When model student Sonia Gutierrez was informed by her high school counselor in 2009 that college was out of the question because the young Colorado Latina lacked documentation, Gutierrez allowed herself an afternoon to sob, mourning the future she and her parents had worked toward their whole lives.
Then she got to work.
Gutierrez testified before the Colorado legislature in support of the ASSET bill, which passed in 2013 and allows qualifying students without legal status to pay in-state tuition rates. She shared her story with local journalists and was consistently disappointed in the coverage.
“I just remember thinking, ‘Well, of course. They don’t know what it’s like,’” said Gutierrez, now 30 and with permanent U.S. residency. “I have these white guys interviewing me about what it’s like to be here undocumented… I wanted to be the change that I wanted to see. I wanted to see stories told by my community — stories more fairly and truthfully representing what is happening. That was never going to happen unless people like us are doing that job.”
Gutierrez’s persistence paid off, landing her a 2012 internship at Denver’s 9NEWS, where she worked her way up to a full-time job, eventually meeting fellow Latina coworkers Lori Lizarraga and Kristen Aguirre.
However, the driving force behind Gutierrez’s journalistic pursuits — her family’s decision to come to America from Mexico when she was a baby and her struggle to obtain legal documentation — was thrown back in her face by 9NEWS, she alleged, when management told her she could only cover immigration-related stories if she disclosed her residency status in her reporting.
An article Lizarraga wrote for Westword last month laid out a story the three Latina reporters who were all let go by 9NEWS in the past year never imagined telling: allegations of discrimination in an industry that prides itself on holding others accountable and their dogged pursuit to tell their increasingly diverse community’s stories in spite of the obstacles in their way.
At a time when re-invigorated national conversations around racial justice are infiltrating industries across the country, Lizarraga’s disclosure rallied local Latina politicians, who called for meetings with the news organization; brought to light a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filing from a major shareholder of 9NEWS parent company TEGNA alleging racial bias among top brass; and spurred TEGNA-wide change to the language the company’s journalists use when reporting on immigration.
“I look at these three women as my heroes,” said Rebecca Aguilar, president-elect of the Society of Professional Journalists and chair of SPJ’s diversity and inclusion committee. “We should be very proud of Lori for coming forward because she has told us the reality of what’s going on in that station and the realities of the news business. I believe in our SPJ Code of Ethics. We are not supposed to do people harm. What these managers have done to these three women is harm.”
9NEWS management declined a phone interview with The Denver Post and would not comment on the exits of Lizarraga, Aguirre and Gutierrez — the station didn’t renew their contracts — nor their allegations of discrimination, calling them personnel matters.
In a two-page statement, 9NEWS Director of Content Tim Ryan said the newsroom is committed to diversity, equity and inclusion. Recent efforts include a DEI committee, listening sessions with journalists of color, training on inclusive journalism practices and an upcoming diversity audit by a third-party researcher, Ryan said.
“While we are making progress, we know we have much more work to do,” Ryan wrote. “As with many things, some changes and improvements will happen quickly, and others will occur over time. Ultimately, we are committed to working with our employees and the greater Denver community on a holistic strategy and tangible actions that effectively enhance our culture and serve and represent our community.”
Lizarraga, 27, pinpointed the moment her tenure with 9NEWS began to go downhill one year into her contract in early 2020.
Assigned to cover an air pollution settlement with the Suncor Energy oil refinery north of Denver, Lizarraga fixated on three Latinos sitting in the news conference audience. In Spanish, they told Lizarraga they found out at the last minute that someone would be talking about the environmental damage done to their community.
“I remember seeing those three Latinos sitting in the back row being told in a language they’re not fluent in that this issue that was affecting their community was settled,” Lizarraga said. “I went back to the newsroom and said, ‘If this were happening to a different community, you would have reporters consistently on this and you almost didn’t send someone to this today.’”
Lizarraga began pushing back on managers, advocating for better and more frequent coverage of communities of color.
“My passion and frustration over what we weren’t covering or how we were covering what we were covering was not well met,” Lizarraga said. “I was deemed aggressive or abrupt or defensive instead of passionate and eager and determined.”
Aguirre’s struggles with management began after the healthy young woman had a stroke in April 2019 that left her paralyzed down one side of her body. After months of rehabilitation with family and coworkers by her side, Aguirre re-learned how to walk and began outpatient therapy, eventually easing back into her job part-time while still on disability.
She said the station began testing her ability to do the job, assigning her to pitch and produce several stories on deadline, which she said she met. Aguirre looked forward to going over her stories with managers and getting back on the air until, she said, she was called into weekly meetings during which management picked apart her work. Complaints ranged from pushback on a Latino-related story idea to pointing out that her voice sounded different post-stroke.
“I realized then that no matter what I did, even when I did everything they threw at me, something was always wrong about my work,” Aguirre said. “Which is something people with disability face. They will do anything to push you out.”
Those lived experiences and the different lenses in which everyone views the world are crucial to providing news coverage that enables a functioning democracy, said Amy Jo Coffey, an associate professor in the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications who has researched diversity among journalists.
“People who grew up in poverty are going to have much more insights into covering issues of welfare compared to somebody who grew up privileged,” Coffey said. “It is important for all of us to be aware of potential biases, but just because we’ve experienced something doesn’t mean we’re biased in our work. It could mean we understand an issue better than anybody else… If you see people who look like you and have some similar life experiences, you’re also more likely to trust the information they provide to you. It serves our democracy, and it’s just good business.”
Locally, Lizarraga’s story resonated with a cohort of Colorado politicians of color — Denver City Council members Jamie Torres, Amanda Sandoval and Candi CdeBaca, as well as state Sen. Julie Gonzales, state Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez and Denver School Board treasurer Angela Cobián — who asked for a meeting with 9NEWS leadership after reading about the journalist’s experience.
“I know what it feels like to be in spaces where you feel like your voice is not heard or not taken into consideration,” Gonzales said. “I know how important it is for our chambers of political power and our newsrooms and our communities be diverse and reflective of our state. We came together and said how can we utilize our power, our influence to help support these reporters and to help make some positive change and hopefully build in some accountability.”
During the meeting, Gonzales said when the women asked 9NEWS leadership to explain their issues, the station officials said they hadn’t properly communicated their diversity statistics to the public. Eleven out of the 23 people hired at 9NEWS since the start of 2020 were people of color, the station said in a statement. Thirty-one percent of the newsroom are journalists of color, 9NEWS said. One newsroom manager out of 14 was a person of color.
One issue TEGNA addressed after meetings with the National Association of Hispanic Journalists: language used in immigration reporting.
“Using the word ‘illegal’ can be inaccurate and harmful,” TEGNA said in an email, obtained by The Post, sent to news directors around the country this week. “Humans are not illegal. TEGNA journalists should avoid using ‘illegal immigrants’ in both broadcast and digital content.”
The language change encourages reporters to only report what they know, which may mean referring to people as immigrants, migrants or unaccompanied minors. The email noted “asylum seeker” also would be appropriate if accurate and that seeking asylum is legal under U.S. and international law.
For Lizaragga, the change was a stepping stone to future victories.
After 9NEWS didn’t renew their contracts, the three journalists are taking advantage of new opportunities. Gutierrez is reporting for Rocky Mountain PBS, Aguirre is headed to a new job in North Carolina and Lizaragga is deciding her next steps after an eventful month.
After fighting workplace battles for so long, the Latinas said it was the community who ultimately lost after they were let go.
“The community lost a voice, a platform, someone who they know will fight for their stories,” Lizarraga said. “Stories I did brought COVID resources to underserved communities. I spotlighted business owners and families and advocated for Spanish-language resources. You have to care so much in this job. You cannot pay enough money in the world to make journalists care. For me to see that the more I cared, the less palatable I became to my newsroom, that is a battle I didn’t want to win.”
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