Cross Cultural Reporting

Published on
July 6, 2010

Sharon Salyer, a veteran reporter for an English-language newspaper, and Alejandro Dominguez, a rookie reporter for a Spanish-language publication serving the same region, joined forces to report the award-winning series "Alone Among Us," which examined mental health in the Hispanic community. In this essay, you'll hear from both Sharon and Alejandro about what they learned from each other and how to create mainstream-ethnic media collaborations to improve your coverage of community health issues.

Sharon Salyer's Story

Alejandro Dominguez' Story

Sharon Salyer's Story:

We were the journalistic "Odd Couple" in so many ways - our backgrounds, our experience, our approach to reporting and the needs of our publications were all very different. I work for an English-language daily newspaper. My collaborator, Alejandro Dominguez, works for a Spanish-language weekly. (See Alejandro's perspective below.)

We were brought together as a team to produce "Alone Among Us,"  a series on Hispanic mental health. It's the kind of collaboration that makes so much sense for both publications as readerships become increasingly diverse.

Looking back, though, it was almost prescient that the ring tone on Alejandro's cell phone at that time was the theme song from "Mission Impossible." Neither of us really knew just how difficult our assignment would be.

Mental health is always a difficult topic to write about. While standards for acceptable behavior have been stretched in so many ways - from Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" on live TV to knowing more than any of us probably have the right to know about Tiger Woods' dalliances - some stigmas remain deeply ingrained.

One of them is the stigma of mental illness. In some cultures, this stigma and shame is even greater. To many Hispanics, calling someone "loco" - crazy - isn't just a mere slam, it's an insult.

And even though many potential interview subjects we talked to understood - and even enthusiastically endorsed - the need for stories on the topic, they just couldn't bring themselves to publicly disclose their experience with depression or other mental health problems.

The quest for a personal story

Several months into the project, we had great material from counseling and advocacy groups on the personal and family pressures of first-and second-generation immigrants. What we lacked were the personal stories to drive these themes home, though not for lack of trying.

Eventually, breakthroughs did come. One came at a community meeting discussing instances of prejudice, immigration raids and allegations of racial profiling at traffic stops targeting Hispanics. Alejandro found a woman willing to talk to us about her battles with depression. She gave her approval not only to have her full name used in the story and but also to be photographed.

She had been held in a federal detention facility after an immigration agent found her name on a list of people coming to traffic court. She wanted to talk about her feelings of isolation and desperation she experienced while being incarcerated.

Her story gave people a glimpse of life inside detention centers, a world many people have no knowledge of - separated from the world behind razor wire, high walls and large metal locking doors, living in one large room with dozens of other prisoners with no privacy, sleeping in double bunks, and, as she said, "being a number, not a name."

Yet this also meant that in addition to writing about her mental health issues, we also were forced to grapple with the politically explosive issue of illegal immigration - the "X factor" that increased our problems in reporting the story exponentially.

Her story was so compelling that we planned it as the lead story for what evolved into a three-part series. But as we sought to bring balance and perspective to both her story and the general issue of undocumented or illegal immigration, we were often asked: Is this a story about immigration or mental health? The issues were so inextricably linked that one of the biggest challenges of the story was finding the right balance.

I mentioned in the beginning that Alejandro and I were something of a journalistic odd couple. I work for The Herald, a daily newspaper in Everett, Wa., north of Seattle. Alejandro works for  La Raza del Noroeste, the Spanish-language weekly owned by The Herald that circulates throughout the Puget Sound region.

I have 17 years of experience as a health reporter, part of my more than 30 years experience in journalism. With my blonde hair and blue eyes, I look very Anglo. Yet even before work on the series began, I was aware of the unique emotional pressures that immigrant families face.

A family member has told me of the sink-or-swim reality of living in a Spanish-speaking home but attending school where the classes were only taught in English. And many of the students I've tutored over the past nine years in an after-school program not only speak English as a second language, they have immigrated from war-town nations. One student's father was shot and thrown into a fiery hole by rebels and a relative of hers was murdered. My student watched in terror as soldiers robbed her mother.

Partnering with a new citizen

Alejandro was born in Mexico and taught himself English, at first by watching broadcasts of American cartoons. He was trained as a radio reporter, graduating from the University of Texas at El Paso. He has worked in journalism for about four years. He became an American citizen while working on our project.

People seemed both delighted - and a bit surprised - to see us working together. It's unfortunately all too rare that reporters from traditional and ethnic media outlets get the chance to work together.

Most of the people we interviewed were bilingual. I do not speak Spanish, so for those who were primarily Spanish speakers, I had to rely on Alejandro for translation. I'm sure his fluency made them feel at ease, ensured cultural credibility and helped gain their trust.

In addition to language fluency and understanding of cultural nuances, what Alejandro brought to the project were audio and video skills. They were skills I didn't have time to develop during this project, as I had hoped.

He shot video at the federal detention center. He used his training in broadcast journalism to do bilingual interviews. These bilingual online audio clips, edited by our Internet producer, added important dimension to the project.

We went to all assignments as a team. It was essential to have a colleague nearby whom I always trust for guidance and perspective.  During both our reporting and writing of the project he was someone I could always turn to and ask: What do you think? How should we do this?

While our approach to reporting and the needs of our publications are very different, my philosophy was to focus on the rare reporting opportunity we were given by Fellowship program and what we could accomplish together. 

It is far more difficult to do a collaborative project, especially one that's identical in both publications. For us, that meant writing and editing first in English and then translating it into Spanish.

The end product was worth the extra effort. It wouldn't have happened without two things: the "push" from the USC/California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships and an editor very dedicated to making it happen.

Our editor, Robert Frank, city editor for The Herald, was enthusiastic about the project from the beginning. He seemed to relish the opportunity and the challenge of doing what few other media have done, publishing a collaborative project between mainstream and ethnic media outlets. That enthusiasm, support and guidance helped carry us through the many obstacles we faced in reporting and producing the series.

Collaboration means compromise, and dealing with frustrations. It means working with someone who isn't you and therefore will have different approaches and styles in her or his reporting, researching and writing. Yes, it's often "easier" and most comfortable to work separately. On cross -cultural projects that also means it's more one dimensional, you're missing important perspective.

As our nation grows increasingly diverse, collaboration produces a richer product that deepens understanding among cultures. That's why it's so vital that such projects are encouraged and continue to occur.

Sharon's Cross-Cultural Reporting Tips

Here are some tips for anyone interested in cross-cultural reporting:

1. Focus on the positives. Think about what each person on the team brings to the project. There are people we found and angles we pursed because of the contacts and context the bilingual member of our team brought to the project. We had the luxury of asking bilingual sources which language they preferred to speak in. We had online audio and video clips in both English and Spanish.

2. Be realistic. Know that cross-cultural reporting is something of a journalistic hat trick. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it. The paucity of such projects speaks to its difficulty.

3. Learn to juggle. Working with the reduced staffs that are the new norm for nearly all newsrooms means no one really has the luxury of working just on the project, or even spending the majority of your time working on it. It's hard to juggle the demands of a project with daily reporting. That means you'll probably feel overwhelmed most of the time. I tried to keep momentum with this thought: What one thing can I do today to keep this moving forward? That can be as simple as scheduling an interview or doing online checks for sources and facts. Piece by piece, these small steps can help keep you on track and focused on your larger goal.

4. Digitize. If you don't take notes on a laptop, convert all notes to a computer - quickly - with the date and time they occurred. I've seen so many reporters looking through stacks of notebooks for one specific quote. Computer search functions allow you to find quotes and easily track people's thoughts and feelings over time.

5. Get buy-in from editors. It takes unusual commitment from an editor to take on such a project when they are consumed, just as reporters are, with meeting the next day's deadlines. It means more work for her or him. If two media outlets are involved, make sure everyone's clear on who the designated editor is from start to finish.

6. Collaborate all the time. Collaboration doesn't mean a once-a-week phone call among the reporters. Near-daily conversations need to take place. Keep a list of who's agreed to take on which task so your next meeting doesn't start with the words: "I thought you were going to do that."

7. Build a team. When you're trying to organize a major project, that in and of itself is more than a job. But it's just part of the job. People harp on this point in every journalism conference you go to because it's hard to do: bring in photojournalists, copy editors, graphic artists and online editing and production specialists early in the process.

Alejandro Dominguez' Story:

Image removed.We were an interesting duo. On one side was Sharon Salyer, a reporter with years of experience at The Daily Herald, the daily newspaper for Snohomish County in Western Washington, and who has already won recognition for her work in journalism.

On the other side, me: a reporter with a couple of years of experience at his first job with La Raza del Noroeste, a Herald-owned Spanish weekly newspaper that covers the immigrant community in the same region.

Sharon had the idea of doing a series of stories for both publications about mental health in the Hispanic community. I knew it was an important theme, but I did not know at that time how taboo it really was in the Hispanic community.  

I have family members who openly talked about their depression. My family was the exception to a topic nobody wanted to talk about. Sharon and I submitted this topic and we were selected to participate in The USC/California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships.

This was the beginning of a long arduous uphill trek for the story - a trek that brought me turmoil. This  story affected me personally. The day we witnessed a mother of two being ordered to be deported was the same day I became an American citizen.

When we returned from our Los Angeles fellowship training session, I just could not grasp the importance of the project. I knew it was going to be big; I just did not know how difficult would be to get the information.

Sharon went to her contacts and I went to mine. My contacts ended up giving me the same names that Sharon had: Sea Mar, Consejo and the Pew Center. This showed that Hispanics had few options in getting help for mental health.

It was not hard getting experts or people that provided resources to talk to us. This is the point where Sharon and I diverged in our perspectives, especially because we had different audiences. My readers are mainly Hispanic; some even are illegal immigrants. In a way, I had already some internal conflict. Also, I worried that we could offend some readers by talking about the issue of mental health.

During this time, major changes happened in our newsroom and I became the only reporter for La Raza.  La Raza started taking more of my time, and it was a challenge to work on the mental health project with Sharon.

Finding Subjects: A Huge Challenge

We also had trouble getting people talking. We got interviews from organizations like Sea Mar and the Northwest Immigrants Rights Project, two organizations that serve immigrants in our region. One provides medical services and mental health services, while the other gives legal counsel to people detained at immigration detention centers.

We did not have any personal voices. We could not find one person willing to talk to us about it. We were getting stuck.

 Several events brought these topics to the public's attention: OneAmerica, an advocacy group, published a report critical of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE); the city was having its own troubles with immigrants; and immigration raids were rampant in our area.

This is the point where immigration became entangled with mental health.

The main thing I learned from Sharon was to be thorough on my reporting and how much work one needs to do for a perfect story. She was always clarifying points with the sources as well as double checking all information that was given to us.

 The problem was to shed more light on the health side, rather than the immigration side – a topic that is more controversial and causes more reaction from the public.

Sometimes, we lost focus.

That's when Robert Frank, the editor for The Herald, stepped in.

Working with an editor was a new experience for me. In my publication, we have a very small staff that has several beats and different roles. Sometimes, we became our own editors.

An Editor's Help

In this project, I worked for the first time with an editor at a daily newspaper. The first thing that Robert told me was that I am not doing everything , something I am not used to because in my publication, I do almost  everything – or at least it feels like it.

Working for an editor allowed me to look at the bigger picture, instead of just worrying about the deadline. A project with this scope was something I had never done until then. Sometimes I felt I was the driver in a NASCAR race who could only see and concentrate on one lap at a time. That's why my editor was important: he was the supervisor in the pit who told me when I should stop for refueling, or change tires so I could win the race.

So for me, an editor was a good addition. For a change, I had somebody who told me how horrible my story was before it got published, instead of when it already is on the streets.

The story affected me because it was my story. Our main voice in one of the stories was a woman running away from the violence in Chihuahua, a state in Mexico that is currently fighting against drug trafficking and where my family still lives. Our second voice was a teenager who fell to the temptation of drugs and gangs. Hearing his story made me appreciate how lucky I am.

My middle school was surrounded by different gangs. I never got into contact with them but my classmates slowly became gang members themselves. Even when I was in my last year in middle school, I noticed that gangs had infiltrated the school, with younger students belonging to them.

A third voice was a "curandero" who wanted to mix alternative therapy, like limpias (spiritual cleansings), herbal therapy and touch therapy with mainstream counseling. He had increased credibility because he was a licensed therapist from a university. He believed he was effective because people trusted him. He reminded me of my heritage and the trouble of maintaining it and trying to adapt to living in America.

So, during this project, I learned many things.  I had to rely on the experience of Sharon and Robert. I do not have the problems of a daily deadline, so sometimes I procrastinate. It was good to have someone who pressured me to do better.

Alejandro's Cross-Cultural Reporting Tips

Here are my recommendations if you are doing cross-cultural reporting:

1. Toughen up. Do not take it personally if people do not want to talk to you. They could be fearful or not willing to talk to you because, simply put, they do not trust you. They may even be rude. This is where differences in culture and language are to blame, for they may not know how to properly say "no" to you.

2. Eschew the interview. Do not "interview" your subjects. Talk to them. In my experience, some people do not want to be in the newspaper because they believe it would get them unwanted attention, or they simply fear the questions you will ask them. So, start by just making polite conversation to gauge how comfortable they are and how much they can help you. They may start talking about something else and could be a waste of time. If you are lucky, the person may give you the quote you need because he is now comfortable talking to you. In some cases, they may know a relative or someone else who can help with your story.

3. Finesse translation. If you are using a translator, remember that you are talking to the subject, not the translator. I know that is easy to forget that when you are doing the interview, but instead of asking the translator to ask them a question, take a moment to look in your subjects' eyes, and ask the question directly. Then your subjects can switch their attention to the translator, but at least they know they are talking to you.