Editor’s note: Raul Ramirez, KQED Public Radio’s executive director of news and public affairs and former Poynter Ethics Fellow, died Nov. 15 at age 67. He was scheduled to receive the 2013 Distinguished Service to Journalism Award from the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and deliver an address that announced creation of the Raul Ramirez Fund for Diversity in Journalism at San Francisco State University. Ramirez passed away before he could give his speech. In his place, Jon Funabiki, SFSU journalism professor who had known Ramirez for 25 years, presented his friend’s address at the chapter’s awards event on Tuesday. The speech is reprinted here with permission from KQED, which originally published it:
In my four decades as a journalist, the power of people’s voices has shaped my work. To me, journalism has always been about the power of voices.
My earliest adolescent writings were inspired in part by a graphic sticker I plastered on buses and doorways as a young teenager in another country and in another time. Above a drawing of a firing squad executing a man, it proclaimed: “Ideas are to be debated, not assassinated.”
My first true lesson on the power of voices came when I signed up for a journalism course at a South Florida high school. As a native Spanish speaker, I was hoping to learn enough English to end the streak of failing grades that had littered my short scholastic path in the United States.
For this class. I interviewed a fiercely taciturn school crossing guard then approaching retirement, and wrote a story about him. The day the interview was published, an amazing transformation occurred in the crabby guard, who had long terrorized students who defied his mandates. Students gathered around him. They asked him about anecdotes in the story. He smiled and smiled. At one point, he bowed in response to the students’ good-natured ribbing. He seemed pleased, and happy. At the end of the school day, he pointed at me, raised his hand to stop traffic and, with a grandiose and comical sweep of his arm, invited me to cross as he might have done for royalty.
For a neophyte reporter with linguistic challenges, this was a lesson to learn: Give a man his voice and wonderful things can happen. The crossing guard finally had his voice. And I had found mine. I was hooked on this power of journalism to give someone a voice.
It would be a while before I reflected on another aspect of that power: The power to deny a voice to those whom journalists ignored.
In my early newspaper years, covering poverty, immigrant communities and the criminal justice system, I was very aware of the power of human stories to change the perceptions of readers and, sometimes, to influence the powerful. I thought of my role as that of a storyteller, without whom people and even entire communities would remain in obscurity, marginalized and ignored.
I came to see that I did not give voice to others, but that my role was to amplify authoritative voices that lacked only access to the means to spread their messages.
But as the years passed and my journalistic experience grew, I gradually realized that the power of words was not something that I, the journalist, bestowed on the people and communities I covered.
The power, I came to understand, was in the stories that people chose to share. I was merely a conduit for the dissemination of those stories. I began to see how journalists could frame the story, to give it context and depth, but that we could not own the story. I came to see that I did not give voice to others, but that my role was to amplify authoritative voices that lacked only access to the means to spread their messages.
This became a master narrative about my work. And I came to feel that journalists must also be generous, thoughtful, civic-minded and caring. Even now, with an Internet explosion that gives every voice more power than it ever had and raises new and vexing questions about the true role of a journalist, it is these values I hope to encourage with the creation of the Raul Ramirez Fund for Diversity in Journalism at San Francisco State University. I have endowed this fund to promote the journalistic values — diversity and excellence — that have been at the core of my entire professional career, and to do so long after l am no longer able to personally advocate for them.
Journalism is sometimes described as a mirror that society holds up to itself. When the public looks in that mirror, it is important that it see faces that reflect the diversity of the community. But it must see more, much more. lt must see that the stories we tell, the experiences we illuminate, the public policies we explore, the communities we describe — the entire body of the very work we do — reflect those same diverse realities.
To do that, we cannot be mere stenographers to the powerful. Journalists must be agents of the truth in all its forms, wherever it resides, and we must work harder and more consciously to seek out the stories that don’t come to us because they lack the resources to bring them to our attention.
I am very grateful to the Society of Professional Journalists for honoring me with this award. There is something special about recognition from one’s peers. To have the respect of so many whom I admire is humbling. Thank you.
— Raul Ramirez
Contributions to the Raul Ramirez Fund for Diversity in Journalism can made by mail or online through the San Francisco State University. (In the About Your Gift drop down menu, select Other and enter the designation The Raul Ramirez Diversity in Journalism Fund.)
Related: Journalist Raul Ramirez dies at 67