Look at me. I’m a dinosaur. A TV dinosaur to be exact.
For almost 30 years I’ve been asking millions of people to stop what they are doing and watch our newscast every evening from 6:30 PM to 7 PM. If they tune in one minute earlier or one minute later, I won’t be there. Appointment TV is about to disappear and my job, too.
Because of that, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the future of news. Let me share that with you.
Three waves -three major trends- are changing dramatically our job as journalists. One has to do with technology, a second one with demographics and a third one with neutrality.
Let’s talk first about the technological wave.
Nobody waits anymore for an anchor –for the dinosaur — in the evening to give you the news of the day. Nobody waits for the newspapers in the morning to find out what happened the day before. The waiting game is over. This technological wave is transforming our day to day as reporters.
CNN popularized the news 24 hours a day. Then the Internet gave us immediate access in our laptops and computers to whatever is happening in every single corner of the planet. And today social media – that is, one person with a cell phone witnessing a news event — can show us in real time a developing story. If there is an earthquake in China, a plane crash in California or a terrorist attack in Paris, I cannot compete with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. I just can’t for a very simple reason: most likely someone with a cell phone is going to be there and I won’t.
As director Spike Lee told me in an interview, “It is great for the public that everybody is an investigative reporter with a phone.” When Eric Garner was choked to death by NYPD officers on July 17, 2015, everything was recorded on a cell phone. No reporter was there when Garner was repeating, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.” But his friend Ramsey Orta recorded that confrontation on his cell phone. Absent that video, the police could have said that he died from obesity or any other health problem. With that video, Spike Lee made a documentary and now we really know what happened.
So here’s my first advice. Don’t fight technology. Use it. Embrace it. Go where the audience is; don’t expect them to follow you. And if people are using social media on cell phones to get their news, don’t insist on trying to seat them down on a sofa every night at 6:30 PM. to watch on television a half an hour newscast.
The future of TV is not on TV; it’s on social media. Television won’t go away. The best content that I’ve seen lately is produced for television. But that product is not being seen on TV sets; it is watched on cell phones.
For the last three years on the Fusion network I’ve been producing television for people who don’t even own a TV set. I’ve interviewed President Obama and have talked to many presidential candidates. I’ve traveled to Israel, Puerto Rico and Mexico. And I’ve reported from California to New York. Then, we edited those interviews and news reports, we aired them on television and, later, we packaged shorter versions for social media and the Internet. And here’s the wake-up call: it seems that more people are watching what we do on social media than on TV.
Let me give you another example. The Univision newscast that María Elena Salinas and I broadcast in Spanish every night is seen by about two million people. On many markets like Los Angeles, Houston, Miami, Chicago and New York we regularly beat most newscasts regardless of their language. But when the presidential campaign started, we made an experiment. We decided to broadcast from Iowa, New Hampshire and on Super-Tuesday only on Facebook Live, not on television. It was a bilingual broadcast, English and Spanish, more organic, with no tele-prompter, no lights, no make-up or scripts.
It felt more like real life, with silences and mistakes. We just reported what we saw and we simply talked with those who were at the polling places, no experts or talking heads. And, guess what? Three to four million people watched those reports on Facebook Live, almost twice the audience from our regular broadcast.
Conclusion: we know where the audience is going. There is a huge migration of eyes from television to the small screens on your cell phones. So we have to go there. But here’s the problem: we don’t know how to make money on social media. Who is going to pay for your salary and mine? We don’t know yet. That’s the honest answer. We’re trying to figure that out.
But this is what I know. I don’t want to become a dinosaur in this business and the only way to survive is to embrace new technologies. You have to be the opposite of an anchor. Anchors, by definition, don’t move. You have to move and adapt to be relevant in this business.
The future of news has three mandates: digital first, video first and mobile first. If you don’t follow those three mandates, you’ll be extinct.
The extensive use of new technologies is one huge trend that is affecting how we practice journalism in this country. Just say yes.
Another major trend is demographic. I call it the Latino wave.
Like it or not, this country is changing. There is a demographic revolution going on. So let’s talk about year 2055. It will be a great year for me…if I’m still alive. I would be 97 then. So this is mainly for you. On 2055, based on a Pew Research Center study, the white non-Hispanic population will become another minority. Every single ethnic group in this country –Latinos, African-Americans, Asians and non-Hispanic Whites- will be a minority.
Think about it. No ethnic or racial group will dominate or be a majority. The United States will be more diverse than ever before.
Latinos will have a major impact in our society. By then one in every three people in this country will be Hispanic. The Latino population will go from 55 million right now to more than 125 million, according to one estimate. But the change is well under way.
Latinos are already changing the way we dance and the way we eat in this country, from Ricky Martin and Shakira to Chef José Andrés. Having guacamole –with avocados from Mexico- is fast becoming a food trend during the Super-Bowl.
More examples. Sonia Sotomayor forced the other justices in the Supreme Court to ban the words “illegal immigrant” from their proceedings. One of our founding fathers, an immigrant called Alexander Hamilton, was re-born thanks to Lyn Manuel Miranda, who has won every single award for his Broadway musical, including a Pulitzer. The last three Oscars for best director were given to two Mexicans, Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu.
For the first time in history we had two Latinos -two Cuban-Americans- running for the presidency, Senator Ted Cruz and Senator Marco Rubio. And the new rule in politics is that no one can make it to the White House without the Latino vote.
In the next three decades -I’m convinced- we will have the first Latino president or presidenta of the United States. In 1984 Cesar Chavez, the iconic leader Hispanics and of the farm workers in California, said in a speech: “We have looked into the future and the future is ours.” Well, Cesar Chavez was talking about us, right now.
These demographic changes will have a profound effect in the way we work as journalists. This country, literally, cannot be divided between black and white. It is much more complicated, much more diverse, much more fun. Of course you could say that my son Nicolas is a Latino. But really he is a Porto-Cuban-Mexican-American. His is one of the many new faces of America. We have to get used to this new reality.
In a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-lingual society, we have to be more open-minded, tolerant and willing to listen to all kinds of accents. And then, report accordingly.
The Latino wave, and the minority-majority country in which we will be living, will continuously challenge our prejudices, our political opinions and our pre-conceived notions of what the United States should look like.
Good reporters understand that change and conflict always make for great stories. And change and conflict is what you will have in this country in the near future. Don’t be afraid of change; embrace it.
The third and final wave that I see for the future of news has to do with our role as society’s watchdog, holding politicians and government officials accountable. The most important social responsibility that we have as journalists is to question those who are in power.
I believe in journalism as a public service. And our service is precisely to ask tough, uncomfortable questions and to prevent the abuse of the powerful.
Now, in order to ask those questions, you cannot be too close to power. A healthy distance is needed. If you have breakfast with the governor, lunch with the candidate and dinner with the president, most likely you’ll hesitate before making them uneasy with a question.
In Spanish there is a great word to describe our place as journalists. We have to be “contrapoder.” In other words, we have to be on the other side of power. That’s where we belong. And from that place is where you can challenge authority. But here is the tricky, controversial part. To challenge authority you have to take a stand.
I know this goes against everything that we have learned in journalism school. We were taught to be objective and neutral in our reporting. But here’s what I’ve found. Objectivity is almost impossible and neutrality is not desirable on many occasions.
Objectivity is not a realistic goal since we all see things from different points of view and from different cultural backgrounds. If we choose to cover an event, a country or a person, by definition we are putting everything else to the side and being subjective. If I choose to cover America and not Africa, just that broad choice, is not objective.
So here’s an alternative. Be transparent. Explain to your audience why you decided to cover America and not Africa and then stick to the facts. The spirit of the objectivity principle is still valid. Report reality as it is, not as you wish it would be. If five people died, say five, and if it’s red, say red. That’s as close to objective you’ll ever get.
Now, I have a real problem with neutrality. To be neutral, sometimes, goes against good journalism. If you present both points of view in your report, it’s no guarantee that you are telling the truth. You cannot treat the same way a dictator and a victim of his dictatorship. You cannot treat the same way a racist and the people offended or attacked by him. Giving equal time is not necessarily the right ethical approach. False equivalence is not a legitimate journalistic practice. In those cases, you have to take a stand.
I have identified six areas in which we, as journalists, have to take a stand: racism, discrimination, corruption, public lies, dictatorships and human rights. In those situations, we should not be neutral.
I decided to take a stand and not be neutral when Donald Trump made his racist remarks about Mexican immigrants. He had to be challenged with the facts and that’s what I did in a press conference in Iowa last August where I was ejected by one of his bodyguards. The only other time in which a bodyguard has prevented me from asking a question was with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro in 1991. In other words, Trump and Castro did exactly the same thing.
After that incident with Trump, I’ve been asked frequently if I’m an activist or a journalist. My answer is that I’m just a journalist who asks questions. In other words, I’m an active journalist.
The best examples of great journalism in the United States have happened when reporters take a stand and stop being neutral. The Boston Globe reporters, portrayed in the movie Spotlight, took a stand against the Catholic Church and defended those who had been sexually abused by priests. The Washington Post reporters took a stand against government corruption and forced the resignation of president Richard Nixon. Walter Cronkite took a stand against the Vietnam War and Edward R. Murrow did the same against the lies of Senator Joe McCarthy.
When we choose silence, most of the time, we make a mistake. Many journalists chose silence before the war in Iraq in 2003, even though there was no proof of weapons of mass destruction. We also knew that Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator, but he had nothing to do with 9/11 nor was he an immediate threat to our national security. Thousands of Americans and Iraqis died because of that and, even today, we are suffering the consequences of our silence. We should not repeat that mistake again.
Elie Wiesel, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and holocaust survivor, once said, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” We didn’t choose this profession to stay silent.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who fought side by side with Nelson Mandela against apartheid in South Africa, said something beautiful about neutrality. “If you are neutral in situations of injustice,” he said, “you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
Happiness, love, success and good journalism aren’t found in neutrality.
Yes, choose very carefully when not to be neutral. Again, it should only happen in very specific cases. But don’t be afraid of taking a stand: that’s precisely why we chose this profession. If you do that, you’ll keep your most important asset as a journalist: your credibility. If you report and no one believes what you say, that’s your end as a reporter.
Now, let me just finish with some words of encouragement at a moment of huge disruptions in our business. It is true that we don’t know yet how to monetize content during this transition from traditional media to digital and social media. So don’t expect big salaries at the beginning. But journalists, real journalists, are needed more than ever. When you have tons of information on the Internet and on social media, credible and reliable voices have a superb value.
This is a profession in which your reputation is everything. Be transparent and, when required, be brave enough to take a stand.
Finally, Gabriel García Márquez was right: this is the best profession in the world. It will keep you young, rebellious and curious forever. It is beautiful to be a witness to history. It will allow you to see and experience what others only read about.
A reporter takes little pieces from other people’s lives. You’ll see the best and, perhaps, the worst in humankind. The planet will be your newsroom and if you work hard, with a little bit of luck, nothing in this world will be strange or foreign to you.
No, you will not be able to live many lives as actors do, but you will be able to live one full, intense, interesting and challenging life. I’m almost on my sixth decade and I couldn’t have asked for more.
So you really want to be a journalist? Then embrace technology and change, be transparent and, when it really matters, don’t be neutral. Now, go out there and tell me what’s happening.
And remember, don’t be a dinosaur.
By Jorge Ramos Avalos.
(May 17, 2016)