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I have anchored the evening news for KMEX, Univision’s Spanish-language local station in Los Angeles, for the last eight years. The first thing that surprised me when I started was the station’s approach to community-oriented journalism. Before coming to Univision, I had a narrower interpretation of television coverage: I saw a journalist’s sole task as reporting the news, not offering guidance to help viewers navigate their daily lives. KMEX has taught me otherwise.
Over my first few months on the job at the city’s most popular network (in any language), I saw my assignment desk colleagues transform calls from our viewers into specific news stories. The plight of a family wrongly evicted became an investigative series. A complaint about pollution turned into a story that uncovered malfeasance by a recycling company. The news team’s commitment, I soon learned, extended into territory that might not be strictly considered journalism but rather a sort of companionship—a mission to offer guidance for a mostly immigrant audience, in need of help navigating their adoptive country. This role also extended beyond TV: We gave the community financial advice, organized education fairs, or promoted free health clinics.
This form of local news has been particularly relevant during the coronavirus pandemic. “Univision has always been a trusted source of news and information,” news director Marco Flores told me. “Our community calls the assignment desk before they call the police. This kind of loyalty is a privilege, but also a huge responsibility and one we don’t take lightly.” The current crisis brought this duty into pristine focus. Over the past couple of months, we have dedicated our newscasts almost exclusively to the very specific needs of a community that is undergoing a seismic upheaval.
After local and state officials in California first put quarantine rules into effect, we held a Facebook Live chat to address the community’s concerns and, hopefully, alleviate its fears. The number of questions overwhelmed us. Some left me heartbroken. Many viewers agonized over how they would make rent or what they would do if their landlord tried to evict them. Others wanted help understanding what exactly an “essential” job was or whether they would be getting any sort of relief from the government. Many explained a distressing choice: try to wait out the pandemic and risk losing everything they had patiently built since immigrating, or pack their belongings and return to their countries of origin, closing the door on their American dream.
For the majority of our audience—and the country’s immigrant community as a whole—these questions are not rhetorical. Though many work jobs deemed essential by the government itself, such as health care services and those involved in the nation’s food supply, undocumented workers are now deeply vulnerable, left out of any relief from Washington’s massive stimulus package. It is up to local news teams like the one I am part of to offer concrete and urgent answers.
It is an enormous responsibility, and one that comes as our own jobs have been utterly transformed.
Like most local operations across the country, KMEX’s team has had to reinvent the way it broadcasts the news. There are fewer people in the newsroom. What once was a lively morning editorial meeting, with the smell of coffee and the occasional Porto’s pastries, has now turned into a multiscreen Zoom discussion. In these times of social distancing, newsgathering has taken precedence over technical quality. Interviews that were once done in person are now conducted via Skype, Zoom, or FaceTime. While still important, the audiovisual crispness of these interactions is no longer an absolute priority.
We have gotten used to seeing colleagues and interviewees in less than stellar lighting or without crystal-clear sound. My co-anchor, Andrea González, spent the first couple of weeks working from home, transforming her living room into a small studio, using her cellphone as a camera and a streaming device through a magical app called LiveU. Other reporters have done so as well, me included. This is just a precaution; thankfully, none of us has fallen ill. But the news hasn’t stopped. On the contrary, it’s more urgent than ever, and that urgency has forced us to innovate.
We begin every day with the coldest of news items: the daily numbers, the evolution of the terrifying contagion curve. But our rhythm and editorial approach is now very different. Where before we would feature story after story documenting local events, we now feature extended question-and-answer sessions with epidemiologists, mental health professionals, or personal finance experts. We routinely call in to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s press conference and ask him a question, in Spanish, from the studio.
We have also helped convey the importance of social distancing and basic hygiene measures. Veteran reporter Oswaldo Borraez, who usually covers the crime beat, is now focusing on news stories around quarantine awareness. “What we cover and how we cover things now might mean the difference between having access to food, medicine, or basic sustenance for our community,” Borraez told me. “It’s a unique moment, and what we do now will determine where things go tomorrow.”
Borraez brings this resolve to his daily work in the field. His story tags—that brief comment after the news story airs—have become a reliable and much-needed daily lesson on the new normal from a reliable source; like many of my colleagues, Borraez has been on our viewers’ screens for decades. When he reports, people listen. When he admonishes, people listen even more.
A couple of days ago, I ran into Pablo, a baker who works at our local convenience store. We were both wearing face masks. “I hardly recognized you,” he said, amused. We shared a laugh, and then Pablo told me he was grateful. He had tuned in to a discussion I had conducted about the need to take the coronavirus seriously. He told me he had liked my alien invasion example: In the first few days, in a last-ditch effort to convince the audience of the risk of contagion, I had noted that if the virus were a more visible enemy, aliens for instance, we wouldn’t question its veracity, however ludicrous the adversary seemed. “I also liked how you said that nurses and doctors are now like soldiers in a war,” he told me. “That helped my family understand.”
The exchange inspired me.
In the past few days, KMEX has begun airing a different kind of story. Amid the anguish, the station’s assignment desk has heard stories of survival and solidarity: a taquero taking his truck to a local hospital, a young Hispanic entrepreneur reinventing her company to manufacture face masks.
It will be, I hope, part of our future role. We have helped our audience through the storm. Much will need to be rebuilt. Now, we must help them find solace in the presence of others and, when the time comes, help them make sense of the world after the virus. I couldn’t think of a more noble calling for myself and my fellow journalists.