Q&A: Janelle Salanga

While we’re usually the ones interviewing other journalists, for this Q&A we wanted to try something new: a conversation with Janelle Salanga, Deputy Editor at The Objective. 

Salanga is often editing stories and criticism (you should pitch us!) and has written about the collective amnesia of American newsrooms when it comes to white supremacy and the lack of coverage on how political shifts in the Philippines affect the Filipino diaspora in the US. During the day, Salanga is also a reporter at CapRadio, a public radio station in Sacramento, CA. 

Holly Rosewood, The Objective’s Newsletter Manager, interviewed Salanga about collective action in journalism, being open about their mental health, New Girl, and how their time studying computer science informed their journalism. 

This interview is edited for length and clarity.

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Could you start by telling me about your path to journalism? 

The first time I ever did anything journalism-related, it was because I was kind of a neurotic kid. While I was researching college stuff, I found this horrible forum called College Confidential, where people were like, “Yeah, we got internships our junior year of high school so we could get into college” and me, being the person that I was, was like, “I don’t have that. And I don’t know what I’m doing.” 

At the time, I was planning to go into STEM, so I sent out my resume, which had barely anything on it, to a bunch of labs at colleges around me. And none of that panned out. So I ended up finding out about interning—unpaid—at my hometown newspaper, which is Tracy Press. And so, whatever possessed me to essentially cold-email the editor-in-chief at the time and be like, “Hey, are you still looking for folks to work with you?” That was how I ended up having my first journalism experience. 

And that was really transformative for me, not just in terms of presenting journalism as a thing that I could do, but also in terms of better understanding the region that I’m from, which is the California Central Valley. 

I remember being completely scared out of my mind because the first assignment I had was to do “man on the street” interviews, and I was a lot more introverted in high school than I am now. I remember being completely horrified. As I kept going, I think one of the big things that first experience gave me was a better understanding of why people cared about the Central Valley, why people called it home. I’ve always loved reading and writing stories, and getting to talk to people and hear all these reasons that they called this place their home and all the ways that they wanted to make it better—that was something that stuck with me. 

I took a break for two or three years, because at the time I filed this away as a really good experience, but I wasn’t going to come back to journalism. I was going to go and do my little STEM thing. I took computer science classes for the first two years of undergrad, because I didn’t go to school planning to go into journalism. And then essentially, all of my journalism career up until now, excluding my post-grad experience, was packed into the last three years of undergrad. During sophomore year, I ended up getting a job as an editorial intern at my school’s alumni publication, and then that led to me starting to fashion a life for myself in thinking that journalism was something viable. I credit one of my coworkers at the time, Cody Kitaura, who is a board member of AAJA Sacramento, for essentially being my mentor and helping me figure out that journalism was something you could pursue, because I had not thought that. He was the one who introduced me to Next Gen Radio, which was like one of the best newsrooms that I’ve ever been in, and arguably the most diverse. Even though it was a pop up newsroom for a week, it was just a really wonderful environment with marginalized folks who were really passionate about making space for that in the industry and making space for showing up as they were, and to me that was really sacred. 

Another thing that really influenced my direction in journalism was my involvement with Filipino American spaces in college, and those spaces tended to be more advocacy-related. And so that, combined with what I ended up majoring in, which was Science and Tech Studies (STS), shaped my views on objectivity because one of the seminal works in STS is about how objectivity is sort of like a trick, right? It’s this illusion insofar as there’s no such thing as a perfect point of view. You’re always speaking from your perspective. That, combined with the bent that I had in terms of thinking about ways that different structures in society function, as a function of being in Fil-Am spaces and holding a lot of marginalized identities, etc., influenced how I moved through different journalism spaces. 

That’s part of how I ended up at The Objective, because I messaged Gabe Schneider [editor of The Objective] about writing a story on how American media wasn’t covering the potential impact on Filipino Americans with the ABS-CBN shutdown in 2020. I think that story highlights the internationalist perspective on media and how press freedom abroad is not as lenient as press freedom in America. There can be more material danger in other countries where the government is cracking down on freedom of the press, but that’s a different thread. 

You mentioned being part of and creating different spaces in journalism, which reminds me of your prediction for Nieman Lab, in which you talk about steps newsrooms can take to combat white supremacy beyond diversity numbers. Could you tell me more about that? 

I would credit a lot of my understanding of that to my involvement in Fil-Am spaces, because a lot of the spaces that I got involved with early on were really focused on identity discovery and development. Growing up, my parents would always be really excited whenever they saw Filipino[s in the] news, and the Philippine mainstream television media always reports on Filipino actors, because that pride about representation was always so strong and so prevalent. 

But as I’ve moved through college and different newsrooms, and learned more about the world, I questioned the value of representation. One example would be college chancellors: Gary May is the first Black chancellor at UC Davis and Michael Drake is the first Black UC president, but at the same time these people are making obscene amounts of money. They just approved a raise for the UC chancellors. Meanwhile, students feel they aren’t necessarily getting enough financial aid to meet their needs. College therapy programs are underfunded. There’s a lot of pooled wealth in these higher-up positions and, even with that representation, it feels very much like lip service when I’m seeing these people get these huge raises and my friends struggle with access to services that the college says it provides but aren’t easily accessible. 

Student resource centers for marginalized communities are another example. I was really involved with the Filipino American recruitment and retention center at UC Davis and I saw how underfunded these student retention programs are. They are the arm of the university that’s trying to make sure that diverse groups of students are able to get a college education, but these people employed at the centers—some of them are students who are working a 40-hour work week and making $13 an hour. 

To me, all these experiences are just further proof that you can have representation in these spaces, but it can essentially be lip service. I do think that there is something really powerful about seeing somebody who reflects your life experiences or your identity in media or in a newsroom, but there are limits to how transformative that can be, especially when you’re not changing ethical practices or making sure that people are paid equitably.

Another thing is, the type of representation matters. I saw this Twitter thread about the fact that they [Activision] had added a Filipino character to Call of Duty and they were questioning the impact of that because American soldiers have had a history of brutalizing Filipinos. In some cases, people are trying to turn all these things into reclamation and power, but is it really good representation? Is it really changing anything if you’re putting people in the same positions in these structures that replicate the same sort of oppressive dynamics? And I think that goes for newsrooms, as well. What is representation if that person doesn’t actually have values that really center and understand the way that society has oppressed different groups of people? If you don’t understand white supremacy and you’re in a position of power, I feel like there’s a disconnect there between what your representation looks like and what it can actually do. 

As you said before, you studied computer science at the start of undergrad. How does this affect your view of journalism? 

One thing that sticks with me is thinking about the role of innovation in computer science and the way that we talk about progress. I think this is also a reflection of having been an STS major, where a lot of the curriculum is focused around “What do we consider science?”, “What do we consider technology?”, and “What are the actual impacts of those things on society?”, and so on. I saw it in tech a lot and sometimes we see it in journalism: the focus on some new technology or some new problems to fix. I think about what Gabe said, actually, in his Nieman prediction about how nonprofit news won’t necessarily save us. A lot of times people can get so swept up in this idea of this new format without stopping to think about who created it, the driving forces behind it, and what kinds of applications that might have. This is something I saw a lot in tech, is that people would look at something new and assume that was progress and therefore good, but not really think about those questions because people would assume that tech is neutral.  

I think that happens a lot in journalism with objectivity. I think it’s changing now but, historically, white, upper-middle class people have been able to look at journalism and say “Oh, this is objective,” and not peek under the covers and think about how it’s made or where a perspective is coming from. 

It feels almost taboo to think about journalism, or even tech, coming from a perspective, but it’s not shameful to admit that everything comes from a specific standpoint. I think both fields rely heavily on the illusion of objectivity. For example, with computer scientists, it’s just “a bunch of ones and zeros” which, on some level, is true, but that doesn’t consider that people are arranging those ones and zeros are dictating. And the same thing goes with journalism. 

You’ve been open about your mental health on Twitter, which is something that stands out to me as another mentally ill person in journalism. Could you tell me more about your experience?

I actually just had a conversation about this—about how journalism is not a field that is particularly conducive to “live, laugh, love” conditions for neurodivergent or mentally ill people. At its core, this is a field that does not necessarily give you a lot of structure, that requires you to keep, in some cases, an erratic schedule or, in other cases, a nine-to-five, both of which can pose problems for people who struggle with mental health.

So, I have bipolar II. For me, it’s really hard to do the whole nine-to-five thing, which I think I’ve been managing okay, but that transition from college where it can be a lot more forgiving for insomnia and executive dysfunction and then going into a workplace where you’re expected to clock in nine-to-five is really tough. And I’ve talked about this before in a different space, but these workdays are ableist because they don’t consider the fact that the schedule, the very structure of the American workday itself, is not conducive to a lot of people doing their best work. It’s frustrating because there’s not a lot of flexibility to talk about that because so often it gets dismissed. It’s like, “you’re lazy,” or, “you don’t know how to adapt.” And it’s really frustrating to have employers expect you to adapt when it’s not your fault, but your brain does not work in a way that fits in the structure. I think it shouldn’t be on individuals to “fix themselves” or their schedule. The emphasis should be on societal workplaces evaluation of why that structure might be harmful to some people. 

I think a lot of employers mean well when they want to talk about, for example, depression and mental health, but I feel like, a lot of time, society or employers operate on a surface-level understanding of mental illness or mental health where it’s like, “It’s okay if you manage these things, as long as you can perform.” 

I feel like there’s still sort of a “stigma” around mental health, especially when it interferes with your productivity because we live in a capitalist society and your value is your labor. I know a lot of people struggle with validation, maybe after you had a “good” day, you wonder if this is actually just all in your head and you are being lazy. And so, it’s a cycle of feeling invalidated by living in a society that doesn’t really validate you and being in an industry that requires you to always be on top of things.

It reminds me of New Girl when Nick Miller shoves a stick down the garbage disposal or when colleges bring in therapy puppies for one day during finals week. And it’s like, thanks so much, but it really is sort of like putting a bandaid on things instead of actually providing things that would help people do better work: more paid sick leave or more flexibility. I think it’s really hard because, at least in my experience, the emphasis is on me to advocate for myself. If you need accommodations, ask for them, or if you’re struggling, feel free to reach out, but it’s really hard to continually do that. 

It sucks that we’re in a society that expects the people who are struggling the most to have the language and to have the energy to advocate for themselves instead of the other way around. The baseline should be that these things are available and that the people who are in positions of power are starting these conversations instead of relying on employees. 

And it’s hard, because I think it is easy to blame individuals when that is the scope that you’re working with on your day-to-day life. To think, “Oh, it should be easy for somebody to approach me.” I do think there are things that individuals can do to better show up for each other in the newsroom, there are ways that managers can help make a better environment, but I do think it also requires a huge industry-wide perspective shift. I know that’s not a thing that will happen in one day or because of one person, but it is something that a lot of different people need to believe in. Maybe it’s a little naive of me to think that it is possible—hopefully in my lifetime, maybe not. 

But I’d like to think that there are enough people who are willing to imagine and build spaces that are centering the needs of marginalized communities and writing with them and not not just for them. In my lifetime, I’d like to see those spaces. There’s some that already do exist: I think of Scalawag and City Bureau as two newsrooms I really look up to for that.

I think The Objective is really trying to—not to toot our own horn—is also trying to be a part of that conversation and make sure that that conversation continues to be brought up. Because, yeah, maybe it is annoying for some people to hear the industry has issues, but it’s true. And nothing is going to change by ignoring them.

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