‘This is not a profession for people who want to be silent,’ says Univision’s Jorge Ramos on journalists’ role when democracy is at risk

Journalists have two main responsibilities they should be able to fulfill, said Jorge Ramos, co-anchor of Noticiero Univision at the 23rd International Symposium on Online Journalism in Austin, Texas.

First, report reality as it is, not as journalists wish it would be. And the second is to serve as a counterweight to power.

Ramos gave a keynote address to the ISOJ audience remotely from Miami, Florida, on April 2 during a session chaired by El País managing editor Borja Echevarría.

“The most important social responsibility that we have, I believe, is to question and to challenge those who are in power. Architects and engineers build beautiful structures, doctors save lives . . . our responsibility is to challenge those who are in power,” Ramos said.

Jorge Ramos, Noticiero Univision co-anchor on the screen, and Borja Echevarría, managing editor of El País, discuss journalism at ISOJ 2022. (Patricia Lim/Knight Center)

When a democracy works properly, journalists normally don’t have to take a stand, but when democracies are challenged either by dictatorships, corruption or human rights violations, journalists must take a stand to be able to make a difference, the veteran news anchor said.

“The word in Spanish that defines what I think a journalist should do is ‘contrapoder’ (counter-power). That means that if we want to do our job, we always have to be a ‘contrapoder’,” he said. “We always have to be on the other side of power and if we are always on the other side of power, I think we will be okay. That’s our place, that’s our role.”

Ramos made it clear that taking a stand doesn’t mean quitting objectivity and impartiality, but being on the side of democracy, human rights and freedom of expression. Reporting reality as it is, he added, also means calling things by their name when it comes to threats to democracy. That is, not to be afraid of calling a leader a “danger to democracy” or calling an armed conflict a “war.”

“Either we say the things, we say what we see and we report reality as it is, or we are simply not doing our job. I understand it is not easy. This is not a profession for people who want to be silent. There is also a lot of stress and a lot of pressure, but that’s what we do and if we cannot handle this, then we shouldn’t be doing reporting in the time of Trump, we shouldn’t be doing reporting in the time of the war in Ukraine, we shouldn’t be doing reporting in a time when everything is so polarized,” he said.

Journalists in the United States and other countries with freedom of speech should keep the intensity in reporting on countries that are under dictatorships or authoritarian regimes and give voice to people who are silenced in those countries, Ramos said.

Echevarría added that big outlets should also be generous and give some space in their platforms for journalists reporting on those countries to help them evade censorship and amplify their work. Both journalists highlighted the fact that El País and Univision have given space to Nicaraguan journalists in exile who report on President Daniel Ortega’s authoritarian regime.

“Censorship is not the same as it was a few decades ago. In the case of Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba, we are talking about dictatorships. And thanks to technology, they [people in those countries] are getting their information in different ways.”

Another threat to democracy comes when journalists can’t perform their work freely due to the fear of being attacked or killed. Ramos and Echevarría talked about the danger media professionals experience in Mexico, where eight journalists have been killed since January.

While Ramos said those murders have not been committed by the government, he believes Mexican authorities are partially responsible by not taking effective measures to protect journalists. In addition, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has created an atmosphere of hostility towards the press that has made the country a very difficult place to be an independent journalist.

“Lopez Obrador is very sensitive, very thin-skinned when it comes to criticism, and whenever he doesn’t like something, he talks about conspiracies and [about] journalists being part of an effort to attack his government, which is not true,” Ramos said.

Echavarría and Ramos agreed that more and more journalists are taking a stand when it comes to reporting on authoritarian or populist politicians, especially in recent years when those types of leaders have increased in almost every region of the world. That, Ramos said, could be against what journalists learn at school, but it is part of reporting reality as it is.

“If I am a ‘contrapoder’ with Trump, with Maduro, with López Obrador, with Biden, with Obama, I think that’s fine. That’s precisely our role. I agree that I have seen an evolution in which I and some journalists feel more comfortable taking a position and taking a stand when democracy and when the freedom of expression is at stake.”

About those who have called him an “activist” for confronting several leaders and taking a stand on the facts, Ramos said the reality is that he is only doing his job.

“My response is very simple: I am simply a journalist who asks questions. That’s precisely our role.”

A ‘dinosaur’ in the process of reinvention

With the merger this year of Univision and Televisa (the biggest Spanish-language media company in Latin America) came ViX, a new video streaming service that was launched on March 31, created specifically for the Spanish-speaking world.

Ramos said  he and his colleagues in the news division of Univision are in a process of denial with the changes that the new platform is creating, just as years ago print media journalists feared that the digital world was going to make newspapers and magazines disappear.

Those changes have forced Ramos to undertake a reinvention process to adapt to the new platforms, after 35 years as news anchor in traditional media.

“Traditional media somehow is disappearing or becoming very, very small and then everyone else is just getting their information and their news somewhere else,” Ramos said. “When I go to schools and universities, I tell them ‘Look at me, I am a dinosaur’. Who is getting their news at 6:30 p.m. nowadays? Very few people. So what I am trying to do nowadays is to reinvent myself.”

Ramos started a new show on the ViX platform called “Algo Personal” (Something Personal), that will feature one-hour interviews with relevant figures of the Spanish-speaking world. In parallel, the journalist will continue presenting the daily “Noticiero Univision” newscast and the “Al Punto” political show on Sundays, in addition to writing a weekly column that he writes for several newspapers in the continent.

“The streaming service is giving me the possibility of staying alive and not being a dinosaur,” Ramos told the Austin crowd.