Melissa Sanchez, who came to ProPublica Illinois from the nonprofit magazine Catalyst Chicago and, later, its sister publication, The Chicago Reporter, believes frankness is the key for developing her sources’ trust. In the eighth of a series of Q&As with ProPublica Illinois staffers, Sanchez chatted with ProPublica Emerging Reporter Andrea Salcedo.
What inspired you to become a journalist?
I got started in this because I thought I was a good writer. In elementary school, middle school and high school I worked on the school papers because of that.
But I really learned about journalism and was inspired to do it when I was an intern at the Herald-Leader in Lexington, Kentucky. I worked on a story with another reporter about victims of domestic violence who were living in a shelter with really unhealthy conditions. Our stories helped make their lives better. I realized that your work can make a huge difference in people’s lives. That summer really taught me about journalism and solidified my interest in doing this work.
What has been the most rewarding experience as a journalist?
When my stories helped change the conversation or helped people look differently at what you’re writing about. I worked in Washington State at a newspaper called the Yakima Herald-Republic, and I covered immigrants and farmworkers there. I worked in a really conservative community where half of the people who lived there were Latino. There were a lot of gang troubles in town. I wrote a story about the life and death of a gang leader who was a son of undocumented immigrants. I remember being at a coffee shop the day that story ran. These two women walked past the newsstand and one of them pointed at the newspaper. My story about this kid who ran a gang was on the front page. One of them just said to her friend with this look of disgust, “That story was interesting. You should read it.” She clearly didn’t like the story, but I could tell that she learned from it. That was gratifying.
What are you interested in investigating with ProPublica Illinois?
I’ve really been interested in immigrants and labor for a long time. Like how increasing immigration enforcement impacts people’s ability to live and their education. I really want to learn more about what’s happening outside Chicago. I’d love to understand what’s happening in other parts of the state.
What are some underreported stories in Illinois that you wish had more coverage?
I moved here from Miami [after working for el Nuevo Herald, the Miami Herald’s Spanish-language sister paper], and it was just really obvious to me that Latinos are not covered in Chicago and elsewhere in the state. It’s shocking. It’s just wrong when a third of the city is Latino and the political discourse has very little to do with them. Just look at the school board. There’s no representation in politics. Immigrants, Latinos — those are my people.
How do you hope your stories with ProPublica Illinois will spark change?
One of my goals is to make people’s lives better. Not every story is going to cause big, immediate change, but hopefully some will and, in the meantime, they can help change the discourse or how we look at the world.
What reporting or storytelling techniques would you like to experiment with at ProPublica Illinois?
I’d love to do some stories on the radio. I got to do some of that in Miami, and working with local TV or radio would help get our stories out to a broader audience. I also hope our stories can be bilingual.
What’s the hardest story you’ve ever worked on?
I went to Honduras a few years ago after a big prison fire that killed hundreds of men, and they let me and our photographer go into the prison because we were foreign press. That was a really difficult story to report because I smelled the ashes, the smoke and the human flesh. It was hard to separate my own emotional reaction and physical reaction to what happened.
How do you spot a good story?
I think it’s just conversations with people, when you’re trying to be open with the world. Talking to people in the elevator, to people who you see on the streets handing out parking tickets or picking up their kids from school. You find stories just by trying to pay attention to what people are doing and expressing an interest in their lives.
What’s the biggest lesson journalism has taught you?
To try to be as straightforward and honest as possible with people about what you’re doing and what your intentions are because people will open up to you if they think you’re being frank and will tell you their stories. A lot of people really want to tell their stories.