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Latina Journalists' Ousters From Denver TV Powerhouse Spark Outrage

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JerSean Golatt for NPR
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Lori Lizarraga says she was told by 9News she would be an asset and joined the station after two years as a reporter in Bakersfield, Calif. She says she was excited to be a general assignment reporter, closer to her family's home in Dallas and appearing on the air in a major market.

Sonia Gutierrez dreamed of returning to her hometown of Denver as a television reporter for the city's defining news station: KUSA 9News. When she finally achieved it, however, it came at too steep a cost, she says.

Gutierrez says she was told that she could report on immigration, an issue about which she cares deeply, but only if she were to state her own immigration status on air in every story on the subject.

"I was put in a box simply for who I am," Gutierrez says.

She had never tried to hide that her parents had brought her as a baby from Mexico without documentation. But Gutierrez, 30, says she balked at the station's directive. She was told she could continue pitching stories about immigration, but, she says, she was asked to pass off her ideas and sources to other reporters.

Gutierrez is no longer with KUSA. Nor are two other Latina reporters. One had pushed editors to involve Black and Latino colleagues in more decisions about news coverage. The other's contract was not renewed five months after she had returned after having a stroke. She, too, had challenged station leaders on how they cover issues affecting Latinos in Colorado.

Over the course of a year, from March 2020 to March 2021, KUSA allowed each of the women's contracts to lapse without renewal, the way television stations typically part with their journalists.

"The nature of the coverage was not a factor at all," Grady Tripp, the chief diversity officer of Tegna Inc., KUSA's parent company, says in a statement to NPR.

Calls to fire TV station executives
A quarter of Colorado residents are Latino, and the state is rapidly becoming more diverse. The ouster of the three reporters — revealed when one of them, Lori Lizarraga, wrote about it in Westword, a local alternative weekly — has revived profound criticisms of the station. In meetings with Tegna and KUSA officials this spring, a group of local elected officials, all Latina, called for the dismissal of KUSA's top news executive, Tim Ryan.

So did the National Association of Hispanic Journalists in its own meetings with station executives.

"It is racist to require a Latino reporter, a Hispanic reporter, to disclose their own immigration status [to viewers] before reporting on immigration," says Julio-César Chávez, the association's vice president.

According to two people who attended the NAHJ meetings, the association demanded the firing not only of Ryan, but also of his news director and the corporate official in charge of hiring. The company made no such promises, though it did direct stations to no longer use the word "illegal" when discussing immigration. (The station and the company declined to comment on the calls for dismissals.)

The outcry has focused an unwanted glare on Tegna, one of the nation's largest and most prominent owners of local television stations, just as the company faces claims of racial bias from a dissident investor.

Tegna and KUSA declined to comment on what happened to the Latina journalists and the criticism that has ensued, saying those are personnel matters.

9News: A station with swagger and sway
KUSA 9News' headquarters looms as a citadel of local television, in a largely residential neighborhood just 2 miles from the state capitol building. More than 100 journalists work in the KUSA newsroom (which also serves its sister station, KTVD), far more than the 60-some news staffers at the once-dominant local newspaper The Denver Post.

"9News is the market leader in Denver and has been for decades," KUSA news director Megan Jurgemeyer says in the station's first official interview since Lizarraga's article came out. "Having worked at another station in town, it was always viewed as the top competition and who we wanted to beat."

Kristen Aguirre, one of the journalists let go in the past year, says: "I didn't really know its reputation until my agent told me, 'Listen we go there, you put your time in there, you can go to whatever station you want.' " She says the station had swagger and sway.

9News is unusually woven into the fabric of its parent company. Tegna's CEO Dave Lougee used to be the station's news director. KUSA's general manager, Mark Cornetta, is also the executive vice president of Tegna Media, the company's local television division. And Patti Dennis, a Tegna vice president and director of recruitment, is herself a former KUSA news director who still works out of the station's main building in Denver. All three are white, as are Jurgemeyer and Ryan.

Parent company faces its own issues with race
Tegna faces its own allegations of racial bias. An activist hedge fund, Standard General LP, recently nominated rival directors, saying it wanted to diversify the company's largely white board. Standard General also contends that Tegna's leadership is following the wrong business strategy.

In an April federal securities filing, Standard General accused Tegna of racist practices stretching back years. For example, its filings pointed to one Halloween in the 1980s when Dennis wore blackface in portraying Michael Jackson and KUSA declared it the best costume.

In 2019, a sports anchor at the company's Phoenix station accused its general manager — recently promoted from a job as KUSA's sales manager — of making "loud and unwelcome racist and sexist comments about coworkers" at a baseball game, in a civil complaint reviewed by NPR. Federal court records show that case, centering on a civil rights violation claim of retaliation, was resolved out of court in a confidential settlement.

Standard General also pointed to an episode directly involving Tegna CEO Lougee. In March, Lougee publicly apologized for a 2014 incident in which a Black lawyer had accused Lougee of mistaking him for a hotel parking valet just minutes after a professional luncheon at which the two had chatted about business.

The attorney, Adonis Hoffman, was one of the board nominees proposed by Standard General. He withdrew, citing professional conflicts and saying he did not feel comfortable working with Lougee. While Hoffman accepted Lougee's apology, he wrote a letter to the CEO raising concerns of "unconscious bias."

Tegna defeated Standard General's efforts to appoint dissident directors to its corporate board. It has publicly accused the investment fund of "unfounded attacks" in response to its criticisms.

Jamie Torres, a Denver city council member, was among the Latina state and local public officials who met twice with KUSA executives following the dismissal of the three journalists. She says the meetings left her unconvinced that there would be real progress beyond some changes in language and style.

"The conversation felt just incredibly transactional," Torres says.

And it renewed long-held frustrations: Torres says the three Latina journalists had been hired after an earlier round of discussions between the station and Denver-area Latino officials about representation at KUSA.

"Why Don't You Pitch It To Telemundo?"
While in college, Gutierrez interned at the local affiliate of the Spanish-language network Telemundo. Back then, it was housed inside KUSA's headquarters. Though owned by Tegna, KUSA is an affiliate of NBC, and Telemundo is part of NBC's parent company, Comcast.

As Gutierrez rose at Telemundo Denver, she also pitched stories to KUSA.

She says she often heard back: "That's a great story idea, why don't you pitch it to Telemundo?" Her response: KUSA also needed to serve Latino families — the ones who speak English.

"After a while, when stories wouldn't get picked up, I would just take it upon myself to do the interviews, write up a little [script] and give it to the anchors and say, 'It's done.' To the producers, 'It's done. You want it or not?' " Gutierrez says it was easier to hand off the idea fully baked.

After a stint at a station in Columbia, S.C., Gutierrez returned to KUSA as a reporter. She says KUSA leaders told her that she could be a defining person for the station, someone who would thrive there. By her telling, Gutierrez ignored the little slights that accreted.

Then, Gutierrez says, she was told she had to disclose that she had been a DREAMer, protected from deportation through the Obama-era policy called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, before she became a legal permanent resident through marriage. She didn't see why viewers needed to be told that in each of her immigration reports.

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Michele Abercrombie/NPR
Sonia Gutierrez poses for a portrait in her neighborhood in Denver. "For me, the biggest incident was when I was told that I could not do any more immigration stories unless I disclosed my immigration status on air," Gutierrez says.

Gutierrez says she received no response when she asked for concrete examples of how her status had compromised her reporting. And when she refused to go along, Gutierrez says, she was told she would have to pass her story ideas and sources on immigration to other reporters.

"It's not like there was something wrong with me or my reporting," says Gutierrez, who left last year. "There was just something wrong with who I was — a liability to them."

Allegations of unfulfilled promises
Aguirre, 34, a Mexican-American who grew up near Midway Airport on the South Side of Chicago, says she had been inspired to become a journalist to tell stories about Latinos that were not simply about crime and immigration.

She came to Denver after being an anchor at a smaller station in Flint, Mich. Initially, she felt like her reporting skills were rusty. But Aguirre says she believed her pursuit of community-driven news brought value.

"I can tell a story in a much different way than a female white reporter can because I lived it. I know the questions to ask," Aguirre says.

In April 2019, Aguirre suffered a stroke that resulted in a traumatic brain injury and paralyzed her on her left side; as she built back strength and returned in the fall, the station shared the news with the public, ran stories highlighting her recovery and helped raise money for research into her affliction. Colleagues printed T-shirts. KUSA set up studio time for Aguirre to practice hosting and provided a photojournalist to carry her equipment and shoot footage on assignments.

After roughly six months, as new newsroom leaders rotated in, both arrangements waned, and then disappeared, she says. She did not return to the anchor's chair. The support in the field ultimately vanished too, Aguirre alleges in a formal amended complaint she filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission earlier this year.

Aguirre left the station in March 2020. Her attorney, Iris Halpern, says the complaint is currently in mediation.

"Because they're KUSA, they can just get somebody else," Aguirre says. "They can get another Latino who fills that Brown category, who's cheaper, younger, greener and more afraid to ask any questions. Although I was recovering [from the stroke], I was still that woman who would push back. So I'd be in those meetings and I would ask 'Why?' "

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Juan Diego Reyes for NPR
Kristen Aguirre is now working in Asheville, N.C. At KUSA 9News, Aguirre says, she believed her pursuit of community-driven news brought value. "I can tell a story in a much different way than a female white reporter can because I lived it. I know the questions to ask."

"I was instructed not to wear my hair in a bun"
After two years as a reporter in Bakersfield, Calif., Lori Lizarraga says, she was told by 9News that she would be an asset and she joined the station. It was a huge leap in the world of local TV news — from the nation's 125th media market to the 17th.

Soon, Lizarraga, 27, clashed with editors over her refusal to call someone "an illegal immigrant" or say they were "in the country illegally." KUSA had formally moved away from the use of the term "illegal immigrant" in 2013, but Lizarraga did not want to use the word "illegal" at all.

"I was like, 'I'm not confused about the grammar, y'all'," Lizarraga recalls. "You're confused about the family I come from and the background I have."

Lizarraga, whose mother was born in Ecuador and whose father is first generation Mexican-American, remembers saying, "'My voice will never track this slew of words." She says she ended up shying away from stories involving immigration.

After its meetings with the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, Tegna announced it had revised its language policy for all stations. The company said reporters should not use the word "illegal" when discussing immigration and offered nuanced guidance for the characterization of immigrants' circumstances. The memo suggested using precise language such as "asylum seeker," "immigrant" or "migrant" or "unaccompanied minor."

The question of how to characterize such matters has prompted debate in many newsrooms, including NPR, and standards have evolved over time.

Lizarraga recalls even having her hairstyles vetoed. She wrote in Westword, "After six months, I was instructed not to wear my hair in a bun with a middle part anymore — a style I have seen and worn as a Mexican and Ecuadorian woman all my life. Not a good look, I was told."

"We Would Have Had Reporters On Every Corner"
Lizarraga, who left in March, says she hit an inflection point early last year. Colorado state regulators had just announced a record fine against a Canadian energy giant whose plant had been polluting nearby neighborhoods for years. She read up on it as she raced with a colleague in the official KUSA 9News van to the press conference.

"Ash was falling from the sky onto people's cars and yards and playgrounds," Lizarraga recalls. "Water was impacted."

She was struck by something else: The communities affected were heavily Latino. Yet, she says, state regulators had not consulted with those communities or even put out information in Spanish. And back in the newsroom, she says, producers focused solely on the size of the fine — potentially up to $9 million.

"I was very upset and I said, 'You know, if this were a community in a ZIP code just up the street with a different demographic, we would have had reporters on every corner ' " to interview residents, Lizarraga says. "And because this is a Spanish-speaking, low-income, largely immigrant community, we don't have an interest. We are choosing what is newsworthy based on what you care to talk about, not what is actually newsworthy."

Jurgemeyer, the KUSA news director, says she cannot directly address Lizarraga's account, as it is bound up in the accusations about her departure.

"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," Jurgemeyer says.

"We have to confront management"
The killing of George Floyd, who is Black, by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020 inspired national protests for racial justice. It also sparked debates inside newsrooms, from Bloomberg News to The Intercept to Fox News to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to the Los Angeles Times, about how they choose to cover stories involving race and inequality.

Often led by journalists of color, younger generations of staffers questioned whether their profession's tenets of "objectivity" and "impartiality" — in a sense, standing apart from those they cover — harmed Black and brown communities in particular.

At KUSA, Lizarraga says supervisors resented her for demanding that African American colleagues be consulted on coverage about Floyd's murder and the protests. She thought they had a right to weigh in on questions such as: How much of the video of Floyd's death should be shown? When and if was the word "riot" appropriate? How much coverage should there be of police tactics? KUSA leaders did subsequently involve Black journalists and other reporters of color in such conversations.

Lizarraga says she rallied colleagues of color to object when the station decided to stage a town hall meeting on race and equity hosted solely by a white anchor. Instead of channeling that fervor, Lizarraga says, it was largely deflected.

"We can't be exhausted, we can't be scared," Lizarraga recalled telling colleagues. "We have to confront management and tell them that we have ideas and that we deserve a spotlight right now."

Her supervisors had their own take. Emails among Ryan, other news leaders and Lizarraga reflect that supervisors told the reporter repeatedly that she fell short, starting around the time of the protests and moving forward. She was told she had failed to turn in two digital text versions of her television pieces. She had been late hitting "slot" — the deadline for filing video and audio. They wondered whether she could take the care and precision with the technical aspects required to succeed in the job.

Lizarraga says that she did not fail to file the digital stories and that Ryan was mistaken. She maintains that she did not crash deadlines, although she sometimes pushed up against them. These, she argues, are small-bore critiques in search of red marks against her.

Meanwhile, she says, she was not recognized for the initiative she showed, such as the data-driven pieces that officials and advocates said (in text messages reviewed by NPR) served as a road map for government agencies seeking to arrange COVID-19 testing in heavily affected Black and Latino neighborhoods.

"We are committed to doing better"
Last year, as people protested in the streets and in corporate offices, Tegna stepped forward and said it was working to meet the moment.

In the months since, company CEO Lougee announced a huge diversity, equity and inclusion initiative. Fresh corporate training programs promoted diversity in hiring and coverage at all 64 stations scattered across 51 markets. Last September, Tegna hired Tripp who is Black, as its first chief diversity officer. There are three people of color, including Tripp, in Tegna's nine-person corporate leadership team.

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Michele Abercromibe/NPR
People of color now make up a third of the entire newsroom at KUSA 9News in Denver.

In Denver, Ryan, KUSA's chief news executive, sent a memo to staff the day after Lizarraga's piece was posted by Westword.

"We continue to prioritize diversity, equity and inclusion in our newsroom and at the station," Ryan wrote in the memo, which was obtained by NPR. "We, like all newsrooms, should strive to do better. We are committed to doing better."

Jurgemeyer, a seven-year veteran of KUSA, says Ryan has pushed the news team to reflect the communities it serves. Since he took the reins in early 2020, she says, the newsroom has hired 20 people, 10 of whom are people of color. She says five Latino journalists have been hired since the start of this year.

People of color now make up a third of the entire newsroom. The sole news leader of color is Erica Tinsley, who is Black and formerly the executive producer of several news programs and a leader of 9News' diversity and equity efforts. She was promoted to assistant news director last month.

"Any of us who've worked in journalism for any period of time know that there tends to be a way we do things that's been ingrained for many years," Jurgemeyer says. "And maybe some of that goes out the window."

In the past year and a half, she says, the station has assigned workplace "buddies" to newcomers to help them acclimate them to its pace, culture and expectations.

"Because of the reputation of 9News, this is an intimidating place when you start working here," Jurgemeyer says. "We have to be open. People have to feel like we're listening to them, that we're not just always talking at them."

Life after KUSA 9News
All this arrives too late for the three Latinas who used to work at KUSA.

Gutierrez now works across town at Rocky Mountain PBS. Aguirre is a local news anchor and reporter in Asheville, N.C., part of a television market that is about half the size of that of Denver. Her new station has an anchor, just retired, who returned from his own traumatic brain injury.

In the official memo last winter announcing Lizarraga's departure, Chris Vanderveen, KUSA's director of reporting, wrote, "She learned not just how to fight for stories... but how to fight for the subjects of those stories as well. Her passion for people far too overlooked came out in the words she chose to fill the stories she did."

Lizarraga returned to her family home in Dallas. In late March, she published her allegations against KUSA in Westword. "What Lori Lizarraga did took a lot of courage and bravery," the NAHJ's Chávez says, singling out Gutierrez and Aguirre for praise as well. "Journalism is an industry where a lot of people are mistreated, a lot of employees are mistreated, and discriminated against, and then people simply go quiet.

"For Lori to actually tell the world how bad the situation was, how bad she was being treated and how racist some of the management policies were, that takes real courage. She put her entire career in jeopardy."

In October, the Colorado ACLU will honor the three women for "fighting discrimination in the newsroom."