What if we are part of the voiceless community?

I hate hypocrites… especially when they’re journalists.

I’ve been a bit disappointed with how some journalists have been writing about Jose Antonio Vargas‘ recent announcement that he is an undocumented immigrant. Many are questioning Vargas’ journalistic credibility because he had to hide his immigration status.

As if journalists – including columnists and editors – have never lied before or broken any laws. (Just think about your college years.)

Jose Antonio VargasLike the communities we cover, newsrooms are filled with sinners and saints… perfectly flawed human beings.

But lies have different degrees, don’t they?

It wasn’t long ago that people had to hide, or lie about, being gay. They had to conceal a part of their true identities to avoid discrimination or to get a job, including one as a reporter.

While they felt forced to hide a part of themselves, something tells me they still made strong journalists and did not lie in their reporting.

If I recall correctly, when the gay marriage issue erupted in San Francisco, The Chronicle pulled a gay photographer off the story because editors assumed a conflict of interest. What Chronicle editors failed to note is that straight people also have opinions about gay marriage that may also pose a conflict of interest.

The bottom line is, as far as I know, Vargas never lied in his stories. And just because he had to hide about being part of a certain community, it doesn’t automatically nullify his journalistic credibility or achievements.

Being a part of a community does not disqualify him as a journalist.

Just like Diane Sawyer, for example, isn’t disqualified as a journalist because she worked in Republican Party politics before, during and after President Nixon’s administration and subsequent resignation. Same as George Stephanopoulos isn’t disqualified after working for President Clinton’s administration.

They are just two of many examples.

What has bothered me the most, really, is how journalists are treating Vargas as “other” … as if his reality is not a common one. As if undocumented immigrants, or illegal aliens or whatever label you use, aren’t part of our communities.

We are all made up of different communities, and these often are the same communities we attempt to cover through our journalism. Some communities we praise, others we tolerate and others go unacknowledged.

I, like many others, believe that a diverse newsroom – comprised of different communities – makes for stronger, more relevant journalism. But the sad reality is that not all communities are seen as equal – or as newsworthy.

Our job is to give voice to the voiceless… but what happens if we are part of the voiceless community?

That’s the position Vargas found himself in. And he, like others from different communities before him, decided to come out and remind people the “other” is really a part of “us.”

About a year ago, I actually wrote a post about this topic, but under advisement from my closest editor I deleted it.

The post was inspired by Harvey Milk‘s powerful message: “You must come out” to give a real face to a community that is under attack. This was around the time of Arizona’s SB1070 bill.

My editor thought my post could be taken out of context and hurt my career.

I don’t know how these words will be taken… and quite frankly, I’ve debated whether or not I should ever publish them… but I hope my editor is not right.

In light of Vargas’ story – one that took more courage to share than my story – I feel that I am obligated to share my experience.

Allow me, however, to frame the reason why I am sharing my story now:

  • I’m not asking for any political action. (Don’t call me an activist.)
  • I’m not trying to ride Vargas’ coattails. (Don’t call me a poser.)

I’m writing this because as journalists we can’t afford to forget that we are part of the “other” … that good journalism is truly inclusive.

I, like everyone else, am part of multiple communities: I am a father, a husband, a renter (former homeowner), college graduate, an educator, a Roman Catholic (but I often disagree with the church) and the son of immigrants from El Salvador.

While my mother entered the country by plane with the right papers, my father entered by crossing the border illegally in the 70s.

He quickly became a U.S. citizen.

But let’s be honest here, the act of an immigrant crossing the border without the right papers in pursuit of a better life often overshadows their accomplishments as legal citizens.

To clarify, I was born a U.S. citizen. But all my success as a person and as a journalist, I owe to my immigrant parents.

My father, like millions of other immigrants, reflects the story of America – whether we want to admit it or not. Coming to this land (by any means necessary) with nothing, working [expletive] hard and making a better life for himself and his family.

For the record, my father graduated at the top of his high school class in El Salvador, which earned him a scholarship to Germany. He worked there, but giving into the request from my mother’s family, he moved to the United States after marrying her.

My father ran several small businesses and was a homeowner for more than 40 years. He lost them in the bad economy, but had relaunched his auto repair shop early last year. He passed away in November and the outpouring of support from the local community was a true testament to his accomplishments. That man helped so many people… I had no idea.

My mother struggled and worked hard in her own immigrant story. She made a small living by cleaning houses and other service jobs, including working at the food court of Cal State University, Northridge. She joined my father as an entrepreneur until they separated.

I can tell you more about their story, but let me just say this: “Their” story is part of “my” story. And “my story” is part of “our” community. And all of that is part of journalism. To shun someone, even a journalist, for owning their story, their community, is bad journalism.

If you invalidate Vargas as a journalist for being an illegal immigrant, you are a journalist in denial thinking that he is not part of your community (the one you are trying to cover).

Again I ask: Our job is to give voice to the voiceless… but what if we are part of the voiceless community?

If you are part of a community that is being attacked or politicized, as a journalist it takes courage to step forward and speak up, not as an activist… but as someone who wants facts to prevail. Not talking points.

I applaud Vargas for his courage. He’s a reminder that the “other” is really within “us.”

Robert Hernandez is a Web Journalism professor at USC Annenberg and co-creator of #wjchat, a weekly chat for Web Journalists held on Twitter. You can contact him by e-mail ([email protected]) or through Twitter (@webjournalist). Yes, he’s a tech/journo geek.

About Robert Hernandez

Robert Hernandez, aka WebJournalist, is an assistant professor at USC Annenberg. Hernandez has been working in Web journalism for more than a decade. He has worked for seattletimes.com, SFGate.com, eXaminer.com, La Prensa Gr


  1. This is an outstanding column and i agree with your take on this. Latino journalists and media are often called into question for not being “objective”. I wonder if other journalists or media don

  2. says:

    Beautifully put, Robert. Thanks for reminding us that the “other” is within “us.”

  3. says:

    Robert, thank you so much for your thoughtful column. Sadly, I believe this immigration debate has gotten so ugly that journalist too are taking sides — whether they want to acknowledge it or not. There are journalists out there who want to invalidate a person’s achievements based on legal status. For them, once a person is “illegal” nothing that they do matters. And they pretend to be “objective” in the discussion, which is the saddest part of it all.

    I would really like to see like minded journalist push for the removal of the term “illegal” from the newsroom. Words are powerful, and until this debate becomes more civil, eliminates all pejorative terms from the lingo, little is going to get done. We have been led to believe that “illegal” is neutral, when in reality, it’s become an insult that’s tolerated and bandied about to further criminalize a group of people. We don’t write “spic” or, God-forbid, the “n” word. Why then, do we tolerate a word many consider offensive?