CBS correspondent finds ways to connect heritage with reporting

By David Baxley, Assistant Professor of Mass Communication, Francis Marion University, and SPJ South Carolina member.

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Mireya Villarreal reporting from California wildfires near Bakersfield, Calif., in June 2016.  She is the only Hispanic woman on CBS News west of the Mississippi River. Photo courtesy Mireya Villarreal/CBS News

As Mireya Villarreal, her husband and young son watch another Sunday broadcast of Terrell Suggs and the Ravens on the field in Baltimore, Maryland, she begins wondering what the new work-week may hold. After all, she has some work “from” the field of her own to do in just hours. And, her job could take her anywhere.

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Mireya Villarreal (yellow jacket) reports from wildfire devastation in California. Photo courtesy of CBS News

Villarreal, a CBS News correspondent based in Los Angeles, has covered some of the most emotional, gut-wrenching and powerful stories one could imagine. From the 2013 Fertilizer Plant Explosion in West, Texas, to the Umpqua Community College shooting in Oregon, to the devastating 2016 wildfires near Sierra Nevada mountains, to the recent presidential election, Villarreal knows she has a job to do. She also recognizes the importance of doing that job right, upholding the tenets of journalism integrity.

“I push the limits in the field, fishing for answers, because I know the viewer at home doesn’t have the same access as I do,” Villarreal said. “I write, rewrite, then get at least three other people to check my work because it matters.”

But, the quest to be an outstanding reporter goes beyond double-checking your work. In today’s world of distrust in the media, responsibility goes beyond just getting it right. It also requires a connection with the audience. “Having strong, seasoned, connected journalists that aren’t just dependable, but relate-able is important,” she said.

From the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, Villarreal has worked her way up through the ranks, starting in Laredo, Texas, at KGNS. From there, she worked at KRGV in Weslaco, Texas, and then on to WOLA in San Antonio. But her passion for in-depth reporting revealed itself while as an investigative reporter at KTVT in Dallas-Fort Worth. She realizes not every station has the resources for a full-fledged investigative unit, but she believes reporters — even in small markets — can find stories that connect with viewers. It is another way newsrooms across the country can be more accountable.

“Every breaking news story will have an investigative angle to it; you just have to be smart enough to find it,” Villarreal said. To stay relevant in today’s news world, investigative stories are needed that uncover government wrongdoing, question local and national politicians and save consumer money.

Villarreal dreams of one day using her investigative reporting skills on CBS’ 60 Minutes.

Her rise to a network correspondent did not come without challenges. With the lack of diversity in newsrooms, working as a Hispanic-female has not been easy.

“I had a thick skin before — you have to in this business — but now I have to put armor on to battle my critics,” she said. 

“People can be mean and sometimes racer or gender is the easiest way to take a swing at someone,” and she has discovered some of that negativity comes on social media.

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Villarreal covered the retirement ceremony for veteran forecaster, Vin Scully, in 2016.   Photo courtesy of Mireya Villarreal/CBS News

Those negative moments are out-shadowed when he feels like she has made a difference, especially in the Hispanic community. Remember that “connection” part? Last summer, during the farewell ceremony at Dodgers Stadium for sportscast legend Vin Scully, one fan put it all in perspective for Villarreal.

“I was shooting interviews with families and fans near the field when I noticed this Hispanic woman hobbling over to my crew on crutches. I figured she was just curious about what we were doing or who we were,” said Villarreal.

“‘You’re Mireya Villarreal, right? You’re one of us. We watch CBS all the time to see you.”‘

It did not take long for Villarreal to understand the significance of what the woman had just said.

“I almost cried. This was the first-time outside of Texas, where I spent the last 10 years of my career, where someone recognized me.”

Multimedia managers must understand the important connection journalists have with their audience — specifically when those journalists work on behalf of news consumers who have been underrepresented in the past. With audience fragmentation, newsroom managers must meticulously devise a plan to push diverse messages which impact not just one community, but the overall audience. That approach can spotlight diversity and cultural differences in unique ways. It contributes to our democracy.

Embracing differences inside the newsroom, seeking out investigative stories, treating press freedoms as a privilege and a responsibility, and having a thick skin will make you a better journalist. A solid work product is found using a mixture of those ingredients. It’s up to you as a reporter to focus on what you want out of your career.

Just like those ups and downs each season while watching your favorite NFL team: you won’t win them all. But it’s how you respond each time you come up short.

For Mireya Villarreal, she has used her various experiences in broadcast news to become a respected, dedicated and connected network correspondent. It’s the type of commitment broadcast journalism needs for a win in 2017.

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David Baxley

David Baxley is Assistant Professor of Mass Communications, Francis Marion University, and a SPJ South Carolina member. Baxley worked in broadcast news since 1999. He is also a meteorologist. Before entering academia in 2016, Baxley worked as an investigative producer at WIAT-TV in Birmingham, Alabama, for two years. 

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