Illustration: Chris Kindred

The Many Voices of Journalism

November 8, 2018

Growing up, I was in awe of a painting called Abaporu, or, “Man who eats human flesh.” A distorted human figure sits next to a cactus under a bright yellow sun. Abaporu, painted 90 years ago by Tarsila do Amaral, an artist in Brazil, helped create a cultural movement: anthropophagy, driven by the idea of eating up foreign influences and spitting out something new.

Abaporu transformed Brazilian culture, from visual arts to Tropicalia music, and may be the most recognizable piece of art in Brazil. Few people in the United States were familiar with it until recently, when an exhibition of Amaral’s work was shown for the first time in North America, at the Art Institute of Chicago, then the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

I thought it was a good story: A Latin American artist finally being recognized in the United States 45 years after her death. I pitched the story to National Public Radio. After listening to a work sample, Tom Cole, my editor, had reservations: “I worry that show producers might not like your accent,” he wrote. 

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My accent? It’s mild; Americans can tell right away that I am not a native English speaker, but foreigners can’t. I moved to the US from Brazil 20 years ago, though most people can’t tell where I’m from. I sometimes stress the wrong syllable, or pronounce vowels differently from other speakers. My son does a great imitation of how I say “blood” (it rhymes with “plod”). My partner and friends rarely correct me—they think the way I say certain words is cute. 

So when Cole raised this as a concern, I was shocked; I knew accents could be taboo for some radio people, but I thought NPR would be thrilled to have a piece about a Brazilian artist by a Brazilian journalist. Plus, I’d voiced stories for WNYC and PRI’s The World many times before. I told him I wanted to give it a try. I went ahead and reported it—I attended the press preview at MoMA and interviewed the cocurator and other sources. 

Ultimately, accents reflect who belongs and who doesn’t—and what the voice of our country sounds like.

Months later, after editing the story, Cole told me that the piece wouldn’t air, in part because of space and in part because of my accent. In another email, Cole wrote: “For the record, I like your accent—we need to hear different voices on the air.”

Historically, the media has been uncomfortable with accents, even regional ones. Radio created an idea that voices should be uniform—announcers were to sound like more authoritative versions of regular people, typically white men, speaking in a measured, polished English, often from the mid-Atlantic region, that gives little indication where the person is from. Over the years, the tone of voice on radio and TV has become more conversational, though certain intonations remain standard.

But accents are an important part of representation. Ultimately, they reflect who belongs and who doesn’t—and what the voice of our country sounds like. Thirteen percent of the US population is foreign-born—the highest proportion since 1910—and many more people have regional accents. Amy Caples, a former TV and radio news anchor who teaches voice classes at Temple University in Philadelphia, says that local television stations in her city now feature journalists with different backgrounds who don’t speak what’s considered the “standard broadcasting voice.” But if you watch the national news, she adds, the “measured” voice still reigns. “That authoritative vocal quality, that’s what people expect.” Virtually no anchors speak with accents from non-English speaking countries. (Foreigners who sound British get a pass.)

After decades of criticism, media companies—NPR included—are realizing that their newsrooms don’t match the communities they serve and they need to be more inclusive by promoting women and people of color to decision-making positions. But having reporters and hosts with a foreign accent on-air remains a subject that many national news organizations would prefer to avoid. Calls and emails to CNN, NBC, ABC, and iHeartMedia inquiring about their approach to accents went mostly unanswered. The people I did speak with, at NPR and CBS, denied discriminating based on accent, but declined to provide numbers or names to discuss details.

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In my case, several people at NPR eventually apologized for the reason my piece was killed. Edith Chapin, the executive editor of NPR News, told me that the company does not have a policy regarding foreign accents for reporters, hosts, or sources, and that public radio’s mission is to include all voices and dialects. Chapin added that she had never before been confronted by the scenario raised with my piece. “It’s inconsistent with our journalistic practice,” she said. “And we are sorry.”

“As an organization, we have faults,” Keith Woods, the vice president for newsroom training and diversity at NPR, said. “But one of them is not an openness to the world, and the voices of the world.”

Other journalists express similar frustration. Javier E. Gomez, who is Puerto Rican, has worked as a broadcast journalist and actor in New York since 1995; he has always struggled with his accent. Over the years, he has taken several speech and voice coaching classes, but he has drawn a line at accent reduction. “I felt like losing my accent was losing myself,” he says. 

Gomez says that he has never applied to on-air positions at major networks in English because he has had the sense he wouldn’t have a chance of being hired. He now hosts a weekly show in Spanish for BronxNet, a public cable programmer, and also works as a substitute anchor and host on the BronxNet’s English programs. Cable television brought people like him into the industry, but, based on who he sees on screen, commercial broadcast TV has been resistant to putting people with accents on camera. “The process has been very slow and very uneven,” he says.

To ban someone from the airwaves for their accent can be illegal. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission considers it to be a form of national origin discrimination. In 2017, the EEOC received 130 complaints from people citing unfair treatment as a result of their accents—twice as many as in 1997. 

Television and radio can get tricky; the law says that an employer may not base a decision on someone’s foreign accent if “unless effective oral communication in English is required to perform job duties and the individual’s foreign accent materially interferes with their ability to communicate orally in English.” Yet what is considered “effective,” in a communications field, can be subjective.

This is complicated further by research showing that some Americans are not comfortable hearing certain accents. A 2010 study at the University of Chicago, in which peoplewith different speaking styles read from the same script, concluded that a foreign accent undermines a speaker’s credibility to listeners. In the study, participants were told that speakers were reciting from a script and that they were not the source of the information they conveyed. Still, participants judged as less truthful the statements coming from people with foreign accents. “In general, when information is processed less fluently, people tend to misattribute that difficulty to the credibility of the source,” Boaz Keysar, a psychology professor and one of the authors of the study, says.

In a second experiment, researchers told participants that they were being tested specifically on whether accents undermine credibility, and this time, the results were different: statements with mild accents were rated just as truthful as those by native speakers. Participants, once made aware of their prejudices, “don’t want to be perceived as people who are biased,” Keysar says. (Still, heavily accented statements were rated as less truthful.)

The study did not address whether people perceive certain accents to be less credible because they are not used to hearing them. Media organizations, of course, could provide a means of exposure. In doing so, they might shift perception in the same way museums do when they introduce audiences to Abaporu and Tarsila do Amaral. Eventually, Americans might even end up hearing accents in an anthropophagical way: a voice consuming foreign influences and producing something new.

In my piece that never aired, Stephanie D’Alessandro, cocurator of the exhibit, says: “I am at a point in my career and as an American that I think in 2018 we really need to be open to many other stories besides the stories that we know.” It now seems ironic that I ended that piece saying: “Sometimes it can take a while to get those stories told.”

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This piece has been updated to correct a quote.

Gisele Regatao is an assistant professor of journalism at Baruch College, City University of New York.