He stood on the stage of the vast ballroom, looked out at the hundreds of Latino journalists, and challenged them with “Ernie’s Dare.”
“Do your part, do your part,” said Ernest Sotomayor, who has been in journalism – in a number of roles – for more than three decades. “Mentor a student. . .Organize training in your newsroom and in your communities for other Latino journalists. . .Those of you in academia. . .monitor your curriculum. . .Does it teach diversity?”
Sotomayor, who issued “Ernie’s Dare” in recent days at the annual convention of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, practices what he preaches.
That is why NAHJ inducted him into its Hall of Fame, where he joins 27 other journalists who have distinguished themselves in the field.
Sotomayor was honored at the convention, which was held in Orlando, Fla.
“Ernie Sotomayor’s high journalistic standards and dogged persistence in getting the story and telling it well transcend race and culture,” said Michele Salcedo, NAHJ president, in a statement. “His vision has always extended well beyond the daily report.”
“Ernie has never been afraid to speak truth to power and has been a mentor and counselor to many of us–students and seasoned practitioners alike,” said Salcedo. “The opportunities for Latino journalists would be much fewer without Ernie’s hard work and vision, and it is with great pride that the NAHJ Board of Directors unanimously voted him into the Hall of Fame."
Sotomayor, who is assistant dean for career services and continuing education at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, got his first taste of reporting in the seventh grade. He needed to pick one more class to fill his schedule, and his mother – a lifelong devotee of newspapers – suggested he take a writing course.
“My mother made me do it,” the Tuscon native said of his foray into journalism. “I worked on the junior high school newspaper. I started writing about sports. I liked it, I had a lot of fun.”
Sotomayor graduated from the University of Arizona with a bachelor’s degree in journalism, and went on to work at some of the nation’s leading newspapers, including the Dallas Times Herald and New York Newsday.
He proved himself a versatile journalist, doing stellar work in everything from investigative to enterprise reporting. As an editor, he not only improved copy, but challenged reporters to work to higher standards. And always, he challenged his colleagues in the field to work towards making newsrooms more diverse.
“We have to do it,” he said of fighting for diversity in coverage and staffing, “because it just doesn’t happen by itself.”
Diversity is not about political correctness, he stressed, but about accuracy and truth.
“More than ever, the stories about our people and for our people are being told by journalists who know our people and come from their communities,” he said. “When those stories are told by those who can’t see the whole picture, they tell only half of the story, and that’s not truth. That is not journalism.”
Sotomayor is concerned that younger Latino journalists may not fully appreciate the importance of fighting for better representation, for a place at the table where decisions are made.
“They see the entry point for journalism to be easier than it ever has been,” he said. “They can publish their blog. Twenty-five, 30 years ago, they needed someone to let them in the door” in order to be published.
Sotomayor, who grew up on a ranch, told the crowd at NAHJ that it is as crucial to contribute to the betterment of journalism as it is to contribute to your media organization.
He has led by example, assuming lead roles in programs for minority journalists as well as in organizations that focus on improving their access to opportunities in the field.
One of his career highlights was serving as president of UNITY: Journalists of Color, Inc., -- which brings different minority organizations together -- and presiding over its third national convention in August 2004 in Washington.
It was the largest journalists convention ever held, boasting more than 8,000 attendees and featuring appearances by President George W. Bush, who was running for re-election at the time, and his Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.
“Be an agent of change in your newsroom,” Sotomayor told the journalists.
Being an agent of change, especially in the profession, he said, “has meant to me and others who came before me in the Hall of Fame. . .a career that is sometimes split in two: the work you do for the daily edition. . .and then, there is the work between those stories, or the work after work, that we so lovingly call ‘advocacy.’”
Latino readers also must do their part, Sotomayor said.
“They can demand better coverage by being more engaged,” he said. “They can use social media, the comments section [on websites], be part of the reporting cloud. Don’t let everyone else give the [news] tips, pitch the stories. Learn whom to call when a story isn’t right, when it’s shallow. It’s a two-way street.”
Asked about being the newest inductee in the NAHJ Hall of Fame, Sotomayor expressed pride in his understated way.
“It’s very humbling,” he said. “All you need to do is look at all the people in the Hall of Fame before me, you see the work they’ve done, they’re giants in the profession. Some of them worked far longer than I have” for higher standards in coverage of Latinos and better opportunities in newsrooms.
He’s won numerous awards.
But this honor, he noted, “is more than just an award for a single story.”
“It’s an award for something you’ve been doing for 35 years,” he said.
And yet, there is far more work to be done, he said.
“I don’t think that fight is anywhere near over.”