Photo above: Hurricane Maria hit the island of Puerto Rico in 2017 and citizens are still struggling to obtain full disaster relief from the U.S. government. Flooding and wind damage caused by Maria displaced thousands of citizens. Two Report for American journalists will continue to cover the relief and also government officials in Puerto Rico. U.S. Dept of Defense photo
Two journalists from Puerto Rico will join Report for America this year as part of a national effort to cover local news in underserved areas. Sizing Up The South talked to Rafael Rene Díaz Torres and Victor Rodriguez about their upcoming year of service.
Rafael Rene Torres
Sizing Up The South: How did you get your start with journalism? Talk about the beginning of your career.
Díaz Torres: My preparation in journalism was in sports media and society. I trained for that in graduate school at Penn State University, so when I decided to come back to Puerto Rico in 2011, I decided to apply to several jobs in sports journalism.
Unfortunately, there weren’t any positions available at that time, so the Puerto Rico Daily Sun offered me a job to cover hard news – mostly legislative events and issues about politics on the island. I was unemployed and even though my preparation was not to cover politics, I knew that I was ready for the challenge.
I spent a year at the Puerto Rico Daily Sun, then changed gears after in the summer of 2012. I decided to join a new project, noticel.com. It was a new, digital newspaper in Puerto Rico and now it’s a really established media on the island.
SUS: What was it like covering intense political events? What were some of the challenges you faced?
Díaz Torres: One of the struggles was trying to get information from not only politicians but also their press officers. I always wanted to get information that would basically help me understand aspects such as proposed bills, economic policies and sometimes they were very hostile, especially politicians that were apart of the majority party.
“The legislative majority, they were always hostile when I asked for information, and by the way, the information I asked for was supposed to be available to the public.”Rafael Rene Diaz Torres, Report for America journalist
It was interesting because the opposition, or the minority party back in the day, were always so willing to provide information. Of course, they were trying to do anything to uphold the legislative minority. The legislative majority, they were always hostile when I asked for information, and by the way, the information I asked for was supposed to be available to the public.
I remember one day I was covering a legislative session and there was an issue where some people were exposing information, and the microphone turned off because the person that was speaking gave some information that wasn’t comfortable with the legislators, so the microphone went out. I immediately not only tweeted that, but also included that with my story of that day, and I remember a few hours after the story was published the press officers of one of the legislators called me telling me what I reported was wrong and did not happen.
SUS: What does it mean to work for Report for America?
Díaz Torres: For me, it’s one of the biggest accomplishments that I’ve had in my still early career. Even though I started in 2011, I only worked as a journalist for two years. From 2013 until December 2017, I was a college professor at the University of Puerto Rico, so this is my official come back to journalism as a full-time reporter.
Report for America has tried to rescue local journalism as a tool to strengthen democracy. They have tried to promote access to information as something that allows people to be informed, and I believe that’s one of the ways to protect democracy. I am excited for what I’ll be doing within the next year.
SUS: How did you get your start in journalism? Talk about the beginning of your career.
Rodriguez: I would say that my first experience with journalism was back in 2003 while I was in high school. I was part of the journalism club at school. I really liked the experience, and that is why I decided to complete my BA in Journalism with a minor in foreign languages at the University of Puerto Rico.
But I really began to write when I was studying my master’s degree and had to work at the university newspaper. I had the opportunity to work as a digital editor at Diálogo, the name of the University of Puerto Rico media outlet.
Then, in 2013, I was hired to work as an economic and business journalist for Metro Puerto Rico. During my time at Metro, I had to write a lot. I began to fully understand the importance of building a relationship with sources and became more aware about how the topics I wrote about had an impact in the community. I’d say it was a very important step in my career.
Then, in 2016, I went back to Diálogo as acting director. That experience was very important as well because it helped me develop other skills, like administration tools, that eventually helped me to have the confidence to create a new journalistic project that I founded with other friends and colleagues last January.
I recently applied to Report For America in pursuit of increasing my experience in journalism and reporting with more confidence and responsibility about the issues that affect my country and my neighbors, this time from Centro de Periodismo Investigativo (Center for Investigative Reporting of Puerto Rico).
SUS: Can you talk about what it’s like to do watchdog reporting? What are some of the highlights? What are some of the struggles?
Rodriguez: In Puerto Rico, as it happens with other countries, watchdog reporting is as important as it is challenging. The government has not been transparent when communicating details regarding social and economic decisions. It’s hard to work as a journalist when the official entities close all the doors to access the information we need to write about true facts.
” … right now in Puerto Rico, we received millions in recovery funds that should be used in recovery efforts after hurricane Maria. Watchdog reporting will be important to monitor the government’s compliance with the management of that money. “Victor Rodriguez, Report for America journalist
But, at the same time, it is very fulfilling to know that they’ve noticed our work and they feel uncomfortable when we publish our articles. For example, right now in Puerto Rico, we received millions in recovery funds that should be used in recovery efforts after hurricane Maria. Watchdog reporting will be important to monitor the government’s compliance with the management of that money. It should be made in a fair and transparent way that helps rebuild the island’s infrastructure and makes us resilient.
SUS: What does this position with Report for America mean to you?
Rodriguez: After Hurricane Maria, the recovery process has been slow and, in some cases, unfair for the poorest sectors. The government continues to use money incorrectly and it’s necessary —today more than ever— for journalists to be more aware of how those funds are being handled in a country that is in a deep social, economic and environmental crisis.
For that reason, being part of this group will help me to report Puerto Rico, not only for our citizens to know what is happening but also for the people in the United States to be aware of what is going on in the island.
Natalie Beckerink is the 2019 SPJ Region 3 summer intern and reporter for SizingUpTheSouth.com. She is a junior at Auburn University studying political science and journalism. Beckerink is on the staff of the Auburn University Plainsman student newspaper. firstname.lastname@example.org
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