So yes, it’s on all of us, our bosses. You know, what I loved about working at a TV station is that I had several layers before it got on TV. It had to pass the test and it was frustrating sometimes, it would drive me nuts. But again, they’re asking that question, “Where did you get this? How do you know? This or that.” It’s important. I mean, I was trained well. Was it frustrating as a reporter because I hate being questioned? Yes. But in the end I’ve never been sued.
Worland: So would you say that opening up of access to information, the ability to disseminate information through social media, the internet, do you think it’s been a good thing or a bad thing for democracy? Or would you kind of say it’s a mixed bag?
Aguilar: For democracy? Hmm. Wow. That’s a good question. Here’s the thing. You’re going to look at democracy differently than me. Every individual out there that’s listening to this is going to look at it different. Let’s talk about the information that’s put out there, whether it’s politics, it’s COVID, if I’m able to get the truth out of it, am I able to learn from it? That to me is a service to all of us. Every person that for example, reads a piece of information, hears a piece of information, sees a piece of information, as long as it’s truthful I think that you feel that you are in a time where you will get a fair chance to look at everything with a clear vision. Does that make sense?
Worland: Yeah, I guess in, in other words, it’s more voices, more voices being expressed, more voices being represented.
Aguilar: Yeah, exactly. And you bring up a good point. You know, before social media, before our cell phones, before the internet, it really was a white person’s version to be honest with you. Even in television news, even in radio, and even the newspaper, it’s what the white community fed us. It’s not like the Latina had a voice. It’s not like the African American man had a voice. The beauty about social media is that everybody has a voice. If they don’t like something, because you know, suddenly you’re treated like the help or someone gives you side-eye because you’re a Mexican, you have a voice. But when it comes to journalists, we also have a voice that before, back in the day in ’81 and the ’90s, I didn’t.
Unless you were anointed by one of the white bosses, your voice wasn’t heard. Maybe you were represented in the newsroom, but your voice wasn’t heard – our ideas, pitching a story about someone in the communities of color. But I now have a voice as a Latina. And so social media has given everybody a voice, but when it comes to journalists, it’s given us – I don’t know if a fair playing field – but it has given us a place where we can say, “Hear my point of view as a journalist.”
Worland: As far as social media is concerned with everybody having a voice, is there a downside to that though, as well?
Aguilar: Of course. I try to find the good. Obviously, there’s haters on there, and so many fake accounts. I mean, you can’t imagine how many fake accounts I run into, but especially haters. They hate you because you’re a woman. They hate you because you’re a journalist. They hate you because you’re Hispanic. They hate you because you’re a person of color. There’s so much hate out there, but there’s so much good that I also see. And so, yeah, of course there’s a downside. There’s a downside to everything. Social media is great because it has given people a voice, but on the other hand, you know, there’s always going to be people who are just shady, and they’re going to use it to try to bring other people down.
Worland: And then obviously there’s just the spread of misinformation. Obviously much has been made of that on social media, it’s facilitated the spread of so much mis- and disinformation, which has made your job harder, I would imagine.
Aguilar: It does, but at the same time, I think it’s given us journalists an opportunity to teach people what to look out for. I have a group on Facebook called Wise Latinas Linked. It has about 9,000 women – 9,000. And every day, I try to educate them on what to look for. You know, I tell them, “Hey, when you look at a story that you post here, look at who wrote it, look up their LinkedIn, Google them. And if you don’t find them and you write them where they’re writing and, “Tell me where you went to college.” Find out more, be your own investigator. So we have a job as journalists to teach others, the public, how you get through all that garbage to the truth. And all it is, is doing a little research. And let me tell you something, because this is from my own group of 9,000 women: They appreciate it. They want to be better news consumers, whether on the radio, on television, digital or print. But we as journalists need to teach them, need to show them the tools that we do.
Worland: I want to talk about that actually in more detail, because you’re getting at an important part of being a news consumer, and that is understanding what really separates unvetted information from quality journalism like the kind you practice, and what other professional journalism’s practice, and knowing how to recognize it when you see it. Can you shed light on the process of reporting for our listeners? Because I think a lot of news consumers don’t understand the amount of legwork that goes into vetting a story and thoroughly reporting a story.
Aguilar: First of all, I think that your listeners have to understand every day, people are throwing story ideas at us from everywhere you can think of – emails, social media, you name it. And when I look at a story, when something grabs my attention, I ask myself a few questions: “First of all, why should we care? Not me – we – all of us. What am I going to learn from it? How is our story going to make a difference?” Those are key. I ask those. Also, “Who’s behind the story, the source? Legit or not?” I mean, I go through all these questions right away. And so once I do a story, the first thing I do is a lot of research. I may have a few hours. Like they may want it by six o’clock tonight, but believe me, I’m going to dig deep, and I’m going to ask a lot of questions. And one of the things I don’t do, and I’m sure I’ve had bosses that didn’t like this, I’m not going to go with anything that can come back and bite me in the ass.
Worland: What do you mean by that?
Aguilar: Well, that someone comes back and says, “You didn’t get my side of the story.” Or that someone comes back and said, “Did you do your homework on him, because he just got out of prison? You know, he’s crazy.” And I’m like, OK. That’s why I always think, how can this come back and affect my reputation, the reputation of the company I’m representing? That’s important. So go with your gut. Everybody has that inside where it doesn’t feel right. Something doesn’t feel right. The best reporters are always curious, always curious, and they have the courage to go forward.
Worland: So you’ve talked about the value and the importance of your reputation as a journalist and the reputation of the news organizations you work for. And yet, trust in news media is at its lowest ever. Why do you think trust in news media has fallen so considerably?
Aguilar: Obviously, it doesn’t help that the president is constantly attacking us. I mean, I think that’s been the worst that I’ve seen in my 39 years. I’ve never seen anybody attack us so viciously with such lies. Of course, you’re going to have your supporters as Mr. Trump has, but you know, he can be very vicious and malicious. And so how do you fight that? You just have to figure out a way to persuade people that you are not the person, or you are not in a news business that he describes. I mean, we can’t all be his cheerleaders, like Fox news. We can’t. On the other hand, I’m not saying that we should all be also trying to take down President Trump. We should just be reporting what he does and how he does it. But when I step aside as a journalist I look at the whole picture of the way he mistreats and disrespects us, when we’re just doing our jobs.
I personally have not seen a decline like I’ve seen probably in the past eight, 10 years. I don’t know, before that I didn’t see it. And understand I went through it in the ’90s and the 2000s. This is the worst.
Worland: And where do you think that’s coming from?
Aguilar: And well, today, I mean a lot of it has to do with – I hate to say this – President Trump. You know, suddenly he, he comes up with this fake news terminology and they’re chanting it and they’re saying it out there. It’s very difficult when you hear … I’ve never been attacked as a journalist you know, with fake news and all that kind of stuff. And I’ve covered when Mr. Trump has come to Dallas. And I see all the Trump supporters there, and I treat them with respect. They treat me with respect, but I think there’s a lot of people who don’t trust in us because he has put it out there. He has, you know I hate to say this, but he has poisoned the minds out there. My job is still try to get through them and get to the facts. But yeah, I’ve seen a real, real decline and loss of trust since he’s taken office.
Worland: Do you think that that hostility is affecting the role of journalism in democracy?
Aguilar: No. We’re always going to have challenges. It hasn’t changed journalism. It just makes us more aware of obviously the hate out there. But you know, we’re always going to have hate. I mean, how many times have people not liked you because they didn’t like the story you put on television, on the radio or in digital? There’s always going to be there. As they always say, we don’t run from the fire, we run towards it.
Worland: I think a lot of journalists also get that hate directed at them like on social media. And that becomes even a challenge to the work that they do.
Aguilar: I mean, it’s like a police officer. Some people love them. Some people don’t. If you can’t take the heat, if you can’t take the criticism, if you can’t take the hate, and you can’t take that challenge, then get out of the business, go get a banking job, be safe. You know, my job is to get information and yeah, there’s going to be people who are ugly towards me for being a journalist, but you know, it doesn’t help very much when you’re a woman and a Latina. Add that to it. So, you learn, maybe I learned differently because you know, I’ve had challenges my entire life.
Worland: So you were recently elected president-elect of the Society of Professional Journalists and you’re the first Latina and the first woman of color to be in that position. So it’s obviously well documented that newsrooms across the country have a diversity problem, and it’s something you’ve referenced in this interview. And yet there’s been wide acknowledgement in the business that a more diverse newsroom helps organizations lead to deeper and more insightful stories. In your experience, have there been times when you’ve found coverage lacking because of this, either within the news organization you’re working at, or as a news consumer?
Aguilar: All the time – 39 years I’ve been seeing it. Yes. There’s lack of people of diverse backgrounds in newsrooms. I mean, you can walk into several newsrooms today, and you’ll be lucky if you find someone who’s Black or Latino, or maybe you’ll find one. In most newsrooms, other than in Dallas and maybe Los Angeles, most newsrooms, I was usually the only Hispanic. And someone had to wait, whether I got fired or I moved on to another job. I mean, I wouldn’t say I was a token. I was the only one and same thing with African Americans.
Worland: What do you think the barriers are? Like, what is keeping those newsrooms from being more diverse?
Aguilar: White people who, I mean, you’re asking me.
Worland: I know, tell me.
Aguilar: The barrier is a white person. Yeah. The barrier is a white person who doesn’t think out of their white box, who feels more comfortable being around their own. So the barrier has been white people with no open mind. But I will say this: There are many, many people who are not people of color, who have opened their eyes and they speak the truth. You know, they want diversity. They are making it happen. I always say that diversity is a word that makes white people feel warm and fuzzy. But when I hear the word diversity, it says lip service. Here we come, lip service. That’s what it is. And so the barrier has been closed-minded white people. The only thing I want to say is this, is that I want every news boss out there to examine the people leading your newsroom. If you don’t have diversity, add diversity.
And if you’re going to add a diverse voice, don’t add someone who’s going to tell you what you want to hear. You need someone that needs to tell you everything that’s honest. And sometimes it’s pushback. And if you’re going to plug diversity and inclusion, mean it, because let me tell you if it’s just fake, if you’re just doing it to look good for HR, we’re going to see right through it. And don’t make false promises.
Worland: I think there’s an impression that there’s a correction underway, but from what you’re saying, it sounds like that correction hasn’t really happened. Like that there’s recruiting that’s happening for more diverse candidates for reporting jobs-
Worland: And editorial jobs.
Aguilar: I’ve been hearing that my entire career, come on. You know, right now it’s because Mr. Floyd died and suddenly there have been many white managers who woke up and it was like, “What? You mean Black people have been feeling pain? Latinos have been feeling like they didn’t belong?” Yeah. Wake up. There are people, who are again, white… And by the way, my husband’s white. So I have nothing against white people, because my husband’s white. But you know, suddenly they’re trying to remedy all the racism and, and all the unconscious bias and they have labels for everything. Look, wake up people. It’s sad that Mr. Floyd had to die to change the landscape in journalism. But here’s the thing. If it hasn’t been resolved in the 39 years that I’ve been in the media, it’s not going to be resolved. It’s not going to be solved.
It’s not going to be taken care of overnight. It’s not. The beauty of today… And here’s what I’m going to say about the Society of Professional Journalists, OK?, because they helped me break a big barrier. In fact, right now there’s three Latinos, on the elected board of six – three. The woman that’s next to me, Ivette Dávila-Richards, who’s secretary-treasurer, she also broke a barrier – second Latina, a woman of color in that position. But what that tells you about the Society of Professional Journalists is that this organization is predominantly white. And if I got 62% of the vote, it was not people of color. It was the white people who said, “We need change and we believe Rebecca can lead us there.” And I am so honored because that’s where it starts.
Worland: I want to wrap up with some advice that you might have. So, what advice do you have for Americans who might be skeptical or even cynical about news media, whether it’s because they feel that they’re not accurately represented or because, you know, they’re buying the whole sort of fake news accusations against news media. What do you think they need to hear in order to start to trust the media again?
Aguilar: Well, a couple of things that I want to give advice to everybody out there, because they do have social media, and they do have an email address, and they do have a telephone. You can pick it up. If you don’t see your stories, you being represented, whether you’re a white female or an African American gay man, pick up the phone, shoot an email to the news agency and ask why not. “Why aren’t my stories being told? How come I’m just seeing the consistency of these stories?” Give them a story idea. You have a job, too. I can’t, as a journalist, solve everything. But if you’re the public that can help me, say, “Look, I want to do this story about this 102-year-old Latina who voted for the hundredth time,” or whatever. Tell me about it. And if you think we’re not telling your stories, complain about it, because let me tell you, I remember in TV news, they said one letter represented 10,000 people. And I always knew that in my head, you get one letter that represents 10,000 people, 10,000 viewers. So write a letter, have your voice heard, use it.
Worland: Right. So you’re not saying complain with a hashtag on Twitter or Facebook. You’re saying reach out to the news organization directly.
Aguilar: Yes. I mean, it’s OK to complain, but complain with a purpose.
Aguilar: If you’re going to complain, just say, “Hey, I see Joe Schmo, you’re the news director at the local ABC affiliate. How come I’m not seeing stories about Latinos during Hispanic heritage month? What’s going on? I don’t see any, please explain.” And they’re going to answer you on Twitter or not. And if they don’t answer you, then go find their email and say, “Hey look, I sent you a Twitter thing.” Or I used to sometimes say, “Hey, why are you ignoring me?” I will. Because the bottom line is, you’re the media. You want transparency? Then sure as hell be transparent, answer questions. Secondly, I always tell people out there, “You know, get over this fake news stuff. I mean, first of all, it’s not news if it’s fake, all right? There’s no such thing.”
But if you believe it’s fake news or whatever, do your research, whether you believe in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Univision, Telemundo, BET. You know, there’s a lot of independent people, Roland Martin. Find people that you can believe in. Do your research. See if they’re legit, are they being paid by the Republican party, the Democrat party, the Independent party? Find out, do your own research. I remember back in 1981, I don’t even know how I found stories back then now that we have all this. So I just say, “Don’t lay it all on us as journalists. Do your own research. Be your own person, be independent. Don’t just lean on us. Be smart. So when you’re talking and having coffee – the days we can get back together at Starbucks and you’re chatting – you will sound like the person that really knows your stuff. Not the person that just grabs every meme and shares it.”
Worland: It sounds a bit like you’re saying people need to learn to think and act more like journalists.
Aguilar: No, they don’t have to be journalists. What they need to do … What I’m saying is just be smart people. Just be smart about things. Don’t be swayed by other people’s thoughts and other people’s ideas. You have your own mind. You have your own thought process. You know, what I think as a Latina growing up with immigrant parents is going to be different from you, but at least I will look at it a certain way. And when I want to express myself, I will do it in that way too. So I’m just saying to the people out there, be smart, be independent thinkers, and you don’t want to share anything that ends up being a lie, and then people won’t trust you. And today it’s about honesty and trust. You don’t have that, you don’t have crap.
Worland: Thanks for listening. We’ve been talking to Rebecca Aguilar about the gatekeeping role of journalists in American democracy. Next week, we’ll talk to Gilbert Bailon, editor-in-chief of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, about why we should care about the loss of local news outlets in towns and cities across the country and what we can do about it.
“Is that a fact?” is a production of the News Literacy Project, a nonpartisan education nonprofit helping educators, students and the general public become news literate so they can be active consumers of news and information, so they can become active consumers of news and information and equal and engaged and equal and engaged participants in a democracy. Alan Miller is our founder and CEO. I’m your host, Darragh Worland. Our executive producer is Mike Webb. Our editor is Timothy Cramer, and our theme music is by Erin Busch. To learn more about the News Literacy Project, go to newslit.org.