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Latina Journalists Who Challenged TV Station Leaders Were Let Go In Short Succession

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Three on-air Latina journalists are gone from Denver's leading TV station. The reporters say their passion for covering issues involving Latinos caused friction with their bosses at KUSA, which is also known as 9 News, and they say that contributed to them losing their jobs. The station says that's not true. But as NPR's David Folkenflik reports, the journalists' claim has sparked an outcry in Denver and beyond.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Start with Sonia Gutierrez. She was working at a TV station in South Carolina when KUSA offered her the chance to return home to Denver and to report for the most important station in town.

SONIA GUTIERREZ: It's something that I had been waiting for for a while, that big homecoming to come back to Denver, to Colorado and be a reporter here.

FOLKENFLIK: Gutierrez was excited to be close to family. Her parents brought her to this country across the Mexican border as a baby without legal documentation. She was a DREAMer before getting permanent residency through her husband. Why does that matter? Because, she says, in the summer of 2019, editors start to insist that she include that fact in any story she did on immigration.

GUTIERREZ: I was put in a box simply for who I am.

FOLKENFLIK: She refused and was told she had to pass along story ideas and sources on immigration to colleagues instead. Gutierrez left last summer after the station refused to renew her contract.

GUTIERREZ: It's not like there was something wrong with me or my reporting; there was just something wrong with who I was.

FOLKENFLIK: The revelation of this stoked outrage. Here's Denver City Council member Jamie Torres.

JAMIE TORRES: Our reaction to that as Latinas was very visceral. That it was - it would be singled out was kind of an element of bias and discrimination that I think we found really problematic.

FOLKENFLIK: Torres was part of a group of local Latina public officials who met with station executives and demanded the dismissal of the station's news chief. The National Association of Hispanic Journalists went further. Julio-Cesar Chavez is the association's vice president for broadcast.

JULIO-CESAR CHAVEZ: It is racist to require a Latino reporter, a Hispanic reporter, to disclose their own immigration status before reporting on immigration.

LORI LIZARRAGA: Twelve steps forward, 14 steps back - that's what that feels like.

FOLKENFLIK: This is former KUSA reporter Lori Lizarraga. Her article in a local weekly revealed the three women's accusations against the station.

LIZARRAGA: So it's like a battle you almost don't want to win. So I stopped really pursuing immigration coverage in a big way.

FOLKENFLIK: At KUSA, Lizarraga says, she experienced pushback over her hairstyle and word choices and the stories she wanted to cover, especially those about Latinos.

LIZARRAGA: I don't think that it's a matter of, you know, these people are poor, Spanish language, so we don't want to talk about them. I think it's a matter of not having a connection to these communities, so no one is picking up that stone and turning it over and caring a lot.

FOLKENFLIK: Emails and texts show she insisted top editors should incorporate Black journalists to help make choices on covering the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman and the ensuing protests. She says after that, editors began routinely picking apart her performance, leading to her forced departure, too. A third journalist, former KUSA anchor Kristen Aguirre, filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over what she says is the station's broken promises to help her get back to form after she suffered a paralyzing stroke. The station also allowed Aguirre's contract to lapse.

KRISTEN AGUIRRE: Because they're KUSA, they can just get somebody else. They can get another Latino who fills that brown category, who's cheaper, younger, greener and more afraid to ask any questions.

FOLKENFLIK: The chief diversity officer of KUSA's parent company, Tegna, tells NPR the station's ouster of the three Latinas had nothing to do with their identity or coverage issues. The company and the station say they can't comment further on personnel issues. Megan Jurgemeyer is the station's news director, the newsroom's second in command.

MEGAN JURGEMEYER: Any of us who've worked in journalism for any period of time know that there tends to be a way we do things - right? - that's been ingrained for many years. And now is the time to look at how we used to do it, and maybe some of that goes out the window.

FOLKENFLIK: Yet the accusations arrive at a fraught moment for Tegna, one of the nation's leading owners of local TV stations. CEO Dave Lougee apologized for mistaking a prominent Black Washington, D.C., attorney for a parking valet after a business luncheon at which they chatted minutes earlier. The attorney withdrew from consideration as a possible corporate director at Tegna. In recent weeks, there have been changes throughout Tegna and at KUSA from the language reporters used about immigration to new diversity initiatives. KUSA just promoted a Black executive producer to assistant news director. Jurgemeyer says that under the news chief, Tim Ryan, the station has made diversity a priority. Half of new hires in KUSA's newsroom have been people of color, a quarter have been Latino.

JURGEMEYER: We've always considered it a priority to be a voice for the voiceless, so doing stories about our underrepresented communities has been part of our fabric at KUSA for years.

FOLKENFLIK: All this comes too late for the three Latina journalists. Now Gutierrez works across town at Rocky Mountain PBS, Aguirre is an anchor and reporter at a much smaller station in Asheville, N.C., and Lizarraga is seeking other opportunities in TV news.

David Folkenflik, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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