Maura Arzamendi, who was 10 years old at the time, desperately began translating from Spanish to English when her younger brother’s appendix ruptured. The monolingual emergency room staff had tried to send him home to sit out his “cold.”
Jitt Smith once wrote down sentences such as “I am thirsty,” and “It hurts here” so that her mother-in-law could communicate with hospital nurses who didn’t speak any Korean.
In essays about overcoming language barriers to healthcare, these women and other immigrants captivate readers with their tales of anguish and resourcefulness. Fortunately, they each found a way to communicate. But more often, every day in hospitals and clinics around the country, language barriers threaten lives — and the story goes untold.
The California Endowment Language Access Essay Contest, organized by the New California Media consortium of ethnic media, makes clear why journalists need to jump over these language barriers ourselves. As the U.S. population grows more diverse, the inability to communicate extends far beyond the medical system into every beat: from city hall to schools to the police department. We must consult the people most directly affected when writing about language barriers, and we must look more deeply into the systemic and historical reasons they remain so difficult to solve.
Because most journalists are part of the majority population, it’s easy to overlook the importance of this trend.
“News stories usually would be that it’s an unfortunate incident, an isolated situation,” says Julian Do, director of New California Media in Southern California, which managed the essay contest in the ethnic media. “This doesn’t highlight the prevalent and ongoing problem throughout many communities.”
The journalistic tradition is to highlight inequities and with luck, stimulate change. But when we overlook patterns and fail to mention the institutional and societal reasons behind them, we unwittingly suggest that the best solutions are likely informal and individual, too. Mainstream journalists often make this mistake when covering communities outside their own, perhaps because we don’t know the history or just because we’re moving too fast.
In the case of language barriers in medicine, we may think of context in terms of a family, culture, neighborhood or institution. But we often forget that healthcare politics, institutional bias, and shrinking hospital budgets also play a role. We may write about a mistaken diagnosis or erroneous treatment, but we miss the ongoing, day-to-day story of a medical system that can’t communicate with its patients.
When Hemant Shah, a media analyst and expert on mass communication at the University of Wisconsin, studied coverage of minority communities, he found that the ethnic media are more likely to describe the historical and structural underpinnings to events and trends. And, just as they will be running these essays in their pages or on the air, they are also more likely to include the voices of ordinary people – not just for color and emotion, but also for their expertise and analysis. As a result, these media reach a level of complexity and insight in some stories that mainstream journalists often miss, Shah concludes.
In the case of the translation story, the difference comes down to compelling authenticity.
“Getting first-hand accounts is critical,” says Alice Chen, a primary care physician at San Francisco General Hospital.
Chen, who was a judge for the essay contest, says the pieces moved and surprised her, even though she has worked on healthcare access issues for many years.
Chen urges journalists to take the extra steps necessary to learn about people’s experiences directly, instead of second-hand. We can start with doctors, nurses and advocacy groups to investigate context and to identify links into the community – but then, it may be time to hire an interpreter. The New California Media essays show just what we’ve been missing.
For help in covering healthcare issues in minority and immigrant populations, watch for the Association of Health Care Journalists’ upcoming resource guide on covering multicultural health issues: www.ahcj.umn.edu/. California journalists may want to apply for the California Endowment Healthcare Journalism Fellowships http://ascweb.usc.edu/asc.php?
pageID=409 and review its resource list.
Sally Lehrman is a member of the SPJ board of directors and national diversity chairwoman. The Knight Foundation offers fellowships for journalists to attend weeklong sessions at the Salzburg Seminar on global issues. For information, see salzburgseminar.org/knight.cfm.