Keynote speech by Martin Baron
The Boston Globe
Pew Center for Civic Journalism Luncheon
Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication
84th National Convention, Washington, DC
August 7, 2001
By Jan Schaffer
Pew Center for Civic Journalism
Each year, the Pew Center for Civic Journalism brings journalism educators
together with one of the top editors in the country to hear firsthand about
the challenges facing U.S. newsrooms. The goal is to encourage journalism training
that is both innovative and relevant and to introduce new areas for journalism
In 2001, the challenges were becoming clear even before we had the honor of
hearing from Marty Baron, editor of The Boston Globe. Census data made
clear that old models of journalism would not work in communities where one-third
to one-half of the population doesn't speak English. New connections have to
be made through greater interaction.
Baron was ideally suited to talk about the changing journalism landscape,
having won a Pulitzer Prize while at The Miami Herald for the paper's
coverage of the Elián González saga. The Elián story was perhaps a prototype
for how news organizations must learn new reflexes to cover their communities.
In Miami, where local readers include large numbers of Cuban-Americans who
maintain a strong emotional investment in their home country, the Elián story
could not be adequately reported without directly engaging the community. As
Baron told his audience at the AEJMC luncheon, "You had to understand their
story. You had to understand their personal experience, their culture, their
religion. You had to actually speak to people in their own language. You had
to listen. You had to really listen."
Baron, who is known for the importance he places on getting out into the community
and knowing its needs without pandering to any element, was named Editor of
the Year last year by Editor & Publisher magazine.
Before going to Miami, Baron had been the editor in charge of night operations
at The New York Times and spent 17 years at the Los Angeles Times,
where he spearheaded coverage of Orange County's bankruptcy.
When he spoke to nearly 150 journalists and educators at the AEJMC luncheon,
he had been at The Globe for just one week.
This year at AEJMC there was a lot of talk about convergence and an emphasis
on the new technologies of journalism. Baron suggested that journalism schools
would serve students better by dwelling less on the machinery of journalism
and more on its mission. He advocated more interdisciplinary study, more language
training and more time in the community for the nation's future reporters, editors,
news directors and producers.
As one guest noted, the impact of these ideas is most effective when coming
from such a distinguished journalist as Baron. With that in mind, we are pleased
to share his remarks with a wider audience.
a New America: How Multicultural Communities are Shaping the Future of Journalism"
By Martin Baron
The Boston Globe
A few weeks back, as some
of you may recall, Fidel Castro was giving a typically interminable speech.
Somewhere in the middle of it, he suddenly stopped, he faltered and he began
to buckle. Aides came to his side. They grabbed him and they gently guided him
down to the platform. What happened is Castro had fainted.
Within minutes, Fidel was back on his feet. He looked pretty sickly but he
was lucid enough to tell the crowd that he hadn't slept much the night before,
that the heat had gotten the better of him, and they could rest assured he'd
be back later in the day to keep going with that speech. Sure enough, at six
o'clock that evening he was back and he was going on and on and on.
Now in most of the country, certainly in the media capitals of New York and
Los Angeles and Washington, Castro's fainting spell was not big news. In fact,
in The New York Times that I received at home there was not even a word
But at The Miami Herald and other South Florida newspapers and at local
television stations there, Castro's near-collapse was momentous news. The
Herald actually gave it a banner headline, two stories on the front page,
a sequence of pictures showing Castro's collapse and getting up again and two
full pages of comprehensive coverage inside. Everything that you wanted to know
about Castro's fainting spell. Spanish-language television in Miami covered
the incident nonstop. Telemundo carried a line at the bottom of the screen asking:
El principio del fin (the beginning of the end)?
When 57 percent of the population of Miami-Dade County is Hispanic, about
half of them of Cuban heritage, the definition of "news" may be far different
than what you think it is and what it may be in the rest of the country.
The fact is that people wanted to know: Was Castro so ill that we were now
witness to his final days? Who would succeed him? How had the American government
prepared for this? What did we really know about Castro's physical and mental
Now the precise numbers escape me at this point, but I think The Herald's
sales the next day went up something like 3 percent and those of El Nuevo
Herald, the Spanish-language sister publication, rose in the double digits.
This may lead to the usual question about Miami, which is: Is everybody down
there nuts? The fact is that Castro suffers heat stroke, recovers quickly and
this is big news. If you already thought that Miami was a country apart, this
may confirm it.
But Miami is very much a part of the United States, and the disparate treatment
of the Castro story shows a lot about how news agendas are taking shape across
the country, especially in major metropolitan areas that are feeling the effects
of an enormous wave of immigration.
As many of you know, Miami-Dade County has the largest concentration of Hispanics
anywhere in the country. You can hear Spanish as much as English. You'll hear
talk about foreign policy as much as domestic politics. What happens in Miami,
what happens in Cuba, what happens in Venezuela or what happens in Colombia
is really local news. It's not considered to be foreign news; it's considered
to be local news.
The question is: Is Miami a peculiar case? I don't actually think it is and
increasingly it won't be.
The population of Boston is now over half minority, largely because of an
influx of Latinos from the Dominican Republic, from Central America, from Puerto
Rico, as well as an influx of Asians. In the Boston area, in Lowell, an estimated
30,000 Cambodians live. That's about a third of the city's population. It's
the second largest Cambodian population [in America] outside of Long Beach,
California is now a state where minorities are in the majority with an increasingly
influential Latino electorate. Orange County, where I was once in charge of
the edition, has the country's largest Vietnamese population. In that county,
a longtime Republican stronghold, Latinos had reached 40 percent of the population
when I left my job there in 1996.
What happens in Mexico, what happens in Nicaragua, what happens in El Salvador,
what happens in Vietnam, what happens in China, what happens in Japan is as
important to many in California as anything that actually happens in Washington.
That gets at the point that I want to make here about journalism and about
journalism education. The immigration wave that is changing the face of America
is certain to influence our profession. And it poses a challenge that I believe
we are not yet prepared to meet, and one for which those who prepare journalists
of the future - like most of you - are going to have to take some responsibility.
In my view, it is more important than worrying about the convergence of various
media, like print, television and Internet, which is very much a subject in
vogue, or at least was before the technology bubble burst. Convergence, in my
view, may be worth a course or two. I hope I'm not offending people, you who
make a living in the field. But I think the profound demographic changes in
America strike at key issues for all of us, whether we're currently journalists
or preparing to become them or teaching those who intend to become journalists.
How well do we understand our new communities? Is the agenda of the immigrant
communities substantially different than the journalistic agenda that we have
come to accept? Do their agendas include issues that are simply off the radar
for the national media in the United States? Micro issues on a national scale,
but all-consuming issues on the local level like the Castro issue? And if so,
how do we deal with that?
Why is it also that most staffers at newspapers know so little about other
cultures? And what are we doing to fix that? How well can we communicate with
the people that we're covering? Why is it that so few people on our staffs speak
other languages? And what are we doing to fix that?
Language study, in fact, is ever more popular but it is nowhere near where
it needs to be. And language training in schools, in junior high and high school
and college, is typically inept. Language training within newsrooms, which has
become popular, is even more inept. It's geared to the slowest learners and
the lowest common denominator. Those programs are typically poorly designed
and rarely are they effective.
How, particularly in major metropolitan areas that are most affected by the
waves of immigration, can we convert newcomers to the United States and their
children into readers of our newspapers? How relevant is our current coverage
to these newcomers and their children? Should the coverage of today be shifted
to recognize that their interests and needs may be quite different?
Are we too Eurocentric in our foreign coverage and in our coverage of international
policy-making? Should we be putting more emphasis on immigration coverage and
less on political warfare? Shouldn't this cause us to reassess the long-running
decline in foreign coverage at most newspapers and broadcast networks, as well?
Castro's fainting incident suggests that there are, indeed, some subjects
that will be of overwhelming consuming interest to a segment of our readers
but that won't register at all with the national media. If we fail to give these
subjects adequate attention, we risk irrelevance. If we lack the tools to cover
these subjects appropriately, I think we demonstrate incompetence.
The Castro incident was a test in several very basic ways for The Miami
Herald. It tested the paper's story judgment. How important was it really?
What kind of coverage was appropriate when it turned out that the old man was
really just fine? Why a banner headline for something that seemingly turned
out to be nothing? Would you call that pandering or would you call it serving
readers? Were we equipped to cover the story adequately, to monitor local Spanish-language
radio and television, to speak to people in Cuba who know no English, to monitor
Granma, the Cuban news outlet? Were we knowledgeable enough about Cuba and Cuba's
government hierarchy to assess instantly how he might be succeeded?
For The Miami Herald, coverage of Castro's near-collapse was, in fact,
a no-brainer ... We were well-prepared to deal with that story. [We had] a foreign
editor who speaks Spanish fluently and has covered Latin America extensively.
A correspondent responsible for Cuba who has been to the country perhaps a dozen
times. A staff that was prepared to tap into diplomatic circles and that knew
enough about its community that it could fully reflect the reaction and the
mood of the Cuban population.
But newspapers are tested in other ways and sometimes found to be not up to
the task or, in fact, too late to it. There is one [instance] where I think
The Herald was late as well and where many other media never actually
In the Elián case, for example, the boy's miraculous rescue at sea by men
who were fishing at the time - not necessarily fishermen - acquired a religious
mythology that some may have found laughable but that was, in fact, very real
and very true to many Cuban-Americans.
The religious symbolism surrounding Elián began with the tale, never actually
confirmed, that dolphins had circled him and kept him safe. This led to comparisons
with the tale of the drowning fisherman saved by La Virgen de la Caridad
del Cobre, the patron saint of Cuba.
Others saw him as a Moses put upon the waters by his mother and rescued so
that some day he could return to Cuba to save his people. Some compared him
to a baby Jesus, arriving just before Christmas. And in the year 2000, no less.
He had become a symbol of hope among many Cubans.
Regardless of your personal view, the religious overtones of the Elián saga
needed to be explained to a broader audience. But first we needed to know that
those religious overtones existed. And frankly, we at The Herald came
late to that story, in my view.
It is too easy, and I think very wrong, to simply dismiss such beliefs as
superstition or, probably many would say, lunacy that's not worth telling. If
you wanted to understand fully the Elián story, if you wanted to understand
why some Cuban-Americans reacted the way they did, you could not just laugh
this off. You had to understand their history. You had to understand their personal
experience, their culture, their religion. You had to actually speak to people
in their own language. You had to listen. You had to really listen.
Many news outlets never told of these cultural and religious themes running
through Miami's Cuban community - just as many news outlets never really understood
Miami's Cubans at all. Cuban-Americans, I think, became the object of caricature
One major news organization repeatedly ran stories suggesting that there was
widespread dissent within the Cuban community on the subject of Elián, and that
those who favored the boy's return to Cuba wouldn't speak out for fear of retaliation.
Now, it is true that there were some dissenters within the Cuban community
in Miami. And it's true that many of those people probably feared that they
might be criticized or maybe even harassed. But the truth was that, within the
Cuban community, very, very, very few people favored his return. Reliable surveys
showed that nine out of 10 wanted him kept in the United States and, in public
opinion polling, that's about as close as you get to unanimous.
Many news organizations did not understand the Cuban community because they
weren't equipped to understand it. They didn't speak the language. They were
grossly out of touch with one of America's major immigrant groups.
Cuban-Americans would say they were not very well served by the national media.
More important, in my view, is that readers and viewers of the national media
weren't well served. Because they were denied the opportunity to understand
why Cuban-Americans felt as they did, why Miami's Cubans seemed to be out of
step with the rest of American public opinion. They didn't have to agree, but
they certainly should have understood.
Most of the people who are here today are involved, I think, in teaching journalism.
The question is what does all of this have to do with you? How should this influence
Out of the Classroom
I think what you need to do is ... help our profession become less insular.
I really do believe that we, as a profession, are way too insular. We spend
too much time in the office and too little in the field. Our social lives tend
to revolve around each other rather than around people in other lines of work.
Reporters in Washington, I think, would be well served by leaving the District
[of Columbia] more often and spending some quality time in the rest of the country,
and I don't mean Maryland and Virginia.
I think we could do with fewer television shows where journalists interview
Those who teach journalism can help. One way you can help, and I don't expect
this to get applause in all honesty, is by teaching less pure journalism and
letting students learn more about something else. Learn a language, learn more
about government, study Chinese history or mathematics or science or art. If
you're trying to pack students' course work with more pure journalism classes,
I think you're making a mistake. You need to make your programs more interdisciplinary.
Set up collaborative programs with other departments. Why not special language
seminars geared toward the vocabulary necessary for everyday street-level journalism?
Encourage students to spend a semester or a year overseas. And not just in Europe,
but in Latin America or Asia, where the new Americans are actually coming from.
In fact, why not go beyond encouraging them and actually make it a requirement?
Mostly, I believe you need to structure journalism programs that push your
students out of the classroom so that they are exposed to people who are wholly
different, who speak another language, who come from different countries, who
hold different beliefs, who see the world through a very, very different lens.
Too much of journalism education today, it seems to me, revolves around the
machines that we're actually using when it should be focusing on how we can
best pursue our mission. Too much time on convergence, too much time in the
classroom, too little time in the community.
I'm familiar with one program that I consider to be just outstanding, and
it is taught by a friend of mine, a professor of journalism at UC-Berkeley.
The program is her class on foreign reporting ... She takes her whole class
to Cuba, to Mexico or to El Salvador. And at the end they produce essentially
a magazine of all that they've learned.
I asked her to just send me a note on what it is they do. I thought that I
would share that with you here today:
This Case Study
"Generally over Christmas break and for the first two weeks of class we read
a couple of books or essays that give history or a sharp sense of the country.
When we went to El Salvador, we read 'Matanza,' a book written long ago but one
that gives the essence of the land battle. In addition, there were selected readings
from more contemporary histories.
"When we went to Mexico, we read 'Conquest' and Alan Riding's 'Distant Neighbors.'
With Cuba, we went back to Hugh Thomas' major work. For almost anywhere in Latin
America, 'Utopia Unarmed: The Latin American Left After the Cold War,' is essential,
but sometimes I just assign chapters.
"Next we read major magazine or newspaper pieces written in the last five
years. Students are also assigned to different newspapers online. The magazine
pieces are chosen to make students current and also to teach them how to write
a narrative. So sometimes I have to throw in pieces that aren't about the country
but I'm trying to introduce them to different types of structure to get them
thinking about how to tell a story.
"We meet twice a week so one class meeting is taken up discussing the reading
and the other class meeting with getting backgrounders from economists, social
scientists, World Bank folks, writers, anyone who might be able to give them
briefings and answer questions that come off the reading. Briefings continue
until we leave. Some are in person; others are over the phone.
"By the fifth week, they've chosen an area they want to report in and over
the next five weeks they're doing reporting and finding an angle and a way to
tell the story. For example, somebody decided to do something on women in the
Cuban revolution. That's kind of like saying: Do you want to write about love,
rape? Where's the story? She eventually decided to profile four women who lived
in Manzanillo, the base of the guerrilla network during the war in an operation
run by Celia Sanchez.
"By the time she got to Cuba, she had one name and lots of background. She
flew immediately to Manzanillo and one name led her to another. She wrote four
lovely profiles of women that essentially tell the story of Manzanillo and the
revolution. Lots of surprises, a really lovely close-up.
"They find their stories by doing an awful lot of reporting before we go on
the trip. And to make sure they are getting somewhere, I have them write weekly
memos that are shared by everyone.
"By the time we land in the country, I'm pretty sure that most of the stories
are going to work out. I spend a half day or a full day with most of them. What
I find is that they often are too nice or too demanding in interviews. I can
intervene and give them a sense of how to do it, how to get in places that they
are having trouble with. Mostly this means getting them off the phone in their
hotel rooms and onto the streets. They are often amazed that the answer to getting
someone is to arrive at the office ... "
Now why can't this sort of program be replicated in other settings? It doesn't
have to be overseas. Why can't a class be dispatched to live for a week among
the Latinos of East Los Angeles or among the Vietnamese of Boston or the Greeks
of Astoria, Queens? Design a project, research it in advance, send students
out of the classroom and into the field and out of their zone of comfort.
The rapidly changing demographics of our cities is not exactly catching us
off-guard. We know about it but we're not moving quickly enough or skillfully
enough to deal with it. There are some praiseworthy efforts underway like the
one I mentioned. But as a profession, I think we have to do much, much more.
Question: What was the feedback that you got from the Cuban community
on the Elián story?
Baron: We got feedback ... from people on all sides of the issue. I
would come in in the morning and my little red [voice-mail] light was on and
there was somebody telling me that we were anti-Cuban and that we were racist
and all that. Then the next message would tell me about how all you guys want
to do is pander to the Cubans, and this is what you've been doing at The
Miami Herald for years now ... We got feedback of all types.
I think that, in a way, it doesn't matter what the feedback is ... I think
that actually on reflection ... we could have done a better job in a lot of
ways of explaining people on each side of that issue to each other. My biggest
regret is that we didn't do a special section that would really try to delve
in-depth into why people thought the way they did. Talk to people and really
tell people's life stories and give a sense as to why people really felt the
way they did on that issue and help people understand each other.
I'm sure that we would not have resolved all of the friction ... I don't believe
it's my job to resolve the friction. But I do think it's my job to help one
group of people understand the other group. I think that in some ways we could
have done a better job.
Question: Do you think journalists already have a strong understanding
of what it takes to get in and get to know an ethnic community?
Baron: I'm not sure that we have ... the resources even at The Boston
Globe to, say, if we want to go in the Hmong community tomorrow, that we
can actually communicate what's going on. Or if there is a murder there and
people there speak only - whatever community it is, whatever language it is
- that we'll be able to communicate with them as we should ...
It's important that over time we try to develop that. That to me is where
diversity is critically important. It's not just a matter of sort of doing the
right thing. It's a matter of, if we want to adequately cover our communities,
do we have the resources, do we have the capability of doing that? Language
and cultural understanding and experience in those communities is part of that
and you can't come to that fresh just because a story broke.
Question: Four or five years ago, the editor of The Detroit News
came to talk to my international press class on a day when The Detroit News
had one column of international news. My students ... kind of challenged
him on this and he said, 'Well, nobody's interested.'
What do you think about foreign news?
Baron: The reflexive notion that people aren't interested in foreign
news is generally expressed by people who ... may typically be white male, longtime
Americans. But if you go within other communities, there's an interest in foreign
Miami alone is a classic example. If you look at El Nuevo Herald, there's
more news about Colombia, Venezuela and Cuba on the front page ... than there
is about things that are actually happening in Miami. That's because people
there care about those subjects. And they label it Colombia, Venezuela, Cuba,
what have you, because there are a huge number of Colombians and Venezuelans
who are now coming into Miami and Argentineans who are coming in there.
And what they care deeply about is what's happening in their own country.
Their circulation is growing, so that tells you something. Now part of that
may be language, familiarity and comfort with Spanish. Even people who speak
fluent English but maybe feel more comfortable reading in Spanish. But it also
tells you that the subject matter is resonating with an audience. I think you
see that with the ethnic press in the rest of the country as well. And I don't
believe it's just language. I think it goes beyond language.
But yes, there are plenty of people who are interested in foreign news. I
think that we have to find a way to write about it that also makes it of interest