A conversation with Jose Antoni Vargas: Minority in the Newsroom
I was fortunate to have been part of a discussion with Jose Antonio Vargas facilitated by Professor Christina Bellantoni. I learnt that Jose Antoni Vargas is the founder of the nonprofit “Define American”, a Pulitzer prize winning journalist, along with that a film-maker and an author. His book, “Dear America” focusses his personal journey in the US. He says he did not focus on the “immigration reform aspect of it” but the “mental health” aspect of it. He also shared with us that someone gave his book to President Donald Trump two weeks ago but is unafraid of what could be the consequences of that.
Vargas toyed with the idea of becoming a journalist because his English teacher told him he asked too many annoying questions. In 1997, his license got turned down, however he researched his way through ensuring he is able to get one.
Vargas stressed the importance of mentorship in the field of journalism. He was mentored very early on by Ernest Smith, former Professor at Annenberg. He owes the idea of his first internship at the Washington Post to her.
During the conversation, we learnt of an interesting incident that led to Vargas becoming a political editor. In 2007, Hilary Clinton announced that she is running for President on YouTube. At the time, no senior political editor was equipped with social media tools. Vargas wrote a memo outlining what platforms such as YouTube and Facebook could do to politics and directly sent it to the boss of his boss. The fact that he voiced his views to senior authorities in the organization led him to becoming political editor.
Vargas has also always been a minority in the newsroom. He emphasizes that how the media covers certain issues in this country would be different if the newsroom was more diverse. He partnered with the Norman Leader Center to study media and people of color only to find that: 90% of young white people have predominantly white friends, 75% of young white people live in white towns. The only time you’d probably be interacting with a person of color would be through media. However, the diversity in the media today doesn’t allow for this to happen.
Vargas believes that the media industry needs to change and evolve. Journalists tend to forget that local news is the largest source of information for the people, but most often news is nationalized today. He urges budding journalists to take a moment before covering a story to decide what experience you are taking a reader into and how the story wants to be told. Given the times today, news reporting could in the form of films, podcasts and articles amongst many more.
This conversation with Antonio Vargas left me deeply interested in his work and I look forward to getting my hands on his book “Dear America” very soon.