Mainstream journalists often ignore stories in the ethnic media or use that ground-breaking work without properly crediting it.
That’s the message panelists delivered during an SPJ National Convention session on relations between the ethnic and mainstream media.
But some journalists hope that innovative partnerships between ethnic and mainstream news organizations can produce collaboration and healthy competition, both in the public’s best interest.
Members of the ethnic media — a moniker all said they loathed but know of nothing better to use — said journalists for religion-, ethnic- and community-focused newspapers are doing ground-breaking reporting in a variety of different beats, especially labor, civil rights and immigration.
A story about immigrant-owned small businesses leaving Coney Island that ran in The New York Times already had been aggressively reported by the Pakistani press in New York City, said Abby Scher, director of the Independent Press Association-New York, an organization of ethnic and community publications in the city.
The newspaper India West broke the news about the restaurant chain McDonald’s frying its french fries in deep fat, a story that shocked its many Hindu readers who are vegetarian, said Sandy Close, director of New California Media, an association of ethnic media organizations.
The ethnic media also played a central role in the coverage of the arrest of Wen Ho Lee, a Los Alamos physicist accused of stealing U.S. nuclear weapons design secrets for China.
“If it weren’t for the Chinese media, Wen Ho Lee would still be in jail,” Close said. “I feel sure of that.”
Major media outlets spend adequate time covering immigration issues but don’t always report fairly and accurately, said Jawed Anwar, editor in chief and publisher of Muslims Weekly, a Queens-based newspaper he started in 1999.
“We have no complaint that the mainstream media is not covering our issues,” said Anwar, who came to the United States from Karachi, Pakistan in 1998. “Our complaint is that they are biased.”
One thing is certain, the panelists said: Ethnic media outlets are flourishing. While the circulation of mainstream newspapers declines, ethnic newspapers have expanded as rapidly as the immigrant and second-generation communities they serve.
In California, where 40 percent of residents speak a language other than
English at home, many people use an ethnic newspaper as their primary source of daily news, Close said.
A Sept. 8 issue of Muslims Weekly sported more than a few full-page advertisements from national companies. An ad placed by Western Union promotes deals on wiring money to Pakistan. The back page is an ad for an exclusive Muslims-only day at Six Flags in Jackson, N.J. It promises Jumah prayers and encourages those who go to “dress modestly.” The newspaper is a free publication with a circulation of more than 10,000, up from an original press run of 3,000, Anwar said.
Considering that expanding audience, some say mainstream journalists must learn to consider the ethnic media as both collaborators and competitors.
“Particularly in the mainstream media, we don’t do a very good job of covering ethnic minorities in this country,” said Sally Lehrman, an independent journalist and an SPJ director at large. Lehrman also is chairwoman of SPJ’s national Diversity Mission Committee.
Paying closer attention to what’s covered in the ethnic media is key to improving diversity is crucial for mainstream journalists.
Sometimes it starts with just one journalist.
Anh Do, an Asian affairs columnist for the Orange County Register, initiated a partnership between the Register and Nguoi Viet Daily News, the area’s oldest Vietnamese-language daily, when she became Nguoi Viet’s vice president of business.
The two papers started working together in early 2003, and now they share content translated by Nguoi Viet, as well as sources and news tips. The Register also buys airtime for a weekly bilingual radio show aimed at young people.
The Register benefits from improved coverage and marketing, and Nguoi Viet gains a competitive advantage in an Orange County market that is “really cutthroat” — there are three Vietnamese-language dailies, 20 weekly and monthly papers, four television stations and six radio stations, Do said.
Collaboration can take many forms — from reporters working together on stories to crosslingual alliances between print and broadcast outlets. Lehrman said affiliations range from occasional editors’ get-togethers to formal relationships at the corporate level. But she also suggested that members could improve their own coverage by including local ethnic media in SPJ activities.
“SPJ chapters could have more collaborative events — to talk about stories that are important, to bring a different perspective on the big stories of the day,” Lehrman said. “Make sure (those who work in ethnic media outlets) are members of the chapter.”
Ethnic and mainstream media outlets that want to explore partnerships can begin with baby steps.
“They don’t have to be very complex,” Do said. “Start with a column and expand from there.”
Other first steps could be a joint diversity source book or an exchange internship where reporters swap newsrooms for a few days, she said.
“In order to survive right now, especially as newspapers, we have to be more creative in marketing ourselves,” Do said.
Sometimes the mainstream media focus so much on including a diversity of voices in the news that “we forget about getting our own voices into other people’s ears.”
But working together isn’t always easy.
Ethnic newspapers are advocates for their communities, a concept that rubs some journalists the wrong way, said Victor Merina, formerly a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and now a senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Justice and Journalism.
But mainstream journalists often wrongly “dismiss these papers and broadcasts as lesser journalism,” Merina said. “These aren’t advocates for nefarious reasons.”
Panel moderator Guy Baehr agreed.
A Chinese newspaper is an advocate for Chinese Americans as a whole, just as the Newark Star-Ledger is an advocate for New Jersey as a whole, he said. Baehr, a Sigma Delta Chi board member and now chairman of SPJ’s national Awards and Honors Mission Committee, is assistant director of the Journalism Resources Institute at Rutgers University.
Lehman and Baehr have spearheaded an effort to recognize collaborations between ethnic and mainstream journalists.
During its board meeting at the New York City convention, the SPJ board voted to approve a new award to honor partnerships between ethnic and mainstream media that result in “depth coverage of an important issue facing immigrant, African American, Spanish-speaking or American Indian communities in the United States.”
The SDX Awards information mailed out in January will have details about the SPJ award and how to apply, Lehrman said.
“We wanted to know, ’How can our members learn from people working in the ethnic media?’ ” she said. “We felt there was a cross-pollination needed.”
Deirdre Conner graduated from Swarthmore College in May and covered the SPJ National Convention in New York City for The Working Press. She is a reporter for the Naples (Fla.) Daily News.