How I Got the Story – Valerie Osler

Timely Tips: How We Got the Story

Barbara Kingsley Cal State Long Beach
Barbara Kingsley
Cal State Long Beach

One of the most controversial stories of the new semester at the Daily 49er was the saga of Jose Salazar, the ASI president at Cal State Long Beach who is also the first undocumented student to hold that office.

When word got around that Salazar could not get paid for being president, at least $1,200 a month, ASI reporter Valerie Osier started looking into the story with help from Miranda Ceja. What started out sounding like a simple story became much more complex. Her account is below. Valerie waded through several different interviews and ASI documents to come up with a complete and concise story on a sensitive topic that was soon picked up by local and national media:

http://www.daily49er.com/news/2015/09/23/no-paperwork-no-pay-student-president-goes-unpaid-without-documentation/

Cal State Long Beach student government President Jose Salazar
Cal State Long Beach student government President Jose Salazar (Used with permission of The Daily 49er)

By Valerie Osier

I first heard the story when a classmate, Miranda, pitched it in class. The student government was my beat, so I offered to work on it. Miranda scheduled the first meeting with the ASI president, Jose Salazar, and I went with her. He told us how he was having a really hard time with being a full-time student, working 40-50 unpaid hours a week as the president and working an additional job as a freelance construction worker even though ASI policy states that executives are not allowed to have another job. (But they do receive other benefits such as tuition breaks.) At that time, I didn’t know that much about Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. After that interview, it was hard not to walk out feeling sympathetic. And I did, but I knew I needed to talk to ASI to get its side of the story and why it seemed ASI was not sympathetic to his situation.

Later that evening, I was in the newsroom when one of the editors, Paige, got a call from the ASI treasurer, Wendy Lewis, who according to Paige wanted to talk about Salazar’s proposal to change the way ASI officers are paid (switching from fellowship grant, for which he couldn’t qualify, to a scholarship, which would allow him to be legally compensated). Lewis told her briefly the other side of the argument. When Paige got off the phone, she told me what the treasurer had said and I interviewed her later. I decided to interview the vice president of ASI as well, because she was also opposed to the policy change. Meanwhile, it was becoming clear Miranda could not continue writing the piece, since she was involved in organizations that were part of the story. That’s when I became the main writer.

When I scheduled my interview with the VP, Miriam Hernandez, she asked if Wendy could be there too, and I said yes. I interviewed them and they told me everything that had happened pertaining to the topic since before Jose became president. They indicated that they felt he had not done all he could to get DACA paperwork done, despite support and help from ASI, the school and Miriam herself. Miriam shared how she is undocumented as well, but said she did the work necessary to ensure that she was able to get paid. She also said that filling out DACA is not as simple as one might think. The paperwork alone is overwhelming, but many undocumented immigrants are also fearful their families might get deported based on the information they write down. But she said she did it and she’s helped many people in her family and community do it, and now “they all have a better life because of it.” They both indicated that Miriam, ASI and the school all but took Jose to the post office to mail the paperwork and, for whatever reason, he waited to turn it in.

They also said changing the pay from a fellowship to a scholarship, as Jose proposed, would not only interfere with the executives’ individual financial aid packages but also cause a loss of accountability with executives. It would also lead to other problems that an ad hoc committee is still trying to solve.

After this interview, it was clear the story wasn’t as simple as we thought. I knew I needed to talk to Jose again and ask him some harder questions, but first I needed to confirm the administration side of the story and gain more perspective. I interviewed Dean of Students Jeff Klaus, who was involved in the situation. He echoed the sentiments of Miriam and Wendy, with a little more sympathy toward Jose, yet he still had a bewildered “I don’t know” when I asked why Jose would wait on his DACA. I knew I needed the perspective of why someone would wait on their DACA paperwork in that high of a position. I spoke to representatives from La Raza, a student association for Latinos, who were supporting Jose. When I talked to the historian, Antonio Ramirez, he gave me a lot of perspective on the plight of undocumented students and immigrants, and went into more detail on the legitimate fears of filling out your DACA and the high financial burden it places on the people who fill it out. The application is $500 ( the school had paid for for Jose), but it can also cost an additional several thousand dollars in legal fees to have a lawyer ensure the paperwork is filled out correctly

When I left that interview, it was really hard not to feel sympathetic for Jose again. What a tough spot he was in, I thought. But now I had enough information for a second interview with Jose. In the second interview, I asked him all the questions that had accumulated since my interview with Wendy and Miriam. He said he didn’t do his DACA before he ran for president because he specifically wanted to run as undocumented for undocumented students. He claimed he didn’t wait to turn in his DACA once he found out he absolutely needed it. And he stated his “rebuttal” to the problems with the policy change that Wendy and Miriam had told me.

After that interview, I didn’t know what to feel anymore. Which is probably good, because I needed to report it in a completely unbiased way anyway. When I sat down to write it, at first I thought: how on earth do I write this massive, crazy story? I had gone from feeling sympathetic, to feeling somewhat fooled, to feeling sympathetic again, to feeling confused about my own feelings. Then I remembered: just state the facts, they tell the story in the most truthful way. And that’s what I think I did. I think I asked all the questions until as a reported there was no side I could accidentally lean on when writing the story. I think I questioned any possible bias on my part to death.

As for organizing the giant story, I used a spider chart (the kind they taught us in high school English to organize essays) and an outline to ensure that I included both sides of the argument evenly and fairly as I could.