Television journalists Steph Machado, from WPRI, and Michelle San Miguel, from NBC10 Providence, were on campus to discuss the role of politics, race and gender in media as part of the Media & Politics Café series, a joint initiative to engage students in the Political Science, Media & Communication Studies, Psychology and Sociology programs. The event focused on the pair’s experiences in a world of growing media distrust, and highlighted the best ways for students to report news and consume media.
Machado notes that news tends to cover the actions of the party in power, whether Democrat or Republican. She says that because of this, “the party in power believes that the other party is in charge of the media.” But the idea of media working together is a myth, she adds. “Reporters need to be judged individually on the merits of their own work.”
Although Machado and San Miguel haven’t seen the same level of animosity toward local media as they have toward the national media, Machado recalls an instance when someone drove by her yelling, “Fake news!” She notes that President Donald Trump didn’t invent the term, “but he changed the meaning to be real news he doesn’t like.”
So how do aspiring journalists report — and consumers spot — real news?
Learn Media Literacy
“We need more disclosure of what is news or opinion format,” Machado advises. “Teaching media literacy can go a long way in helping to know who is a genuine reporter and who is not.”
Both San Miguel and Machado lament the death of local newspapers, which were often independent watchdogs that kept local government in check. They recommend that students subscribe to newspapers such as The New York Times to view reporting techniques and styles, and intern with reporters to learn firsthand what it takes to produce a story from start to finish.
Get to the truth; don't take anything at face value.”
Define the Facts — and Get Them Right
When San Miguel and Machado enter a newsroom, they leave their opinions at the door. “Facts are not up for opinion,” San Miguel states. “I wish as a country we could come to an agreement about what facts are.”
To check the facts and hold herself accountable, San Miguel scrutinizes every sentence she writes and asks ‘how do I know this to be true?’
“Get to the truth; don’t take anything at face value,” Machado advises. “There’s a saying: ‘If your mother says she loves you, check it out.’” Even in a 24-hour news cycle filled with ‘breaking news,’ she says that “It’s better to be right than first.”
Machado notes that the biggest part of her job is listening. “If [those I interview] feel a real threat, people need to listen.” She talks to police and experts with stats and combines these interviews to report the full picture.
Listening helped San Miguel when she reported on the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, one of the deadliest natural disasters on record to affect Puerto Rico and other areas of the Caribbean. “I gave a platform to people who might not otherwise have one. These people are Americans, and they were living in tough conditions prior to the hurricane as well. I interviewed those who were happy with the aid they received and those who weren’t. We have a responsibility to get it right, show the hardships, make people understand. Many people I interviewed even said thank you.”
But even listening has its limits. Although both reporters welcome constructive criticism of their work, they recommend reporters avoid reading social media comments. “I’m much more mindful of what I take in [on social media],” San Miguel admits. “There can be a lot of unnecessary anxiety.”
When reporting, the pair recommends avoiding words that are racially charged, discriminatory and offensive. Many may call this ‘political correctness,’ but Machado feels the term is oversimplified for such a complex issue.
“Replace ‘political correctness’ with ‘correctness’,” she advises. “It’s not our job to establish a label. We have an obligation to continue to represent people.” This includes asking someone how they would like to be identified, even what pronoun to use.
Both reporters stress the importance of reaching out to different ethnic groups. Machado notes that being multilingual helps establish connections and rapport — and how speaking Spanish especially helped San Miguel when she reported on Hurricane Maria.
We have to broaden our definition of what race, ethnicity and even our abilities look like.”
“We have to broaden our definition of what race, ethnicity and even our abilities look like,” San Miguel adds. Many have questioned her Latina heritage because her blue eyes and fair skin differ from stereotypical Latina looks.
Female reporters often endure more comments about their appearances than males, says Machado, and as the only female reporter at the Vermont State House, she was not taken seriously. She has been told that she looks thinner in person and has even been sent a harassing photo. Meanwhile, San Miguel has endured criticism for the way she rolls her r’s.
When one student lamented, “I don’t see people who look like me on TV,” both journalists agreed that media outlets must diversify to better reflect the communities in which they are reporting. Although the number of women and people of color reporting on screen is increasing, media conglomerate executives continue to be white males.
Through it all, Machado and San Miguel remain optimistic. San Miguel adds, “At the end of the day, as long as I’m comfortable with the work that I’ve done, I can sleep well at night.”