Giving Voice to the Voiceless: Interview with Crime Reporter Justin George

While many journalists have been forced to shift away from the field, Justin George remains stronger than ever. The Colorado native is in one of the most challenging beats in a notoriously violent city: crime and police in Baltimore. As a reporter for The Baltimore Sun he has covered high profile stories such as the recent city riots and the story of Adnan Syed, which became highly popular due to the Serial podcast to which he also contributed.

When I met Justin, he was a general reporter at the Pulitzer Prize winner newspaper the St Petersburg Times (now known as the Tampa Bay Times). During his nine years there he uncovered tough stories that needed to be told such as the investigative series on sexual abuse allegations at a developmentally disabled group home and a former Tampa Bay Buccaneer search for the killer of his son. Before that he worked at the Daily Press and the Daily Camera.

This autumn, Justin is heading to Marquette University as a Public Service Journalism fellow to lead a group of student researchers. I wanted to find out how he perceives journalism today and most of all, what motivates him amid what seems as a world surrounded by bad news.

How would you describe what you do?

I am a crime reporter and I cover mostly Baltimore police. My job is to essentially cover crime. Every day Baltimore police sends out a crime list (of what) occurred last night, usually the very serious ones like murders and shootings. I look at those every day and I try to find out who the victims are, look for trends. I am also keeping track of what is going on the department, how they are enforcing crime, how they are trying to deal with the trends, what is going on as far as politically in the city… It’s a combination of a lot of things… I interview a lot of police, I go out on the streets when I can and I try to interview victims in neighborhoods and see how crime affects them.

I’ve always viewed my job as more than just crime. I think crime affects a lot of things: it affects business growth, it affects quality of life, it affects population growth in the city… This is actually a health issue in the city.

How do you prepare for stories? How do you get your leads and identify what makes a story?

You just look for compelling stories about victims, or about suspects, things that are very unusual. But you also look for trends… If there are a bunch of crimes occurring in a neighborhood…If police are taking different tactics (such as) doing more foot patrols to try to meet residents and also suppress crime, do a story on that…We had the riots here and that has driven some of the violence that has occurred because of the looting of pharmaceuticals. So these are all little things that you pull out and you try to understand why. That’s always been key, understanding why things happen.

In terms of the perception of the public of the job of the media, for example when the people say the media is exaggerating, how do you feel about that?

The media gets beat up a lot now but I also think that regardless of it, (people) know that we are doing a public service and there is no doubt about it because they contact us, they are talking to us on Twitter and they understand that we are getting them information. I find most readers are honestly very thankful and they are very helpful… They want to understand too and they want to know why. They look to us to try to find out why.

(…) You have some trolls out there who say that the media is an issue and they are the problem. At times we make mistakes but we also try to acknowledge those things and be transparent. I know that is an issue in general but in Baltimore I think people are craving information. They want us.

Why did you wanted to become a journalist?

That’s a good question. I always liked to write, I think that was important. My dad actually worked at a newspaper. He was actually in the mailroom; he was not a writer but he put together newspapers so as child he would bring home the paper from the midnight shift… I would wake up every morning and read it, read the sports section. I think that always influenced me. I was always interested in writing and I was also very idealistic. I have a sense of right and wrong that I think is important to me. Everybody has a different sense of right and wrong but to me justice is something that is important.

Could you describe one of the biggest challenges you have had and what did you learn from it?

There’s been a lot. I think you always try to learn something from all the stories you spend a lot of time doing. Thinking of one that comes of the top of my head is that me and my crime partner who also covers crime, Justin Fenton, did a series on a summer of violence a couple of years ago. We looked at the people that were affected by the shooting and homicides that have gone one in the summer… We stretched out across the city and we looked for different people: victims, people in the neighborhood who have been affected, police. It was just really interesting because I think what that show was just how crime does impact a city. It impacts a city in every level and it impacts people in every level.

What stood out to me the most was speaking to a father and a son who had lost a mother and just the fact at how he was trying to hold the household together as his kid was a teenager and meanwhile the father was working all the time and trying to be a mother too and it just struck me how the bottles of Tide were on the living room floor. He was trying to do everything and trying to keep up the house too. But he had sworn that he was going to take care of his son. It was interesting, (actually) it was not interesting, it was sad to see what a hole had been left, what violence had taken.

With all these stories you cover, how do you keep a sense of optimism?

I would not say there is optimism but there is reward and the reward is that you are giving people who have been killed a voice for the first time. You are making their lives known to other people. These people may have lived lives out of the limelight but for once people are going to understand who they were and some of (the victims) had done already incredible selfless things. Sometimes is a cautionary tale of what not to do. Your are also trying to get these people’s faces out front to try to spur people to come forward and solve these crimes. That’s important too, that killers know that these people are not forgotten and that people are paying attention.

I’ve always remember a conversation we had in Tampa when you mentioned that what you liked about the St Pete Times is that they gave reporters time to develop a story. Now that in the past few years journalists are expected to do many things in a short period of time, do you think this is still possible?

It’s possible, it’s harder and the fact is that your bosses want to give you that time and your editors want the best stories. But the problem is there is less staff and there is a lot of news so time is very precious and its really difficult… If you look at the Sun we have an investigative team and our editors have given them time to work on very important studies and it has really paid off. They’ve given me time. I mean they are allowing me to go on a project for nine months. That’s phenomenal, that’s losing me, a pretty big producer, for that long. It is still important, is still valued in good newspapers like the Sun, it is still valued at St Pete Times, it’s just a lot more difficult.

What do you think about the evolution of journalism? Do you think it really is evolving or do you think it’s the perception of people?

The entire landscape has changed in a few years. I think journalism is very different. We are asked to do social media, we are asked to Tweet, Instagram and Facebok and get information out quickly. We are writing things as soon as we get to the office and updating things throughout the day. Before, we used to concentrate on the story that would go on the paper. Now we are concentrating on everything that’s going online as quickly as possible. So things have completely shifted… Everybody is more fluid. For better or worse we have to be faster and quicker. At the same time the quality can’t decrease so I think there a lot more pressure on us now so it makes it a lit more tricky.

I think technology helps. I think a lot of people think it hurts but I think it helps a lot when you take a picture from a crime scene and you Tweet it out, at least when you get back to the office I think you can look at that picture and describe what the scene is like. You can make it work for you.

If a student is going to school right now and says I want to be a journalist, what is your advice for them?

I think you should go for it if you are really passionate about it. I think people will tell you that you are not going to get paid a lot, (that) it’s a tough business and that is all true, but at the same time how many people do you know who actually love their job. If you are really passionate about writing and reporting, go for it. If you work really hard you can still be very successful at it. I would never discourage somebody from going into it if they are interested in it. I do think that they need to make sure they understand the commitment and sacrifice that would take…but you keep going and and you keep working and you can succeed.you keep working and you can succeed.

Follow Justin George on Twitter @justingeorge

Follow the author @yadicarocaro

Telling Uplifting Stories, Including Her Own: Interview with Aurora Rodriguez

In a Miami Dade Community College classroom, Aurora Rodriguez can be mistaken for one of the students she teaches in the undergraduate journalism courses. It is not simply a matter of looks; it is also the way she connects with younger audiences in person and through her work, her knowledge of the latest cultural trends, and her nonstop energy. Aside from teaching aspiring journalists at the college and before that at Florida International University, she is the editor of Where magazine for South Florida, as well as a blogger for various websites including J-14 Magazine and Dirty and Thirty.

She started in journalism almost 15 years ago in her native Puerto Rico and since then has written for various news sites and publications including The San Juan Star, The Ledger and The Miami Herald. Throughout her career, her focus has been on stories about culture, travel and entertainment. If you want to be in the know of the coolest places in Miami, ask Aurora. But aside from all the fun stories, her writing also addresses very personal struggles.

About eight years ago, Aurora was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Instead of hiding it she found a way to deal with her illness: by writing about it. I wanted to know her motivations for opening up to her readers and what she is teaching to others who want to follow her same teenage dreams.

What draw you to journalism?

When I was in the third grade and I started writing, one of my teachers told me ‘your writing is really good, you should be in the school paper.’ We did have school papers in elementary school. I remember writing stuff about the cafeteria food, my fellow peers, and then I never stopped. In high school, I became the editor for the school paper and it was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed hearing other people’s ideas and I enjoyed hearing stories about people’s lives. I guess that’s what really drew me into journalism.

You started at a really early age too? Did you do something before you were a reporter in The San Juan Star?

Yes I did! When I was in Sagrado (Sagrado Corazon University in Puerto Rico) my first real reporting job out of high school was being a youth reporter for Casiano Communications and the website PuertoRicowow.com. I had a weekly column online and I started writing about events and what was going on the city and Puerto Rico, where to go, and what you can do when you were young and you wanted to have a good time in the area.

Were you inspired by any author? Is there anybody you have looked up to throughout your career?

I was really in love with literature and I was really in love with poetry. I won a few poetry awards when I was in Sagrado which I was really excited about. Some of my favorite poets are (among others) Edgar Allan Poe; I know it’s a classic but I really love his writing (…) When it comes to really reading journalism and news writing, I pretty much follow the local news and those reporters. I also loved the magazines so I would subscribe to (these) which was one of the reasons I think I became a feature writer, just because I follow pop culture so much.

(…) Being at the school paper I started (writing) poems for it, but then when I started news writing I had a professor, his name is Rafael Matos, (who) gave me my first journalism class and he told me ‘don’t let anybody take your voice away from you because you can really be a good features writer.’ And I pretty much just kept doing that. I blame him and that is a good thing (laughs).

What has drawn you to continue writing in this type of beat: culture, traveling, entertainment?

I feel like there are stories that just have to be told because not everything has to be negative and depressing (…) I feel happy when I write a story and it’s something that people can relate to. For example, in my travel writing if I write a story on say going to Jamaica where I went a year ago, and somebody writes ‘oh my God, those were such great recommendations, I am happy you wrote that story because I follow your advice,’ it makes me feel good.

(…)I really like writing stories about real people, writing stories about people that are doing amazing things in their neighborhoods. I just like writing stories where people read them and they can relate or they read them and they are happy when they read them.

You are also very personal in your writing. In your blogs you have covered your frustrations.

Yeah, like my bipolar disorder and my mental illness… I knew that there was something wrong but I had no idea what was going on and when I found out, it was like sense of relief. I have been on medication since 2008. After I got married that is when I found out.

(…) It is very personal (writing) but I am not afraid to share my personal stories because I want people to relate. One of my personal goals is for people to read my writing and say ‘ok, I am not alone, look at her, she is able to have a job’ because there is stigma that people that have bipolar disorder can’t work because that is such an up and down disease. I’ve proven that you can live a normal life with my disability

It is very personal, I am sharing it, but it is also a release. It makes me feel better when I write about a tough time.

You even surpassed many expectations for “normal” people because I see you and you are always doing something.

Yeah (laughs). I have so many people coming up to me and saying ‘you are always out girl, you are partying’ and I am like ‘hold on a second, I am networking.’ I know it sounds strange but it has to do with my career. A lot of times to be able to come up with a story idea I need to be out there… One of the goals that I gave myself for this year, and I have been pretty good about it, is to go to less events because it really does take up a lot of your time. I feel when you starting out you should do that but once you reach a point you can back away; I am going to pick and choose what I am going to go to. With my disability and everything else, well I don’t consider it a disability, but I do get more tired because of my medication, etc. so I try not overextend myself too much when it comes to going out.

(…) I think that is my biggest advice to young journalists, (do) not get yourself get too burnt out because I’ve been there when I was 23, 24 years old. I was trying to cover everything at the same time and I would get so exhausted that I would barely sleep and that is dangerous. You need to have a balance.

Can you describe a great challenge that you had in your career and how did you tackle it?

I went through a big challenge when I was at The Ledger when I covered arts and culture. I remember there was source, and I bring this up at my class all the time, there was a source that said that they never gave me the quotes that I put in the story. You know for a journalist that is a big no no. When somebody says that, it is really scary. My editor was not the most supportive editor at the time but I was lucky enough that I had notes, that I had all the information in my reporter’s notebooks. I was able to back up my quotes, I was able to prove, yes I was there, yes, I had interviewed you.

(…) My biggest advice is always keep your notes, always keep everything in file and when you are interviewing somebody, always ask for permission, always save those files because you never know when somebody might read something and say, ‘hey why did I say that.’ You just don’t know what type of person it is you are going to be dealing with out there, so just keep yourself protected.

Talking about your students, what is the biggest advice you give them when you teach them?

I start my class really funny because I make them take their phones out and look up a story. I know that sounds hilarious, eleven years ago no professor would have allowed you to take out your phone and look up stories on your phone. But here is the thing: that is the world we live in today, news are that handy. News are in social media, news are on your phone, they are just right there for you in the palm of your hand.

(…) My advice to them is to keep up with the news very day … No matter what (themes) they really like, just try to step away from what they feel comfortable with and read all sorts of news… I always tell them be prepared, make sure they know multimedia, make sure they really learn their social media.

I tell them one person is expected to do the job of five. So don’t think you are going to go into a newsroom and just write: you are going to write, you are going to shoot video, you are going to take pictures, you are going to update those websites, so you need to be a ‘package’… That is what I try to teach them in the classroom.

Follow Aurora Rodriguez on Twitter @AuroraMiami

Follow the author @yadicarocaro 

Living in a Bilingual World

Vanessa Vazquez’s career in journalism is based on navigating two cultures. Her career started twenty years ago in her native Puerto Rico as a reporter in The San Juan Star, a newspaper targeted to English speaking audiences (in Spanish speaking island). Then she migrated to the United States and helped the Orlando Sentinel launch its Spanish language newspaper El Sentinel for a growing Hispanic audience. A few years later, she did the same for The Tampa Tribune with Centro Tampa, a Spanish language newspaper and website. I asked about her views on journalism from both sides.

You started in Puerto Rico in an English language newspaper to work here in Spanish language media. What was you experience in The San Juan star?

The San Juan Star was a generational newspaper for me. My mom worked there and my brother worked there. I grew up around it. The reason I liked The San Juan Star was that at the time it was the only newspaper in English language. The target audience at the time was for people who were transplanted or, like my mother, who grew up with two languages and felt more comfortable with the English language… The San Juan Star was for me home. I grew up there.

You say it was for transplants for people coming from the US. Was it for people who grew up in the states and came back to the island?

We had a lot of military bases (in Puerto Rico). When we started in 1958, there were a lot of Americans living in Puerto Rico that did not knew Spanish; there were (also) a lot of Puerto Ricans from the Island that were going back and forth. It was a perfect fit in 1958 and it kept growing. It was a pretty big newspaper back then…They had 80 thousand subscriptions. That was the necessity of having it bilingual because we were a bilingual culture.

Back in the 50s, 60s and 70s, it was forced (to speak English in Puerto Rico) so a lot people got comfortable with that language. The transplants, meaning the people who came from military bases, stayed there. In PR we had active bases until 2000s… We had like 6 military bases. Those people did not knew Spanish but they wanted to be part of the community…When I came in to Orlando we did the same thing: we wanted to cover what was going on in the area but in Spanish because (immigrants) felt comfortable. So it was a reversal for me: from a newspaper in English to a newspaper in Spanish… We wanted to cover everything that happened in the Island in English but in Orlando we wanted to cover what happened in the area in Spanish.

Was there a difference in content or the way the news were written or in the coverage from The San Juan Star?

We were different because 80 per cent of the editors came from the US newspapers so they came with the idea from journalism in the US, meaning that we did not like the idea of becoming friends (with sources); we were very hardcore. That is why we won the Pulitzer Prize because we were different.

You mean they covered more hard news?

We did hard news. We went and did reporting, old school reporting. If we had to piss somebody off we did and that is why we got the respect from a lot of people even from the government. They said if The San Juan Star covers it, it was because something was wrong and it was respected.

(…) When I came to The Orlando Sentinel, my editor Maria Padilla, came from a newspaper in English. We worked together in The San Juan Star, she came from that mentality of ‘no, we are not friends of anybody, we are going to find the two sides of the story and we are going to do it in Spanish.’ That is why El Sentinel was so successful from day one.

What do you think was the intent for The Orlando Sentinel with the newspaper El Sentinel? Was it marketing or the need to publish news in Spanish?

It’s funny you ask that because we at The Orlando Sentinel we had one page for the Latino market. In 1998, the Orlando Sentinel did a story about how the Puerto Rican government was bringing criminals here without alerting the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. These were criminals who were witnesses of massacres, who were drug dealers. They were brought here with new identity. The Orlando police was stopping them and they were realizing ‘this guy has new Social Security’ number… things were not adding up. The Orlando Sentinel sent two reporters and that is how I met them; we all worked together. They needed to find somebody who spoke Spanish and who new the library. I knew the library. That was a good ride.

They wrote the story, but the copy editor in Orlando was not so cultural and wrote a headline that say ‘Puerto Rican government is dumping criminals’ (see related story here). That caused the whole Orlando Puerto Rican community to go against the Orlando Sentinel; (they would say) ‘lets go and kill reporters,’ literally, because the Orlando Sentinel did not understand the new dynamics of the Puerto Rican community coming to Orlando. They said it was racist. So pretty much the editor said ‘we need to do something about this.’

The Orlando Sentinel was also owner of a Spanish language newspaper in Chicago which was very successful. They already had Maria Padilla working at the Orlando Sentinel, they also had Pedro Ruz. They knew me so they hired me immediately… They needed someone who spoke Spanish. So you have three people in the newsroom trying to culturize and explain (to staff) ‘we are Americans, most of (Hispanics) speak English, but they are afraid (to speak it) and what you guys did was racist.’

(The Orlando Sentinel) created one page, only one page of content of Hispanic media in English and Spanish. That was in 2000. It was very successful… At the moment they decided to do it bilingual because we had a very interesting Puerto Rican community. It was divided: Puerto Ricans from New York who do not want to deal with Puerto Ricans from the Island… (That is why) we decided to do El Sentinel, but bilingual… It was so successful that La Prensa, (a Spanish language newspaper) which was there before us, changed their whole format. They realized they needed to start covering the news instead of being a shopper.

How was you experience in Tampa with a similar project launching a Hispanic language newspaper and website? Did you see the same integration?

No, when we went to Tampa we had a hard time, because the person running the project had a hard time understanding journalism. (Tampa residents) did not wanted to be compared to Miami. They did not wanted to be compared to Orlando. They wanted to maintain their identity. They did not trust the newspaper. The difference is that the Orlando Sentinel was the only one newspaper in town. The Tampa Tribune had a competition with The St Petersburg Times and for history’s sake, The Tampa Tribune was always known to be racist. It was a tough sell.

When we started, I remember me shaking my head asking why do we need to be separate from the English newspaper. I came from Orlando, separation did not work.

Vanessa has also been a fervent proponent of online presence for newspapers for many years, and was very vocal about letting editors and publishers know the web was the future (I know this first hand since I worked with her many years). As a self-taught techie, Vanessa expanded her media experience to work in email marketing with companies as New York Life and Marine Max. She also owns VVY HUB a company dedicated to help small businesses establish their online marketing presence.

You worked a lot with the online side (of newspapers). Can you talk about the evolution of that side?

I started in online journalism in 2000 at the Orlando Sentinel. I decided to go into that route because back then AOL and other companies were involved in giving the news, and people were going to (these sites) to see information because it was faster. People did not wanted to wait for the 6 o clock news or the paper the next day. I saw there was this desire for news now.

Back then (the concept) was to have a teaser (online) and then do the big story in print. Now sadly, print its being thrown to the garbage, what (media companies) are doing is digital first, then they print a crappy story. It’s very sad to see how they (integrate).

You have worked a lot with Hispanic media. In your current job you are targeting Hispanic market as well. What are some big misconceptions about big corporations on the Hispanic market?

That’s is atopic which will take 3 days but I can try to convey in on two seconds (laughs). Mass media wants to lump everybody into one category. Hispanics are different, we come from different cultures, we have different dialects. In different areas we are totally different; we adapt to our surroundings but we are very attached to our homelands.

Follow Vanessa on Twitter at @lilprgidget. 

Follow the author on Twitter at @yadicarocaro.