Melita Marie Garza, 51, is a Pulitzer Prize nominee now working on her Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She began her 20-plus-year career in journalism as a reporter trainee in the inaugural class of Metpro, a unique diversity program at the Los Angeles Times designed to help beginning journalists launch their careers. Following a short stint as a press coordinator with the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials in Washington, D.C., she went on to spend a combined 20 years at the Milwaukee Journal and the Chicago Tribune as a metro reporter and then business writer. It was as a business writer at the Tribune that she was nominated for a Pulitzer. She left the Tribune to become an associate editor in London for McKinsey & Co., the worldwide consulting company. After leaving McKinsey she returned to journalism as a technology writer for Bloomberg News in New York. She is currently a Roy H. Park Fellow at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, working on her Ph.D. in journalism and mass communication. At UNC she taught economics reporting and is researching English and Spanish language media and their depiction of political culture and economy. She keeps herself busy as a member of Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, American Journalism Historians Association, National Association of Hispanic Journalists, North Carolina Writers’ Network, Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and Journalism & Women’s Symposium. Garza earned her bachelor’s degree in 1983 at Harvard College in government and Latin American studies. Between 2005 and 2007 she studied at The University of Chicago Graduate School of Business in London where she received her Master of Business Administration degree. She has a website , is on twitter (@melitagarza), and on e-mail at melitag(at)live.unc.edu.
Garza was interviewed by Abby Leetch, 20, a junior at the University of Iowa majoring in psychology and minoring in human relations and mass communication.
Abby Leetch: Why did you become involved in journalism?
Melita Garza: It seemed like a great way to meet interesting people and ask them questions you might never be able to ask them otherwise. In other words, journalism is a fun way to write and make a difference.
AL: How do you define journalism today?
MG: Journalism encompasses multiple genres of storytelling and information gathering, including more entertainment-oriented fields like lifestyle and sports journalism. It also includes reporting specialty beats such as government, science, business and international reporting. These often require reporters to hold top officials accountable, explain complicated topics and present pressing world problems and trends to readers and viewers.
AL: How has technology influenced or affected your career?
MG: Clearly, the mantra that information just wants to be free on the Internet has made it difficult to sustain local, traditional news organizations that provided – or had the potential to provide – the kind of sweeping community news and investigative reporting that served the public. Although I chose to leave the Chicago Tribune in 2004 before sweeping and continuing layoffs engulfed the newspaper, hundreds of my friends have lost their jobs at the Tribune and other major metropolitan papers. A number of them have found jobs at Bloomberg news, a proprietary news service that focuses on providing business and economic news for paying financial clients. Bloomberg does not come close to replacing the kind of local coverage that communities need.
AL: How will technology affect the future of journalism?
MG: I knew the answer to that, I would be a multi-millionaire! There is much talk about how everyone is a journalist and how iPhones, flip cameras and other tech gadgets have “democraticized” news gathering. The problem is that much of this “coverage” is hit-or-miss, not available in any single source, like a newspaper website and often produced by individuals who lack journalism training, particularly in journalism ethics.
AL: What one word would you use to describe the status of women in journalism today?
MG: I can better speak to women in print/online media organizations. I know less about television news. I would say that women are still not in key decision-making positions in sufficient numbers—especially minority women. I was lucky to have had some phenomenal mentors in my career—virtually all white males.
AL: What role(s) will women have in future journalism?
MG: There are so many young women studying journalism today that it seems inevitable that women will have greater roles in the future. I look forward to the day when a woman heading a news organization is not news. I am also looking forward to a day when minority women will have some of these same opportunities.
AL: Do you feel objectivity still exists in journalism?
MG: “Objectivity” is a greatly misunderstood and misapplied concept. It should mean that a reporter refrains from carrying personal biases or preferences into their news coverage. “Objectivity” doesn’t mean a knee-jerk need to get one positive quote, one negative quote, and one neutral quote about say, for instance, Jack the Ripper! No one is truly “objective.” Everyone approaches a story through the prism of their own experiences and understanding.
AL:Where do you see yourself in 10 to 15 years? Can you see yourself being a journalist your entire life?
MG: Right now I am in my third and final year of Ph.D. studies in journalism and mass communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I have been a journalist and/or editor my entire professional career and I plan to teach at a university, conduct mass media research and continue writing news stories.
AL: Have you ever felt discriminated because of your sex/gender at any point of your career?
MG: I can’t recall any specific instances of outright discrimination, although at one point for a brief period I had one incredibly unpleasant boss. But he was nasty to everyone!
AL: What has been the most memorable experience you’ve had in your career thus far?
MG: Working on the Ford/Firestone story was my most rewarding project that I covered. I traveled throughout the state of Illinois and the country to speak with former workers at a Firestone plant that made many of the faulty tires and also spoke to victims who had been maimed or lost loved ones. I worked with a phenomenal editor, Jeff Taylor, and our team’s work was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
AL: What were some differences in journalism between working at McKinsey & Co. in London and where you currently are?
MG: I enjoyed working at McKinsey & Co. because it gave me a window into the way business thinks. Too often, journalists don’t have a good understanding of the people they are writing about. I also enjoyed working on longer, more thoughtful stories that involved research. I missed, however, the feeling that what I wrote might really make a difference. I realized that helping businesses find better ways to sell mobile phones in China was not something that made me excited to get out of bed in the morning! My work at McKinsey was more marketing than journalism.
AL: What advice would you give to young aspiring journalists?
MG: Get the best education you can. Read as much as you can. Write as much as you can. Learn at least one other language, if not more. What will set you apart as a writer and reporter is your ability to communicate with others, contextualize stories and narrate in a compelling way. I’m not a big fan of Strunk & White – I think they got a lot of things wrong. One thing they are correct about is “Rule 17” – omit needless words. Sounds simple, but it is easily forgotten.
AL: Is there anything I didn’t ask that you would like us to know about women in journalism?
MG: Journalism is a great career. But it is more than that. It is calling. It is a mindset. It is chatting with someone at a party and realizing that the person munching on the cheese dip has just given you a great scoop! If you become a journalist you will follow in the footsteps of many women who blazed the trail to get us to this point. Ida Tarbell, who took on John D. Rockefeller’s oil empire, and Willa Cather, who became one of our greatest novelists, to name just two from the early days. More recently, there are so many great women reporters. There is no way to name them all. But they include: Maria Hinojosa from NPR; Lisa Myers, CBS; Diana B. Henriques, The New York Times; and Dianne Solis from the Dallas Morning News. A reporter really worth following is Judith Torrea, who won the 2010 Ortega y Gasset Prize for digital journalism for her blog, Ciudad Juarez, in the shadow of drug trafficking. It is up to your generation to move us ahead now.
This is part of a series of profiles of JAWS members by University of Iowa students. For a complete listing, see this page.