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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

What Makes a Journalist Tick?

Shako Liu |
November 21, 2011 | 11:39 p.m. PST

Staff Reporter

 Esmeralda Bermudez
Esmeralda Bermudez
Two piles of used field reporting notepads, 1,157 pages of notes for one story, and a square plaque on her desk, reading: “Aqui Vive Una Periodista" (Here lives a journalist).

The desks of other journalists at the Los Angeles Times are piled with paper, books and documents, but this desk only has a computer and the notes. She doesn’t like cramming the desk with paper, and prefers to keep her materials electronic. 

This perky journalist, Esmeralda Bermudez, is 30 years old. But her small height often makes her look younger.

Bermudez is preparing to do some reporting in a private court the next day for National Adoption Day.

It's noon and everyone else has gone out for lunch, but Bermudez is still at her desk waiting for phone calls to be returned.

Bermudez, was born in El Salvador and moved to the U.S. at the age of 5 with her family to flee the then-raging civil war. She settled in  Whittier and became the first woman in her family to graduate from high school. She attended the University of Southern California and studied print journalism.

Storytelling has been her passion since she was a child when she often made up stories in her head. Later, real life stories appeared far more interesting and she set a goal of becoming a journalist. “I love the idea of connecting with people who may not think they have anything in common,” she says.

After graduating from USC in 2003, Bermudez was offered a job with the L.A. Times and The Oregonian. To everyone’s surprise, she chose The Oregonian in Portland. After working there for five years she moved to the L.A. Times, which was the dream of many of her journalism peers at USC. She felt she needed more experience at the smaller place before moving to the renowned Times.

At 12:05 p.m., her phone rings. “Hello, L.A. Times,” she said. It's Willie Garson, an actor best-known for his recurring role in Sex and the City, who adopted an 8-year-old boy in 2009. His personal advocacy does not interest her, though. “Well, just enough to get to know your personal story that’s what I am really interested in,” says Bermudez.

Because of her fluency in Spanish and her immigrant background, Bermudez’ strength is reaching out and writing about Hispanic communities. She knows one reason The Times hired her was for her unique background.

However, good reporting is not just about speaking the language and “being brown,” as she says.   It is also about relating to people in different ways. She says it is easier for her to understand the suffering and struggles of people who clean houses because her mom also cleans houses. “I am not so much a part of that world, but in many ways I am still part of it,” she says.

Looking like others in the neighborhood provides easier access for Bermudez and makes her less intimidating. A reporter who doesn’t look like locals or speak the language may raise suspicion and cause tension.
On the other hand, sometimes that same sense of affinity makes people expect special treatment, such as asking for positive coverage. But Bermudez says she is nobody’s cheer-leader. She just wants to write good stories.

Bermudez sometimes senses  hesitation particularly when she is approaching her subjects on the street. Of course, it takes time to make a stranger comfortable telling you their personal stories. “It would be different if I were coming with a Spanish TV or a Spanish newspaper,” she said.

Being a Latina gives her the ability and accessibility to write their stories, but Bermudez never feels she is being forced into a specific career path. Half of the population in Los Angeles is Latino and their stories are unlimited. She focuses on good stories, not just Latino stories.

Lys Mendez, a graduate student at UCLA, has known Bermudez for almost 10 years and interned with her at The Oregonian. She believes Bermudez has an instinct for discovering stories that are seldom told. “She can go into communities and find something part of everyday life, and turn it into really vibrant stories,” said Mendez.

Being a female journalist has not hindered Bermudez. But once when she was reporting in Mexico in 2005 about the transformation of a village there, the locals wouldn’t talk to her because she was a woman. They thought she was the male photographer’s assistant. Bermudez did not think of it as discrimination, but more as a cultural glitch.

She insists on the importance of respecting other cultures. When visiting different communities, she often thinks that she must concede some ignorance and be preapred to be the one who needs to learn from a new cultural perspective. For Bermudez, being humble is not just a professional skill, but also an attitude.

Tracie Morales, another friend from her Oregonian days, considers Bermudez a big sister from whom she often seeks advice. She has a Google alert set for Bermudez’s stories, which she said often give her a different perspective about the city of L.A. She said she often feels better after reading them. “The city is part of her. It breathes through her words,” said Morales, “She immerses herself 150 percent in her stories. It consumes her. She is constantly thinking about it off the clock.”
Bermudez is going to put on a wedding gown in four months. The bride-to-be admits that it’s a big challenge to balance her professional and personal lives, especially since her fiancé is also a career-oriented person with a demanding job. “I think it’s just a matter of looking at the world in a different way. It really challenges you as a couple to work together and both have to give 100 percent.” She believes a woman, particularly an ambitious one, has to pull back a little at work sometimes. She'sused to working more than10 hours a day, but now has a rule: no interviews after 8 p.m., unless it is necessary.

It is 2 p.m. when Bermudez finishes two phone interviews. After hanging up the phone, she instantly lays out the story structure and notes what information she needs the next day.

Seeing everything has been done for the moment, Bermudez bursts out, “Gosh, I am so hungry!”

She relishes her constant thirst for stories, the joy of bringing them to life, the excitement of finding people who need to be reported, and the pain of writing. The bitter part of her job is to approach people who have just lost their loved ones.

Traditional media companies have come to a challenging moment with the development of social media and the economic downturn. The L.A, Times has been cutting back on staff and laying off employees. The possibility of being the next laid-off employee worries Bermudez. But she still keeps her chin up. She says there is nothing you can do except enjoy what you are doing in the moment. Plus, she never visualizes herself being anything else beyond a journalist.

"I have never seen my work as a journalist as a job," she says. "It’s so much a part of your identity of who you are, what you do for the world. It’s my first love and the only love until now.”

Reach reporter Shako Liu here.

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