Mexican-American group accuses city college newspaper of insensitivity

Students crumpled up copies of The Express, Sacramento City College’s student-run newspaper, to publicly reject the publication’s coverage of ethnic minorities, during a protest in late April. But what may have been a simple misunderstanding between campus media and those it’s supposed to represent and serve drew attention to a valid concern: negative depictions of ethnic minorities in the media and questions over how future journalists are trained to handle diversity.

The SCC demonstration—heated and argumentative—culminated from a series of events in which both sides disagreed on what exactly happened. It began with an open letter written by student Aaron Benavidez (a former editor in chief of The Express), which criticized what he deemed uncritical, problematic Euro-American-centric news coverage. Following the letter, Benavidez visited The Express office unannounced to insist the newspaper staff hold a campus forum to discuss his concerns. While Benavidez felt he civilly expressed his opinion, Editor-in-Chief Frankie Tobin viewed the approach as hostile and threatening, which led Express faculty co-adviser Doug Herndon to demand that Benavidez excuse himself from the discussion and apologize to Tobin.

“This was not in the mode of appropriate academic discourse,” Herndon said later.

Frustrated and worried that his concerns would not be acknowledged, Benavidez organized the protest with the help of Brown Issues, a highly respected campus group that raises awareness about topics concerning Mexican-Americans.

About three-dozen students primarily representing Brown Issues demonstrated on a warm spring day in the campus quad, where one student held a sign that read “Tacos are not important,” in reference to an Express article about Oscar’s Very Mexican Food restaurant on Freeport Boulevard. “Is that all my culture has to offer?” demanded student Jesse Cuevas. Another student said the article was one of the most demeaning he’d ever read.

These students, who expected an article about Brown Issues to appear in what the paper billed as its immigration issue, viewed the taqueria article as a slap in the face. To them, it was one more example of the paper’s systematic marginalization and desensitization of topics and experiences concerning people of color. A piece about their organization has yet to run.

But to The Express editorial board—one of the most ethnically diverse boards in the paper’s history—the staff was simply following journalistic procedures. The taqueria article didn’t replace the Brown Issues article; it was completely unrelated, the third part in a series on off-campus eateries within walking distance of school. Instead of the Brown Issues article, The Express profiled an undocumented immigrant; this student’s story, editors reasoned, was a more effective way of discussing the Dream Act, which allows undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at California colleges.

Herndon maintains that diversity coverage is hammered home all the time at The Express. Most staff members enroll in Newswriting and Reporting, a class that addresses the topic. Tobin is currently enrolled in Race and Gender in the Media, which, she said, has made her especially cognizant of negative depictions of minorities.

“These students are learning while they’re doing, so obviously things don’t go perfectly all the time,” Herndon said. Sometimes the students make poor decisions. For instance, a graphic illustrating an article on drug abuse in the United States showed a darkened face next to a hypodermic needle. Another issue contained a photograph of the Cesar Chavez march in Sacramento but without an article. How does a major celebration honoring a Chicano national hero not warrant a story, protesters asked? The Express staff’s answer: The march was held off-campus.

“There’s no thought-out approach to keeping them down. There’s absolutely no malicious intent,” said Express opinion editor Matt Rascher, who attended the protest. “I agree with the bigger issues at hand, about showing sensitivity to other ethnic groups. We try to encompass as much as possible.”

Tobin wrote an editorial in February stating the paper’s commitment to covering the school’s diverse population. Ultimately, though, producing a newspaper is hard work, Rascher said, and editorial decisions don’t always go as planned—something protester Matthew Nguyen acknowledged.

“I understand the complexity of portraying an issue and equal representation, and I appreciate what you’re doing, talking to us and engaging in this issue,” said Nguyen, reaching out to shake Rascher’s hand.

As the debate raged on, something good surfaced: Both sides agreed to hold a forum to discuss ways journalists can produce better coverage of diverse communities and how those populations traditionally marginalized can empower themselves to improve the media, which has essentially been both sides’ objective all along.