The ethnic media in the United States isn’t exactly new: The first-ever printed news here took the form of hojas volantes (flying pages) or relaciones (reports), small, bilingual booklets that kept people in the Spanish colonies up to date. Then, over the first half of the 19th century, newspapers sprang up to serve Latinos, blacks and American Indians, thus laying the foundations for U.S. journalism as a whole.
The authors of the book, Racism, Sexism and the Media: The Rise of Class Communication in Multicultural America, tell this history in part to show the ongoing need for targeted media. Niche news outlets have long challenged the dominant portrayal of ethnic minority groups and provided an alternative voice and a lifeline for communities of color.
Authors Clint Wilson, Félix Gutiérrez and Lena Chao even conclude that the increasing diversity in the United States will push the news toward ever-narrowing and segmented target audiences. For one thing, journalists who work for general circulation media still have a very hard time integrating nonwhite perspectives into their work. But the spiral toward separate interests, concerns and consciousness could be about to shift dramatically. Both mainstream and ethnic outlets have begun to recognize the power of collaboration.
This year for the first time, SPJ will recognize the outstanding results. The New America Award, approved in September by the national board in New York, honors public service journalism by ethnic and mainstream media working together to cover issues important to immigrant and ethnic communities in the United States.
The award aims to promote excellence in reporting both on and within immigrant and ethnic communities, and to encourage productive bridges between the ethnic media and general circulation outlets.
“It fits with our overall goal of working toward more diversity in news coverage,” said Irwin Gratz, president of SPJ and the local anchor for Morning Edition for Maine Public Radio.
While newsrooms clearly need to address the lack of integration on their staffs, “in the short term, collaborations may offer us a quicker way to more diverse news stories,” he said.
Such collaborations also can allow a depth of coverage that neither outlet might achieve alone. The ethnic media bring access, cultural competency and an intimate knowledge of their communities to the mainstream outlets, which in return contribute resources, professional skills and access to the institutions of government and industry. Less than half of the ethnic media in the New York area were able to get information in a timely way from federal officials, the Independent Press Association found in a recent survey. More than a third weren’t certain about state and federal access laws and many did not have the resources to track down government information anyway.
For the inaugural award, editors at Residents Journal and The Chicago Reporter won first place for “Deadly Moves,” a set of investigative stories that documented the ways Chicago public housing policies had incited turf wars and gang-related murders. The team combined the insight and connections of reporters who knew the projects inside and out with investigative reporters who could search public records and navigate the city’s public housing bureaucracy. By combining powerful personal stories with the hard data, they were able to show the terrible harm caused when the city relocated public housing residents and, in the process, displaced gangs and drug dealers.
Alyssa Katz of City Limits and Abu Taher of Bangla Patrika won the second-place award. They combined investigation techniques with deep community connections to show the exploitation of Bangladeshi push-cart food vendors in Central Park under city contracts.
The Orange County Register and its Spanish-language weekly affiliate, Exce?lsior del Condado de Orange, collected the third-place honor for jointly publishing “Toxic Treats” or “Dulces To?xicos.” The series documented lead poisoning in Orange County children caused by popular Mexican candies.
“We saw exactly what we were hoping to see: news organizations of varying sizes collaborating to cover stories that would be both of interest to specific communities of color and to the broader audience as well,” Gratz said.
Even if they’re not in a position to arrange collaborations, individual journalists can find ways to draw from the ethnic media’s expertise, says Ronnie Lovler, a media consultant and independent journalist who spent 17 years reporting for CNN and other outlets in Latin America and Puerto Rico.
Reporters and editors can start by reading and watching news targeted to specific communities, she suggests, and noticing which topics are given the most depth and attention. Get to know the reporters from those outlets.
“You’ll discover stories you might be able to do,” Lovler says.
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