BEHIND THE BYLINE
Interview by Lara Takenaga
The Reader Center has started a new series of short interviews, Behind the Byline, to introduce you to Times journalists. Is there a reporter, photographer or editor whom you would like to get to know? Tell us in the form below.
When Jose Del Real joined the ranks of The Times’s California correspondents last year, the job was a homecoming of sorts for him. Born in the Central Valley to Mexican immigrants, Jose and his family left the state when he was a baby and moved to Alaska. He then went east for college and became a political reporter in Washington.
Based in Los Angeles now, he zigzags across California covering some of today’s most significant domestic stories, as varied as wildfires, shootings and the opioid crisis.
[Read Jose’s recent article about transgender women living on the border between the United States and Mexico.]
Here, Jose talks about the demands of his work, his message for aspiring journalists of color and the magic of a daily solo dance party.
What do you enjoy most about being a National correspondent? What is most challenging about it?
Sometimes there are these moments of vulnerability and honesty that happen in reporting, when the people I’m interviewing feel comfortable enough to open up about their lives. That is always an amazing gift and comes with a lot of responsibility. Those conversations make my work feel like a vocation. My job is about truth and, at the highest level, empathy. Everyone has a story that matters; some people are just never asked to share it.
This job can be tough, though. As correspondents, our weeks and months can be unpredictable because we have to balance longer-term projects with breaking news. One week in November, to give an extreme example, my fellow California reporters and I went from covering the midterms on Tuesday, to a horrific shooting on Wednesday night, to wildfires on Thursday. There’s thematic whiplash, and it’s emotionally heavy. Our editors provide crucial support while we’re in the thick of it.
And balancing work with my personal life can feel surreal at times. One Saturday during the wildfires, my partner, Patrick, found an open afternoon to propose after scouting a good day for weeks. By Monday I was on the southern border for a story.
Do you ever feel emotionally overwhelmed when you’re reporting on tragedies? If so, how do you overcome that?
On assignment, the part of my brain that can feel overwhelmed turns off. It must be adrenaline.
On the ground, I’ve spoken to people minutes after they’ve seen their friends killed, or hours after their homes have burned down. I’ve spent a lot of time with people fighting addiction. Journalists have a responsibility to approach these situations with humility and humanity; that’s my priority, so there’s little room to dwell on my anxieties.
Once I’m home or in my hotel room, that’s another thing. Journalists don’t talk enough about the effect that stress and adrenaline can have on our bodies, let alone on our mental health. I’m lucky to have a partner, family and friends who sustain me emotionally. I also have an informal support group at The Times, journalists with whom I check in regularly and vice versa. But I’d like for this to become a bigger conversation in newsrooms.
How do you spend your time when you’re off duty?
Off duty? El-Oh-El.
I’m on the road a lot for work and persistently on call for breaking news. It’s exhilarating but a double-edged sword. I never imagined I’d see so much of this country. But being away from home so often, in many cases with little notice, can be tough.
“Self-care” has become a hokey phrase, but I do believe in finding healthy ways to relieve stress. Some people I know practice meditation, but that hasn't worked for me. I subscribe to the “Just Dance” model of self-care. I try to start my days, at least when I’m on the road, with five-minute dance parties. Yes, by myself. Try it! They are extraordinarily rejuvenating. If you’re in a bad mood afterward, there’s nothing else I can do for you. The trick is making space for some joy and whimsy. That and a steady dose of exercise, novels and “Grey’s Anatomy” keep me sane.
I also try to be mindful of how my work affects my partner. He has been inoculated against my schedule (we started dating while I was covering the Trump campaign). But just because he’s exceptionally supportive doesn’t mean I’m not responsible for him in return. When I’m home, we cook together, drink wine and listen to Linda Ronstadt, hike or visit art galleries. The biggest check on my “screen time” is my desire to maximize my time with him, friends and family, because I have no idea when I might need to bail. Ten minutes on Twitter are 10 wasted minutes.
How has your background, as a gay man and the son of Mexican immigrants, informed your work?
I’m always a little bit of an outsider wherever I am. I grew up in a trailer park in Anchorage. My parents don’t speak English and hustled hard to get by in the United States. They picked fruit when I was a baby in California. My dad fixed cars and washed dishes at restaurants. My mom cleaned rooms at a hotel for nearly two decades. I worked at that same hotel in high school.
But that feels like a lifetime away now. I went to Harvard on scholarship. I work at The New York Times. My partner is a university professor. Reconciling my life then with my life now can be challenging but enlightening.
I feel a responsibility to reflect a range of voices and communities in the articles I write. It’s not about a “Woke Checklist” — it’s about truth, about reflecting the world as it is and acknowledging our blind spots. That is why I’m so passionate about increasing diversity in newsrooms and making entry-level journalism jobs (and internships) financially realistic. I wasn’t always so comfortable sharing this stuff about my life, but I want journalists of color and from low-income backgrounds to know this career track is for them, too.
If you had to choose another job, in journalism or not, what would it be?
In college, I thought I might want to become an academic. During my sophomore year I fell in love with social theory. Reading Michel Foucault felt like having the veil lifted from my eyes. His ideas about power, systems and “regimes of truth” are extremely relevant today.
I’ve also always had a profound affinity for archives. I sometimes wonder what I’d be up to if I were a historian. As a journalist, though, I get to work on the living, daily version of history. It’s such a gift.
Illustration by Rebecca Clarke
Lara Takenaga is a staff editor for the Reader Center. Follow her on Twitter: @LaraTakenaga.
A note to readers who are not subscribers: This article from the Reader Center does not count toward your monthly free article limit.
Follow the @ReaderCenter on Twitter for more coverage highlighting your perspectives and experiences and for insight into how we work.
Source: Read Full Article