Journalists or advocates?
Reporters navigate space between objectivity and desire to help
A young mother hasn’t slept in several days. Her husband awaits deportation. She’s been looking for work, but with three small children, no driver’s license or social security number, it all leads to a dead end.
As money trickles and food runs low, she makes a desperate, last-ditch effort and sends a Facebook message to the one person she thinks can help:
Local journalist Mario Guevara.
Guevara is a reporter for MundoHispanico, Georgia’s most circulated free Spanish-language newspaper. The weekly publication covers social issues facing the immigrant community and current affairs. For years, Guevara has used social media to raise awareness on issues that don’t always make the news.
Hours after the her message, hundreds of comments extending assistance flood Guevara’s Facebook post, offering the young mother food, clothing, daycare — and most importantly, a job.
The role of advocacy in journalism has long been debated. Journalists are instructed on the importance of unbiased reporting. Reporters are expected to write to inform, not sway, their readers.
In the Spanish-language world of news, however, journalists tend to juggle their duties in a gray area between professional detachment and social responsibility. They speak to an audience that looks to media for education, empowerment and transparency.
For Latinos living on the outskirts of Atlanta, Guevara has become an advocate for their struggles. Where organizations and charities have failed, Guevara has used social media to reach more than 100,000 followers to connect those in need with those willing to help.
Guevara researches and verifies each assistance request. He is aware that too easily his willingness to lend a hand could be misconstrued. He maintains professional distance by never touching funds directly. His role extends no further than telling his subjects’ story and helping them connect with those willing to help.
However Guevara understands what it’s like to be in their shoes.
In 2012, the veteran reporter found himself the subject of the news. As he covered immigration policy, he also anxiously awaited a resolution to his own predicament. Guevara entered the U.S. with a tourist visa in 2004 and shortly after submitted a petition for asylum on the basis of the multiple death threats he received related to his work as a journalist in his native El Salvador.
As a photojournalist for La Prensa Grafica, Guevara reported on gang violence, government corruption, and the inability of the police to maintain peace. He was physically assaulted several times. When his family was similarly threatened, he knew it was time to leave his country.
Pointing to a picture above his desk at the headquarters of MundoHispanico (a division of the Atlanta Journal Constitution), Guevara recalls an ambush that cemented that decision.
“I look at it all the time,” Guevara said. “It’s a reminder of the risks I’ve taken and the risks I’d take again to tell the truth.”
In June 2012, the reporter’s petition for asylum was denied. Guevara and his family had 60 days to leave the country. Word spread quickly. The people he advocated for quickly established campaigns and circulated petitions. And newspapers around the nation reported on his plight.
With their help, his deportation was halted.
Over the past decade, he’s become one of the most well-known Spanish-speaking journalists in Georgia. Now that his immigration woes have ended, Guevara continues to investigate corruption and abuse in immigration detention centers, among other issues.
Guevara hopes that his work will help spark a conversation between law enforcement and the immigrant community. Long term, he wants it to create measurable change.
Maria Elena Salinas, national co-anchor for Noticiero Univision and Aquí y Ahora, has been fighting a similar fight on a national scale since the early ’80s. The broadcaster has been with the Spanish-language network since its inception and has received numerous awards for her role as a journalist and advocate.
“I don’t consider myself an activist but at the same time I’ve always thought that our role in Spanish-language media is the empowerment of Latinos,” Salinas said. “I think our audience has an additional set of needs besides the average American audience.”
The Lifetime Achievement Emmy Award-winning anchor doesn’t consider her brand of journalism an act of political opinion. The veteran anchor thinks that “telling someone’s story and reporting on the truth, reporting on the abuse and the injustice, is not a bias.”
Salinas, born in Los Angeles to Mexican immigrant parents, knows that Spanish-language networks often serve as tools of assimilation and education for new arrivals.
“We have a unique audience,” she said, “and we want to help them understand their rights and responsibilities.”
She is active in various professional organizations, including the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) and the Hispanic Scholarship Fund (HSF). She also funds her own scholarship for Spanish-language broadcast students through the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ).
Last year, Salinas launched a website that offers a collection of resources for young professionals based on four pillars: Inform, Educate, Inspire and Empower.
The veteran anchor believes that she’s beaten the odds and achieved her goals because of the perseverance and work ethic she acquired from her parents.
“I think it’s time to pass that on and make young people understand their potential, recognize their potential, and,” she adds emphatically, “to appreciate how lucky they are to be Latinos.”
Salinas said the goal of a journalist is to take on an assignment and make a difference in someone’s life.
In her 35 years with Univision, the outspoken anchor has covered major world events, interviewed every U.S. president since Jimmy Carter and even hosted the first-ever bilingual Democratic and Republican presidential candidate forums on the network. She’s reported directly from war zones in the Middle East and interviewed Latin American dictators.
It is clear that Salinas is passionate about stories of everyday immigrants and their struggles to survive in a new country.
“We need to tell their stories,” Salinas said. “We need to put a face and a name behind each one of these immigrants. We need to remind the world that they are real, that they are people, too.
“Because if we don’t, who will?”