The PEN Pod: Elevating Stories from Underreported Communities with Tina Vasquez
Tina Vasquez is a senior reporter leading Prism’s coverage of both gender justice and workers’ rights. She’s a movement journalist with over 10 years of experience, focusing on immigration, reproductive justice, and culture. She’s also part of the Ida B. Wells Fellowship, which promotes diversity in journalism by supporting investigative reporters of color with a range of backgrounds, experiences, and interests. Previously, she was a senior reporter and the first to cover immigration at Rewire.News, where she built the award-winning beat from scratch. Her work has appeared in The New York Review of Books, NPR, The Nation, and others. She joined us on The PEN Pod to discuss movement journalism that advances justice for underrepresented communities, the oppression in newsrooms, and the protection that essential workers need during the pandemic.
You’ve been covering various social movements now, for the last 10 years or so, and you’ve described yourself as a movement journalist. Can you tell us what that means exactly?
It’s kind of nebulous, which is why it took me so long to write the Nieman Reports article about movement journalism. It took me about a year, because I kept stopping and starting. I see it as a newly-formed kind of journalism that I just started to embrace relatively recently. So much of my understanding of movement journalism came from the organization Press On that I work with—a Southern media collective. To me, working with the definition that Press On has been working with, I see movement journalism as, one, advancing justice—it’s journalism in service of liberation. It meets the needs of communities directly affected by injustice, and I also see it as a very community-focused and solutions-based reporting.
At Prism—which is where I do this kind of work every day—we try really hard to center the people, the places, and the issues currently underreported by the national media. So, my work feels very much at home there, and the important distinction for me when it comes to movement journalism, in terms of how I see my work, is that I don’t see myself reporting on communities, but reporting with communities. Staying in touch for long periods of time—for the long haul, really—with different people that I write about, and checking in with them, and letting them gear the reporting based on what they’re seeing in the community, based on what they think would be helpful, based on what they think is being underreported or poorly reported by the media. I’m trying to gear my journalism so that it’s responding to the needs of the communities that I work with.
“The important distinction for me when it comes to movement journalism, in terms of how I see my work, is that I don’t see myself reporting on communities, but reporting with communities. Staying in touch for long periods of time—for the long haul, really—with different people that I write about, and checking in with them, and letting them gear the reporting based on what they’re seeing in the community, based on what they think would be helpful, based on what they think is being underreported or poorly reported by the media. I’m trying to gear my journalism so that it’s responding to the needs of the communities that I work with.”
That’s really fascinating and, I think, especially needed now in the moment of this ongoing pandemic and the several kinds of moments of national crises that are going on for us right now. Amid this moment of national reckoning, especially around racial injustices, we’ve seen a call in recent months to diversify mastheads, staff members, writers’ rooms, among many other workplaces and spheres of influence, particularly in the media. Can you talk about why it’s particularly important for newsrooms, especially local news outlets—which don’t often get a lot of attention in the mainstream media—to prioritize this?
Prism is a very unprecedented place—our entire editorial team is all women of color. I will say it’s one of the first times I can speak very directly to why that is important, because it’s one of the first times in my career when I don’t have to explain my work. There’s more of a broad understanding of what it is that I’m doing, and why I’m doing it, and why cover things the way that I cover them. I think journalism has been in a really sorry state for decades. People of color, I think, make up less than 17 percent of newsroom staff in the U.S. Newsrooms remain one of the least diverse places of work. In my Nieman Reports article about movement journalism, I wrote that one of journalism’s greatest scams was that it made marginalized reporters feel like our identities are a detriment, like we are too close to the stories that we report on in order to report on them accurately. I really think that when you hire journalists of color to report on communities that they belong to, or that they are in community with, it leads to deeper reporting—it leads to more nuanced reporting.
But I also don’t think that’s enough; I don’t think that there are easy answers in journalism. I was revisiting a new survey this morning by the journalist Carla Murphy, and it’s called “Leavers,” and it surveyed more than a hundred journalists of color who left the industry. Eighty-one percent of them were women of color, and half of those women were Black. I’ve certainly been plopped into roles that I was not ready to have, like leadership roles in particular, where I didn’t receive any guidance or mentorship. It felt very much like being set up to fail. So, while I do think hiring more journalists of color is crucial, I also hope that we start having conversations about what oppression looks like in a newsroom, and how that shapes people’s careers; how we support journalists of color for the long haul, so they have safety nets, or so they have a community and mentorship, and all the things that they need to stay in journalism.
“Newsrooms remain one of the least diverse places of work. In my Nieman Reports article about movement journalism, I wrote that one of journalism’s greatest scams was that it made marginalized reporters feel like our identities are a detriment, like we are too close to the stories that we report on in order to report on them accurately. I really think that when you hire journalists of color to report on communities that they belong to, or that they are in community with, it leads to deeper reporting—it leads to more nuanced reporting.”
Those are such important points. I’m thinking back to when I used to work in book publishing, and it’s a pretty different world but a lot of the same kind of problems of mastheads not being diverse, and waves of people of color being hired—but not really staying—and not really receiving mentorship and opportunities in the same way as white colleagues might. These are all such important points and something that we think about a lot at PEN America in our work, particularly around supporting journalism and advocacy. Just last year, toward the end of 2019, we released a report on the importance of local news outlets, and the crisis there—the slow and now accelerated collapse of many of these really important hubs of local news.
On that topic, you just released a story on Prism, about the coronavirus procedures—or really lack thereof—that are going on right now at universities, such as UNC. I’d love to hear a little bit more about that story and what reporting looks like right now when many of us are no longer as mobile as we used to be, and when access is perhaps much more restricted than it used to be.
I could cry just thinking about it. I feel like right now we’re just—I am in particular, I don’t want to speak for other journalists—but I just feel like I’m missing a lot of opportunities to really spend quality time with the communities that I report on and with. That, to me, has always led to more colorful reporting, and it helps build trust. In-person interviews aren’t really happening, so this is, for me, a much harder way to work because I cover vulnerable communities, and because I cover sensitive stories. Relying on the phone as the primary means of communication is certainly not ideal. The UNC Chapel Hill situation has been really just a mess to report on because these are people who live in North Carolina where I live, and I can’t spend face-to-face time with them. But I’m really grateful that they shared their stories with us. With so much of the COVID-19 coverage that I’ve been doing, I try very hard to think about people who are already very vulnerable and hanging on by a thread—so often communities of color and low-income workers—and to think about how the pandemic has complicated their lives. UNC Chapel Hill made international headlines for how badly they bungled returning students for the fall semester. So much of the reporting has been on the students, which is totally legitimate, and I understand why. But there are also housekeepers who did not get the summer off, have not gotten paid time off, and are even considered not just essential workers but emergency workers. So, if there’s some sort of horrible weather event, they still have to go in.
I spoke to two women who are housekeepers at UNC Chapel Hill. It’s like a common thread in the reporting that I’ve been doing, especially here in North Carolina, which is that there’s just no communication. One woman reported that she was responsible for cleaning the athletic department and cleaned a portion of it, and then the next day, from a friend in a newspaper article, saw that there was a huge COVID outbreak in the department that she just cleaned, and she was given no previous warning. The same happened for another housekeeper who cleaned the dorm, and then the next day learned through the media that there was a COVID outbreak there. So, I’m taking a closer look on how workers have been affected, and on people who are really keeping the country moving and safe while not being protected at all.
“There’s been a lot of heroicism around essential workers. I see a lot of pushback from even essential workers who don’t want to be seen that way. They certainly would rather stay home, be with their families, and be safe; and they go to work because they have to—they have to feed their kids. I hope we start to see those kinds of narratives shift a little bit to how we can protect workers. I hope that there’s a concerted effort to do that, both locally and federally.”
There are so many vulnerable communities really being hit right now, whereas the narrative around COVID-19 that we see in the news is mostly on failures of policy at a really macro level. At the same time, we don’t really get to see, in a lot of outlets, the stories of people who are really on the ground dealing with this—essential workers, if not emergency workers, in these various situations, especially with the opening up of a lot of schools and other businesses around the country. What major impacts of the pandemic do you see being underreported right now—things like the UNC Chapel Hill situation? What are some areas that we should be on the lookout for in the months ahead as we continue to grapple with this virus?
Something that has been very unexpected—and I don’t know why it was unexpected because I think this is something I’m struggling with and that a lot of people in this pandemic are struggling with this—as I mentioned earlier, I’m focusing almost exclusively on communities of color who are essential workers, and the thing that comes up time and time again, and not intentionally, is mental health. I interviewed a sanitation worker in Philadelphia who started this Instagram page called “Ya Fav Trashman.” He’s a very cheery and bright person, but spoke very honestly about, I think, Groundhog Day—you wake up and there’s more trash, and there’s more trash, and it’s never-ending, and it’s piling up, and the public is mad at you. Housekeepers said the same.
One of my earliest series in Prism, as the pandemic started to unfold, was talking mostly to undocumented workers who worked at poultry processing plants in rural North Carolina. They also talked to me about mental health issues and how scared they are to go into work every day, and the toll that it takes. I hope that there’s more reporting about that. There’s been a lot of heroicism around essential workers. I see a lot of pushback from even essential workers who don’t want to be seen that way. They certainly would rather stay home, be with their families, and be safe; and they go to work because they have to—they have to feed their kids. I hope we start to see those kinds of narratives shift a little bit to how we can protect workers. I hope that there’s a concerted effort to do that, both locally and federally. I also think about that mental health part; I’m starting to think more about what trauma-based reporting would look like. I really did not anticipate that coming up with workers’ rights reporting around the pandemic, but I think that’s going to be something that I focus on pretty heavily moving forward.
I think that, in terms of a mental health perspective, we’re really not going to be seeing the long-term effects of this for a very long time. At PEN America, we had a series of trainings that were geared toward journalists who are on the ground covering protests and the pandemic, and are themselves going through trauma, experiencing PTSD. I wish that there was more attention being paid to it, and hopefully there will be in the months ahead. On that topic, we’re also asking folks at the close of each conversation on the podcast: What are you turning to right now that might be helping to provide some comfort, or context around the pandemic, or even escape, if it’s something that’s possible for you right now?
I really appreciate that question. At first thought, I turned to books, but then so many of the books I read are horrible. I’m reading Hatemonger right now about Stephen Miller, which actually isn’t helping me at all. I’m not usually the kind of person who does this, but as everything started to unfold and work started to feel very hard, I started watching The Office. I watched the entire series, and then I watched the entire series of Community, and now I’m watching Parks and Recreation. So just curling up on the couch when I’m done for the day and watching things that are silly and lighthearted—it’s not more complicated than that, that’s just kind of what I need right now.