Three years since stepping away from daily journalism, Rick Rodriguez is optimistic about news coverage of immigration issues. The shrinking news industry certainly doesn’t stoke his hopeful outlook, but college student journalists do.
As a Carnegie Professor of Journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication since 2008, Rodriguez has launched a cross-disciplinary specialty in reporting on Latinos and U.S.-Mexico border issues. To that end, he teaches a in-depth reporting class that encourages young people to ask tough questions and has also started a seminar course involving ASU faculty from different departments who have borderland expertise. Among other things, the seminar explores political, legal and religious aspects of Latino life. Cronkite School officials added the new Latino reporting specialty to the curriculum thanks in part to grants by the Carnegie Corporation and Knight Foundation.
Rodriguez, the former editor of the Sacramento Bee, never considered teaching a class on the side while working full-time for daily newspapers for 25 years. Yet he was immediately intrigued when Cronkite School officials contacted him for the job. Amid ongoing financial cutbacks at news organizations nationally, Rodriguez sees a growing absence of sophisticated coverage on complex, hot-button issues like immigration “in favor of churning out short, snappy things.”
Rodriguez pushes students to view and explore stories from multiple angles and to try to overcome their shortcomings. For instance, he doesn’t consider language barriers an acceptable excuse in determining the direction of an assignment or even an interview. “I make them get translators or take Berlitz or some other crash course in Spanish.”
The first Latino to serve as president of the American Society of News Editors, Rodriguez began his career as a teenager when he quit a grocery store job to become a copy boy at his hometown Salinas Californian newspaper. As Bee editor and in other management positions, Rodriguez became well known in the industry as a champion of diversity in news coverage and in hiring staff.
“Rick has been a tremendous talent whose teaching is an inspiration to his students and colleagues as he mentors a new generation of great journalists,” says Christopher Callahan, dean of the Cronkite School. Long before Arizona’s controversial immigration law was officially passed this year, Rodriguez’s students were pursuing stories examining border issues.
“Too much of the public thinks immigration is simply a matter of legal versus illegal,” Rodriguez says. “It isn’t. It’s about undocumented parents whose U.S.-born children are citizens and how the kids wind up in foster care if the parents are deported. It’s about ranchers whose property is vulnerable to people coming onto it (after crossing the border). Some students are immersing themselves covering the nuances of (visa) programs on the border, like whether crime victims can get visas.”
Student ambition and energy were evident on a recent Saturday night when several phoned Rodriguez to say they “got an opportunity to go out with Border Patrol immediately.”
Ironically, cutbacks at U.S. newspapers have created opportunities for ASU students. The Cronkite News Service, managed by ASU faculty, allows professional news organizations free use of daily news and enterprise stories written by advanced students. And for several summers, students have participated in the News21 initiative, funded by the Carnegie-Knight grants, in which they pursue in-depth projects that appear on the Internet but also get published in newspapers thanks to industry contacts among Rodriguez and other faculty. Rodriguez is particularly pleased whenever his students scoop national reporters covering immigration topics.
“They’re pushing the reporters who parachute into Arizona. They’re interested in the national perspective and not at all intimidated by competition.”