On the final night of the Republican National Convention last month, as Donald Trump formally accepted his party's nomination for president, my Code Switch co-host Shereen Marisol Meraji fired off a tweet about how unnerved she was watching Trump's address, with its angry denunciations of Muslims and Mexican immigrants.
"This speech is difficult to listen to as a Latina and an Iranian," she wrote. "So much fear-mongering."
Another NPR colleague — a person of color, and a friend — quickly texted her and told her the tweet might be inappropriate, work-wise. Shereen considered it, and took her tweet down.
But then she took to Twitter to pose a question that a lot of journalists have been wondering about during this heady, racially charged summer — and particularly those of us of who are reporters of color:
A lot of Twitter folks responded that journalists should simply strive to share the facts and be objective, and that the truth will out. But others, including several journalists, hopped in the conversation to point out that that advice, however well-intentioned, oversimplifies some very complex reader-audience dynamics.
How someone hears a story is inextricable from who they are, but also from the notions they have about who the storyteller is. Black reporters and Latino reporters are often especially sensitive to the idea that the work they do on their beats — especially if race is heavily implicated in what they cover, like policing or immigration policy — is less than fair or rigorous.
That's what we're getting into on this week's episode of the podcast, which happens to coincide with a huge joint convention of black and Latino journalists in Washington D.C. Shereen and I talk to Pilar Marrero and Wesley Lowery, who are both on news beats where race is central — but they've come to some very different conclusions about what fairness and truth look like in how they cover those beats.
Lowery, a reporter at the Washington Post who covers race and justice issues, told us that he's uncomfortable describing an individual as "racist," in large part because the response to the story then tends to get bogged down in arguments about whether the use of that term was fair or not. He tends to describe specific policies or actions as racist instead.
"I do think it's our job to say true things," he said. "But I also think...that people might be more amenable to a conversation — especially the type of people you're trying to convince that this is true — might be more amenable to [the idea that a specific policy has disparate racial effects]."
But Pilar Marrero, a veteran political reporter who now writes for the Spanish language news site La Opinion, has no problem using that kind of pointed language when referring to Donald Trump. "To be clear, we don't call [Trump] a racist just because he looks racist," she said. "We call him a racist because he says racist things, he promotes racist policies and he retweets white supremacist Twitter accounts." And as she pointed out, since her readership is primarily Latino — a group among whom Trump is enormously unpopular — they are far less likely to be bothered by that characterization of Trump than the Post's mostly white readership might.
GENE DEMBY, HOST:
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SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:
You're listening to CODE SWITCH from NPR. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.
DEMBY: And I'm Gene Demby.
MERAJI: So Gene, a few weeks ago, like a lot of people, we were at our respective one-bedroom apartments. You were in D.C. I was in LA. We were watching Donald Trump's speech at the Republican National Convention.
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DONALD TRUMP: The number of new illegal immigrant families who have crossed the border so far this year already exceeds the entire total from 2015. They are being released by the tens of thousands into our communities with no regard for the impact on public safety or resources.
DEMBY: And Shereen, you tweeted during the speech, quote, "this speech is difficult to listen to as a Latina and an Iranian. So much fear mongering." And then you deleted it.
MERAJI: Yeah. I tweeted that in a moment of weakness. The tweets started getting hella retweets real fast. And then a colleague who I love and respect - an NPR colleague, actually, who's also a POC - texted me and was like, watch what you tweet. You don't want to get in trouble. If you need to say something, text me instead.
MERAJI: And I started to freak out, like, oh, am I not allowed to say that? I mean, the definition of fear mongering is the action of deliberately arousing public fear or alarm about a particular issue. But is tweeting that making a partisan judgment? And I'm like, I am really freaking out. My husband was like, calm down.
DEMBY: But a few seconds later, you wondered aloud on Twitter, very usefully for our purposes. How do we - quote, "how do we address this critically without being labeled partisan? Is there precedent to understand how to do this as journalists of color?"
MERAJI: Yeah, Gene. It's been bugging me. I'm a journalist. But I'm also human. And it's been difficult to metabolize a lot of the rhetoric in this campaign. As a Latina and as a Latina whose father is a Muslim immigrant, I'm not covering the campaign. But this whole idea of objectivity in journalism, what it means, whether I can truly achieve it - it's keeping me up at night.
DEMBY: Yeah, I mean, especially this summer. This has been a really heated couple of months on our beat - the race beat. All these issues that we cover at CODE SWITCH like - I don't know - race and policing, for example - they're not really abstractions to us in our personal lives.
And this is something that you and I talk about a lot when the mic isn't hot. How do we reconcile being journalists with how we talk about this in our own lives and on social media?
MERAJI: And what a coincidence, Gene.
MERAJI: This week, thousands of Latino and black journalists are gathering over where you're at, muggy-ass Washington, D.C...
DEMBY: Indeed they are.
MERAJI: For a big journalism convention. And we thought, hey, let's have some real talk about what it's been like being a reporter of color in this super racially-charged political moment. So a few days ago, we invited a couple of journalists covering the news of this summer to talk through some of this with us.
DEMBY: Pilar Marrero is a political reporter. Her work appears in the Spanish language daily La Opinion. She's covered the last seven presidential elections. And Wesley Lowery is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who covers racial justice and politics for The Washington Post. Lowery was arrested while he was covering the aftermath of the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson two years ago. He's black. And Pilar's a Venezuelan immigrant who lives in Southern California.
MERAJI: You two are reporters on the ground. Pilar, Wesley, you're covering the campaigns. Has any of the vitriol been directed at you personally? I'm just curious.
WESLEY LOWERY: You know what? I haven't gotten as much as I might have gotten otherwise, in part because I haven't done a ton of the day-to-day reporting for us. But I've certainly seen at times when I've - when my coverage has intersected with the campaign or, like, when I would, like, cover, like, this week, like, protests by Bernie or last week, protests by the anti-Trump people or the pro-Trump people, you could see the kind of turn.
You know, when people try to aim their arrows at you a little bit - some of the name calling. But I definitely haven't gotten it as bad as - even as I got it during, like, Ferguson. And I also haven't gotten it as bad as a bunch of, like, Jewish colleagues. Like, that seems to be the worst of the...
LOWERY: ...Groups of people who are getting targeted. And that's just kind of - it's just, like - 'cause there's this weird strain of, like, anti-Semitism, I think, among some of the Trump supporters, right? Obviously not every Trump supporter - obviously not, like - people who are on the internet don't necessarily represent the entire real world.
But you see, like, a ton of prominent Jewish writers get just really attacked by these, like, nasty forces. And they tend to be coming from, like, the Trump supporters. So when they say something critical or when they report something critical, you just see a lot of that in ways that, like - I think it's just been really nasty. Some of my colleagues have gotten that. And then, like, other reporters who I know I know have gotten a lot of that.
PILAR MARRERO: Well, I work for a Spanish-language media, so we are sort of in a bubble in a way. But I am very active in social media and Twitter. And Twitter has been especially vicious during this campaign. And I have gotten some harassment from Trump supporters.
And sometimes you get harassed by people in the Democratic camp, as well, because you post something about Bernie or you post something about Hillary. And there's a lot of raw feelings between those two, as well. So there's also a feeling that if you're a Latina journalist working for a Spanish-language media, you shouldn't be doing stories that are critical about Democrats.
But in terms of my coverage and what I write, you know, I've written about immigration for a long time. That has been my specialty. So I'm used to the stuff I write being controversial and people responding on social media.
MERAJI: What kind of responses have you gotten? Just curious.
MARRERO: The usual silly attacks on - you know, you're all illegal (laughter). You should all be deported, including you (laughter) - things like that. Or if I post something in Spanish, you know, questions about - why the use of Spanish?
Or the other day, I had this discussion on Twitter with this guy who was saying, well, you know, this Latino thing and this Hispanic thing - isn't that racist to just, you know, be talking about Latinos and Hispanics all the time - and, you know, things like that. But, you know, I don't think that's out of the ordinary for us in the Spanish media, actually.
DEMBY: Pilar, when you were at the RNC, what was it like to be in that space, especially with so much of the rhetoric being about, you know - you are an immigrant yourself - but when so many people were just sort of saying very bilious things about immigrants and the danger that immigrants represent.
MARRERO: It's hard to take. I mean, it's - obviously, you try to keep - you keep professional and try to keep your feelings to yourself when you're reporting. During the convention, I didn't have any confrontations or anything like that. The thing with me is that I confuse people because I look white (laughter). I don't know look what they think of as a Latina.
And then I open my mouth, and I have an accent. And they're all confused about who I am (laughter), you know, where I'm from and stuff. So for example, this happened to me when I went to the one Trump rally that I covered in Las Vegas in February, when they actually gave me a credential. Then when I applied a second time for a credential, they didn't give it to me.
But for Las Vegas, I went in. And I actually didn't stay with the media. I mixed in with the people and I took my credentials away 'cause I wanted to kind of see people - how they behave normally. And I would talk to them. And they wouldn't even know I was a reporter. You know, I was just chatting with them. I know that sounds a little strange. But I just really wanted to see people - how they reacted.
And I was really shocked at what I saw firsthand - you know, how people who seem so nice suddenly turn so vicious when he started talking and spewing all his hate towards the media, the immigrants, this and that. People would really go nuts, you know? And I took pictures of several people just, you know, flipping the media off and screaming their heads off.
And it was very informative. I didn't feel afraid. People that knew me were more afraid for me than I was. But at that point, the rallies were not as violent as they became later. So yeah, it's been really crazy.
MERAJI: Wes, I know you've been referred to on conservative sites like Breitbart and The Daily Caller as a propagandist. You've had your blackness called into question. You've been criticized for making yourself a part of the Ferguson story after you were arrested at the McDonald's there. How much of this backlash do you think is about the content of your pieces? And how much do you think it's the fact that you're a black man reporting on these issues?
LOWERY: You know, I think it's probably a 50/50 toss-up. I think that, you know, much more - you know, very often, that kind of criticism is obviously very personal. So Breitbart's kind of interesting because, you know, Breitbart, which I think very often spews extremely racially sensitive, if not downright racist, things in what it writes and how it headlines things, right? - when I got arrested in Ferguson and when we got charged, they wrote an article about me - again, not about me and Ryan Riley, the white reporter from the Huffington Post who I was arrested with. They wrote an article about me, specifically, when they said that I had inflicted more damage on black communities than the KKK.
LOWERY: So, like, Breitbart literally was, like, he's worse than the Klan. And then they had a reporter get arrested in Baton Rouge under very similar circumstances. And they were, like, this is an affront to constitutional rights. Like, and all the protesters who got arrested, too - like, they didn't do anything wrong. It's this huge, like, constitutional issue.
All of a sudden, there's these crusaders for the First Amendment, right? But, like, when I got arrested, it was, like, they literally said I was worse than the KKK, right? That's not about content. Like, that is just bigotry. And it cuts a few different ways. Like, you have people who know what they're doing when they cut you down that way and when they try to racialize things and attack you because of who you are.
You have people who have subconscious biases and implicit biases who are less likely to take what you're saying seriously or more likely to attack you personally because of who you are and your skin tone. And they don't even realize they're doing it, right? And so there's a difference between these people who are, like, very obviously attacking me on racial lines and then people who are doing it and not even realizing they're doing it.
Meanwhile, they are responding differently to a white colleague of mine, right? And so there's a lot there. And there's been, you know, for a long time this conversation about - you know, people always want to ask this question. Like, can black reporters cover this stuff fairly objectively?
MERAJI: Right. Exactly.
LOWERY: Can they remember that they're a reporter for - no one ever goes, like, well, can Jimmy White, our white reporter...
LOWERY: ...Like, cover police effectively?
LOWERY: And no one ever asks that. Like, race affects everyone. Like, whiteness is a construct, as well. Like, you benefit from privilege of it. And you see your life with through those lenses, right? But we very often only - like, we share that conversation or we fade it only for reporters of color. And we don't ever interrogate the potential motives or biases of white reporters covering these same things.
DEMBY: Right. That's right.
MERAJI: I agree. So what is your definition of objectivity? Do you have one?
LOWERY: I don't even like the word objectivity. When we talk about trying to be objective, we begin the conversation with a lie. Like, we begin the conversation with the lie that we don't have biases and that we don't perceive the world certain ways, right? I strive to be fair. And that fairness means that I have to interrogate my own biases. That fairness means I have to go out of my way to make sure I'm giving a fair, good-faith hearing to people who I know I disagree with.
I think sometimes, like, the idea of objectivity can be this cloak that we put on ourselves as a means of slipping in all types of bias in the coverage, right, because, like, what we know is that media coverage very often is biased. We make the mistake when we think of it like a left-right bias, or even, like, a black-white bias. There's establishment versus revolutionary bias. When we say everyone should just wait for the system to work its way out, we're biasing the system as it exists, which is a bias against people who think the system's broke.
So I think we have to, like, remember that as well when we value what comes out in the police press release more than we value what community leaders say during their press conference, right? That's a bias. And so I just think that it makes a lot more sense very often for us to focus on fairness because none of us are objective. We are all...
LOWERY: ...Human beings. Like, we...
LOWERY: ...Live in this world, right?
MARRERO: I remember being asked by a reporter from actually this station where I am right now years ago when there were some pro-immigration marches. And La Opinion, the newspaper I work for, had a headline that said "A Las Calles" - to the streets - that some interpreted as calling people to go to the streets. And - but it could have also meant, you know, that people were going to go to the streets that day. You know, there was going to be a march.
So I was called by a reporter who said, you know, are you - is your newspaper being objective? And I'm like, well, you know, it depends how you define objectivity. You know, this is our audience. The people who are threatened by these anti-immigrant laws are our community, our audience.
And, you know, I think that you could also ask whether some media are being objective by not covering these issues from the point of view of immigrants, which is what we do, by not having Latinos and other minorities in their newsroom, by prioritizing stories that cater to their particular audience that doesn't look like my audience. So, you know, that's how I see it. You know, it's all relative.
DEMBY: Pilar, have you been attacked personally? Have people accused you of being partisan because of who you are and your name and the way you speak?
MARRERO: Not - well, I guess they do it indirectly, you know, all these questions about whether you can be objective, right? I recently did another interview where a reporter also asked me the same thing. You know, are you covering Donald Trump fairly because you seem to be focusing so much on his, you know, his rhetoric on immigration? I'm like, well, what else is he saying? This is the (laughter) - this is the bottom line of his campaign. The day he launched his candidacy, he started railing against Mexicans. I mean, there's no way to, you know, put a lead on that. This is who he is. And this is where, you know - how he's made his campaign.
So the fact that we are pointing it out, we are saying he's a racist. We're not covering it up and saying, oh, some people say he might be saying racist things. No, you know, we say it. He's a racist because here, here, here. This is the statement. This is a statement. This is the proposal. This is a statement. This compares to things that racists in the past have done. This, you know, is getting the support of the - of David Duke. This - you know, isn't our objective to tell the truth? So we're telling it. He's a racist.
DEMBY: I mean, it's funny you say that just because Trump, in particular, presents this specific set of challenges when it comes to a lot of this stuff because of the rhetoric that he employs. Like you just said, you know, mainstream news organizations are typically really, really reluctant and skittish about calling things racist. In fact, I was just reading...
DEMBY: ...An old obituary of Jesse Helms who was an...
MARRERO: Oh, my God...
DEMBY: ...Ardent segregationist, right?...
DEMBY: And you could see, in the in the obituary, how the reporter was saying, like, oh, he was an arch conservative. Like, no, no, no.
MARRERO: (Laughter) No...
DEMBY: He was a segregationist. So I'm curious about, like, what you make of that reluctance to call things - what the both of you make of the reluctance of mainstream news organizations to call things...
MARRERO: This concept that journalism is to give one side and give the other side...
MARRERO: ...And let people figure it out. Well, no, I mean, you look at the issue. You compare. You, you know, you talk to sources. And then, you know, you say this, you know, if it - what? - if it walks like a duck and talks (laughter) like a duck, it's a duck, you know?
MERAJI: So wait, Pilar, so Spanish-language media is calling him a racist.
MERAJI: You guys have called him a racist. Wes, I don't feel like English-language mainstream media has called him a racist in that way.
MERAJI: Am I wrong?
LOWERY: No, it hasn't. No, no, and you're not wrong. I think you're right. And I do think that, you know, for me at least - and again, like, I've got the privilege of not having to write about the campaign every day, so I get to pick my battles in terms of how I engage this. Two things as it relates to this, all right, because I do think we can't be scared to say true things. It is our job in the media to say true things. But also, you know, the way I also feel about it is that, you know, I try to interrogate, like, actions and words and not people necessarily, right? So, like, this thing Donald Trump said is racist. Like, this thing...
MERAJI: Right, OK.
LOWERY: ...He just - this policy is prejudiced and this is racist, right? You know, and, like, I think there's a distinction there. I think there's ample evidence to call Donald Trump a racist if that's what you would like to do, right? Like, I don't think there's any reason not to do that necessarily. But I also think that sometimes - so I guess the reason not to do that might be that people might be more amenable to a conversation, especially the type of people who you are trying to convince that this is a truth, might be more amenable to that conversation if you say, hey, this policy, like, this thing he just said is clearly racist or clearly good because people love to move the conversation, especially white people. Like, do people see a racist as, like, you're the Klan and you're leading a lynching? And they don't understand how, like, racism impacts policy and impacts real life...
LOWERY: And so very often, they're like, well, I don't believe Darren Wilson was a racist, so therefore race didn't play a factor in Michael Brown's death. But what we know, like, when we pay close attention to it is that, like, race impacts all types of things, like, the likelihood of why Michael Brown would've been stopped, or the likelihood that he would've lived in that neighborhood in the first place, the likelihood of how Darren Wilson would've interacted with him. And so, very often, I just try to avoid the term racist because that's starts to interrogate individual people. And, like, I'm much more interested in, like, interrogating policies in, like, a big, macro way.
MARRERO: Well, to be clear, we don't call him a racist...
MARRERO: ...Just because he looks racist. We call him a racist...
LOWERY: Oh, of course...
MARRERO: ...Because he's promoted racist policies. He's said racist things. He has racist friends, and he retweets white supremacists', you know, Twitter accounts, things like that.
MERAJI: Oh, yeah. More of that real talk from our conversation with journalists Pilar Marrero and Wesley Lowery after the break. This is CODE SWITCH.
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DEMBY: All right, y'all. This is CODE SWITCH. We're back with our conversation about covering this racially-charged election cycle or somewhere - or it feels like the last couple of years when you're a journalist of color like us. We invited Pilar Marrero from La Opinion and Wesley Lowery from The Washington Post to join us.
MERAJI: Wes, I really do want to go back to the use of the word racism. I mean, there is a power in calling things like they are. And...
LOWERY: Of course.
MERAJI: ...You're saying you're not going to call Trump a racist because it's pointing at an individual. And it will kind of shut down people from listening to what you're trying to write, I'm assuming.
LOWERY: Well, yes. Yeah. Yeah.
MERAJI: But do...
LOWERY: I just don't see - like, I guess the way I frame it is - what is my desired effect? And, like, especially as someone who, like, personally spends a lot of time trying to call things as I see them in my digital presence, to me, calling Donald Trump a racist in an article - like, my desired effect is to convince people who are not already convinced that a policy is racist that it is racist.
So I think, for me, tactically, the thing that is most important is to be able to show them the disparate racial effect of something or show them or outline for them why. You know, unfortunately, as a reporter, sometimes, my job is to explain to white people what racism is, right? Sitting there yelling, like, well, that's racist. That's racist.
That's racist. Some white people will be like, yeah, well, all my black friends said that thing's racist. So it must be. But a lot of other people need to be walked through in a much more deliberate way. And again, my lense is very often through policing, right? And I see that term all the time used by police unions and police chiefs as a way of deflecting real criticism.
Well, Darren Wilson doesn't have a KKK robe. And so see, none of this was about race because the problem is - how do you prove that an individual is or is not a racist? That's, like, impossible.
LOWERY: It's like, that's not a thing you can - but you can say a policy is. Like, that policy is clearly racism or is racist.
MARRERO: Just for the record, Latina media doesn't sit there and yell, racist, racist, racist. We actually do reporting.
LOWERY: Of course.
MARRERO: We actually talk about the issues. We actually point to statements made. And we make conclusions. And, you know, you can do whatever you want. But at the same time, you know, we have a different audience. My audience is Latino, you know? And they know what it feels like. And they know what it looks like.
DEMBY: I'm curious about...
LOWERY: Of course, you know...
LOWERY: I was just about to say. I mean - and I'm not trying to level any criticism of what you guys are doing or how you're doing it.
MARRERO: I don't mind if you do.
LOWERY: No. But I'm not, right? You know, like I said, I (unintelligible) specific nuance in terms of how I use the language because, like I said, my - you know, my goal is both to tell the truth but also to, like, achieve better outcomes. And so, for me, especially in a very policy-oriented way, I never gain anything from calling someone a racist.
DEMBY: I'm curious about who can label things racist to begin with. Nick Kristof of The New York Times has a column out called "Is Donald Trump A Racist?" and - in which he's sort of walking through Donald Trump's long history of sort of discrimination in housing when he was getting a start in real estate, the sort of very untoward things he said about black people over the course of his long public life.
But the first thing I thought when I read that headline is that I think a lot of reporters of color at a white news site would be really uncomfortable with that headline - with that headline being attributed to them, being about their story because it would mark them...
MERAJI: As partisan.
DEMBY: Yeah, I almost don't think...
MERAJI: They have an agenda...
MERAJI: ...Even if it's all backed up with facts, for example.
DEMBY: Yeah. Am I off there?
MARRERO: That sounds like a media that is controlled by a certain group of the population calling the shots.
LOWERY: Amen. I think that's true. You know, I think that - I think that many people are uncomfortable with that. And I also think we also have to remember that, like, as minorities - as racial minorities, we are innately more comfortable discussing race because we're more likely to have race negatively impact our lives.
There's no - my dad - I remember my dad telling me one time - like, I never tell you you are black. The world is going to let you know on your own. And that was very true. Like, it didn't take very long growing up for me to be - oh, wait a second. Race is a real thing.
Many white people can live most of their lives without having to have any personal grapple with race. So even the mere idea of discussing it that full-throatedly or even feeling comfortable using these terminologies, I think, for a lot of people, especially a lot of white people, it doesn't come as naturally as it does for - you know, you get a group of black and brown people together. And we understand. And we get that immediately.
And so I do think that that's one of the reasons why so much coverage of race is so substandard. It isn't done well because you have people who are writing and editing it who don't actually have a fluency or an intimate comfort with the concept of race.
MERAJI: I also wonder how social media has affected all this, especially for journalists of color. I mean, Wesley, you are all about Twitter. I feel like everybody knows that. And, you know, it's a more intimate form of sharing in some ways. There's - there can be a bleeding between the personal and the professional on Twitter. And I'm just wondering has this helped or hurt your cause as a black journalist? Have you said things on Twitter or - to be transparent from where you're coming from as a black man that have hurt you later?
LOWERY: I think yes and no, right? Because I think that - I mean, I think you're right. There's this bleeding over the personal and professional. And in general, I think that's a good thing. I can better understand what Gene writes because I know he likes the Eagles or I know - you know, like, specific personal things, in fact, help us. Like, the more we know about a speaker, the better we can contextualize what that speaker is saying, right? But I also think that what social media does because we are knowing more about the people who we are hearing from and who we're listening to, it allows us to nitpick specific things about those people and either validate or invalidate them...
LOWERY: ...Based on that. So someone could say, well, that one time - well, you know, like, I have...
LOWERY: ...People - I have a number of - like, I'm a Cavs fan. I'm from Cleveland - (unintelligible) for Cleveland. And when the Cavs won and Barack Obama tweeted, like, congrats to LeBron James and the Cavs, and I, like, responded to it, like, oh, my gosh, I'm crying or something like that. I had some, like, non-good faith people try to come at me a week later. Well, what could we expect from you, you sellout liberal, you know, who cries when Obama congratulates LeBron James?
LOWERY: I'm like, that doesn't really have anything to do with my politics at all. My basketball team just won the NBA finals, and the president of the United States just acknowledged it. And so I think that, like, it certainly allows people who are not operating in good faith - which is a lot of people - to kind of pick and choose things.
But I also think that, like, I believe pretty firmly in the idea that everyone sees who you are over the long run anyway. So people see me laboring to try to be fair or laboring to try to be comprehensive or laboring to try to understand something, they're going to see my humanity and further validate and further underscore my work. So people who want to hate me for - or try to disparage me for some side comment or for something about my personality or one story of mine they didn't like, you know, those people always existed. So, you know, it's just now they have the Internet, and they can tell me, you know, all the things they think about me.
MERAJI: Constantly. What do you think, Pilar? What about this idea of the bleeding between the personal and the professional? And, you know, if you say something about, oh, I - you know, I saw this Venezuelan thing and I was really into it or I went dancing salsa the other day, has that impacted how people are reacting to your work?
MARRERO: For me - has been positive. It has been more positive. You know, it's almost like you become some kind of a small celebrity (laughter), you know? It's like they're reading your work and they're knowing about your personal life, and they appreciate you more because, you know, we don't work in television, so we are not really celebrities, you know? TV reporters, everyone knows them. And people in other media, you know, we don't get recognized and things like that. So it makes a lot of people pay attention to what I'm saying, and I think - and what I'm writing. So - and it drives traffic to, you know, La Opinion website, so that is good.
MERAJI: I'm saying this because the other day I was watching, actually, Donald Trump, his speech. And he had gone through the entire part of the speech where he was talking about the undocumented man who murdered the young woman. And then pretty soon after that, I believe he was talking about Iran and the problems that we have with Iran. And I remember, I think, listening to the speech and being like, well, this is hard to listen to as a Latina and an Iranian. This is a difficult speech for me to digest. So I'm asking this question to you two, where - does that ever happen? Have you had those moments, where, you know...
MARRERO: Oh, I openly do that.
MARRERO: And, you know, I don't get called by my editors. My editors don't care. We say where we are, you know? And that's what it's about. You know, I tweeted something about his speech, too. I tweeted it was the worst fear mongering speech I've ever heard. (Laughter) So I was pretty direct...
MERAJI: ...I mean, what do you have to say about this?
LOWERY: Yeah, it's the truth. I mean, I do still have those moments where I - like, I send something and then it starts to pick up a little bit. Like, I sometimes...
LOWERY: ...Tweet, and you know that moment when it just starts to go by? Like, you're like...
LOWERY: And I kind of - it's funny 'cause we all learn Twitter when no one follows us.
LOWERY: And so then, like, over time as we become more prominent, like, there's those little moments where you forget, oh, a lot of people kind of follow me on Twitter. You know, you feel like you have that moment where you're like let me get this tweet off real quick. And then, like, it starts getting retweeted and you're like wait a second, uh-oh. Like, did I really - did I mean that? Did I want to say that? Even if I meant it - I mean, I always mean everything I tweet, right? But sometimes there are things that I mean that I should, say, tell Gene over beers versus...
LOWERY: ...Things that I mean that I should tell half a million people...
LOWERY: ...Right? You know, it's - there - so there's that as well. But I also think that it's important - I mean, I really do believe that, like, truth telling is really important, and that it's important for us, especially as relatively prominent members of the media who are of color. It's important - I mean, for a lot of us - it's weird to think about - for a lot of us, we are the black or brown friend of a bunch of white people who follow us on the Internet. Like, there are people who are watching to be like, well, what does Gene think about this?
DEMBY: That is a thing that I don't think I appreciated until very recently. One of the roles we sort of serve in this space, whether we want to do that or not, whether we mean to or not, is, like, the brown friend who sort of validates or explains the world to white people. And there are times - I'm just being candid here - there's times when I've gotten in trouble, like, you know, gotten in trouble at work for saying stuff that was, like, impolitic, you know? Because, like, I forget that the people who I'm talking to don't get all the context, right? Like, this is a high-context space. There's a lot of slang being thrown around, right? I say something and it's, like, understood to me and a bunch of people what I mean when I say something. But, like, that stuff doesn't translate out into the world. A lot of white people don't know what we're talking about.
MERAJI: And there's already a critical eye on you and assumptions being made about whether you can be fair as a black man...
MERAJI: ...And a journalist. So there's that at work, too.
LOWERY: Yeah, and I think it's also...
MERAJI: Or as a Latina - or - you know, and a journalist.
LOWERY: And one other thing I was going to say - and I also think that, you know, in times when I've gotten, like, my hand slapped or, you know, a talking to or an e-mail - right? - like, you know, they also - what I appreciate from my bosses is there's always been a focus on accuracy in that, right? Like, one thing I remember that I got a talking to about was after the Walter Scott video came out. And I was - you know, and, like, I was reporting. I mean, this is something that, like, is 100 percent in my beat, right? Obama gives a speech, and that's like my beat adjacent. Sometimes I write about that stuff, but it's not like I'm our White House reporter.
But if it has anything to do with the police, this is my thing. I'm the one writing our front-page story. So when the Walter Scott video came out, I talked about how the officer then picks the Taser up and appears to set it next to Walter Scott's body.
And I used the verb plant, like you could see him plant the Taser.
DEMBY: Oh, right.
LOWERY: And look, most - I think most reasonable people who watched that video would come to that conclusion. But...
DEMBY: You were assigning a motive...
LOWERY: ...The space in which...
LOWERY: But - exactly, but in the space in which I am the person who needs to call Michael - Officer Slager's wife and his lawyer, I have to be extra careful in that space to have accuracy, right? Because me saying that - me responding to something on something that I have to cover day in and day out...
LOWERY: ...Is different than me just responding to something else that might have to do with race where I can be a little less - like I said, a little less - you know, just a little less specific, right? And so it's different if I get something a little bit wrong responding to something that I'm - not cover versus every word that I say about Walter Scott or Michael Brown has to be right.
DEMBY: Pilar, I have a quick question. Are there more eyeballs on what you guys are doing now, I mean, because of the election season? Part of that is, like, election spike in attention. But does this feel like more people are paying attention to your work this time around than even...
DEMBY: ...A typical election year?
MARRERO: ...Definitely, definitely. I think so, especially because the same thing, social media. And I engage a lot and I share my work, and I do - you know, I use all the different platforms. But also, this election in particular, I see friends of mine who never pay attention to elections actually going to me and saying, did you watch that speech? And I'm like wow, did you...
MARRERO: ...You know? Like, people are really engaged this time around because of the nature of this particular election.
LOWERY: Except it cuts both ways, for me at least, because a lot of the policy stuff I do, last year, like, policing was the most important thing. That's all anyone wanted to talk about. And this year, because of the election, the policing policy stuff gets way fewer eyeballs.
LOWERY: So we'll do, like, a story just as rigorous, like, an analysis that's just as big and five - you know, like, 50,000 people will read it. And then Donald Trump will say something crazy and, like, 9 million people will read it. And that'll be the most...
LOWERY: ...Read thing on the website for nine days. But it also - the other thing I think is true though is during an election year, there is a bigger focus and a bigger scrutiny of individual reporters...
LOWERY: ...Because - I was just talking to a CNN reporter, a friend of mine, at lunch. And it's like every four years, every person in the country becomes the worst version of themselves because the thing about elections is it's like when you have the Olympics at school, right? It makes everyone be on a team.
And you want your team to win, and you want everyone else's team to lose. And, like - and then that always exists. There's always, like, some partisan divide. But, like, every four years, you're aunt and uncle who don't really care about politics are now, like, the biggest Bernie bros you know, right? Or that elementary school teacher who doesn't really follow anything is, like, posting a Trump link every single day, right?
It turns all of these people who otherwise aren't really politically active, and all of a sudden they know everything about politics. And so you get all of this, like - you know, if I'm - if I have to mention one of the candidates, I can expect, like, to be deluged in, like, feedback from one candidate or the other. Or everyone searching's for media bias because everyone's biased against your candidate, no matter who your candidate is, right?
We hate - we hate Hillary, but we also hate Bernie and we also hate Trump, but we're really propping him up and creating him, right? Like, the media can't win no matter what. And so there's a different level of scrutiny sometimes around the political campaign than there is just normally.
MERAJI: Are journalists of color especially vulnerable to that, or is it just a free-for-all?
LOWERY: I definitely think we're vulnerable to that because people want to project an extra layer of bias onto us. Not only are we the corporate media sellout, but on top of that, we're, like, race crusaders, right? No one can accuse my dear white colleagues of being that. Like, that's not a thing that anyone can say.
And so I do you think there's that extra layer of it. But I also think - you know, like some of the reporters who work the hardest and who are the most detail oriented and the fairest just come under, like, waves of attack that aren't based on anything other than partisan, you know, like, blinders, that, like, nothing about Bernie can be wrong. So therefore, The Washington Post must be out to get him. And nothing about Hillary can be right, and so therefore - you know, I see - you see a lot of that. I think that transcends racial lines sometimes.
MARRERO: Well, there's definitely a hate against the media going on. And I - you know, sometimes I get really tired of it, and I respond to people because everything's the media's fault, right? And sometimes I say, well, try living in a country without media, you know? Try living in a country where media is not free, where government controls the media or where journalists are killed, like Mexico or Colombia or, you know, so many other places...
DEMBY: Turkey just shut down...
DEMBY: ...A bunch...
DEMBY: ...Of newspapers, yeah.
MARRERO: Right, right. They just put a bunch of people in jail. So, you know, it seems that, of course, the media has a lot of problems in the fact that now anyone that can write an article on all these sites that don't pay their writers, like The Huffington Post and others - you know, anyone can be a "journalist," quote, unquote. Any person with an agenda can pretend they're a journalist or they can pretend their opinion leaders, right? And that's why I think there's all this hate going on against the media in part.
But at the same time, people need to think a little bit about what the role of media in society is. And we still have a very crucial role. And, you know, sometimes I feel sad that we don't get the respect we deserve.
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MERAJI: Well, on that note, I'm going to wrap up and let you guys get back to work. Thank you both for being here.
MARRERO: Thank you for inviting us.
LOWERY: Thank you for having us.
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MERAJI: All right, that wraps up this episode of CODE SWITCH. Thanks so much to journalist Wesley Lowery from The Washington Post and Pilar Marrero at La Opinion for keeping it so real. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.
DEMBY: That was fun, Shereen. I'm Gene Demby. Our producer is Walter Ray Watson. Our editors Alicia Montgomery and Tasneem Raja. Our news assistant is Leah Donnella. We say farewell this week to our summer interns, Ericka Cruz Guevarra and Haley Blastengame (ph).
MERAJI: Bye, y'all.
DEMBY: We appreciate y'all. I'm glad they got to rock with us.
MERAJI: And we had original music this week by Ramtin Arablouei.
DEMBY: You can find the team on Twitter @NPRCodeSwitch. You should definitely, definitely subscribe to our podcast wherever fun podcasts can be found. We want to hear from you. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We're back next week. Be easy.
DEMBY: You usually say peace there.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.