Do you know who lives in your neighborhood? Your town? Your state? Your country?
Bet the answer is “of course” — and well, “maybe not.” Many of us don’t get out much — unless we’re heading to an interview or the coffee bar down the street. On the weekends, we more or less stick to our familiar circuits, whatever they may be. So we could quite easily miss a big story going on right under our noses: That is, who is living where.
Demographers tell us that after 2050, no one race of people will make up a majority in this country. The population shift has already begun transforming U.S. cities, and it affects everyone’s beat. Schools, churches, libraries, local government, even public transportation are all responding to the change.
Consider this: In Washington state, one of six people speak a language other than English at home. One of eight residents in Illinois is foreign-born. Georgia is one of the fastest-growing states in the country, thanks to the African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Hispanics who have moved there from other states.
In SPJ President Irwin Gratz’s hometown, Portland, ME, almost 1 in 12 people were born outside of the United States. More than a third of those come from Asia, with nearly as many from Europe. In Denver, where Secretary-Treasurer Christine Tatum resides, about one-third of the population is Latino, and 11 percent is black. Almost 17 percent of the population is foreign-born. Most have journeyed from Latin America, but about 1 in 10 immigrants hail from Europe and 13 percent from Asia.
So if you want to infuse your reporting with fresh ideas, try starting with people. Who lives in your area? How might your beat look different through their eyes? In a series last year, Adam Fifield of The Philadelphia Inquirer told the story of the large Cambodian expatriate community that had migrated there in the 1970s to escape Pol Pot’s regime. He showed how the horrors they survived still reverberate through Philadelphia education, health care, social services and neighborhoods, largely unacknowledged. In reporting on the Muslim community in the San Francisco Bay Area, San Francisco Chronicle reporter Jonathan Curiel has dipped into literature, architecture, stand-up comedy and politics. Both won awards for excellence this year from the Columbia Workshop on Journalism, Race and Ethnicity.
Even if the population in your area hasn’t seen dramatic change, you can find great stories when you check for disparities in the way people experience local institutions. In the Daytona Beach area, African Americans make up less than 10 percent of the population. But Columbia Workshop prize-winners Ron Hurtibise and Donna Callea of the Daytona Beach News Journal noticed a story and explored the reasons why black children there were suspended from school at twice the rate of white youth.
Richard Knox, Rebecca Davis and Joe Neel, who cover health and science for National Public Radio, won an SDX award for their report on diabetes among homeless people. WFAE 90.7, another SDX winner, examined interracial trust in Charlotte, N.C., which has been a magnet for African-American migration in recent years.
These outstanding stories show the clear benefit of taking a close look at the people who live in your neighborhood, city or state. But where’s the best place to start? Venise Wagner, assistant professor of journalism at San Francisco State University, suggests beginning with the numbers. You can look up an amazing array of data by consulting the “American Factfinder” on the U.S. Census Web site at www.census.gov. This feature produces fact sheets on communities down to the size of a census tract, with details on race, age and gender, of course — but also things such as what languages people speak, whether they own or rent their houses, where they work and how they get there, and whether or not they have plumbing.
These data may raise some questions and give you a good idea of whom you need to get to know. Wagner offers some good ways to break out of familiar territory:
Go to gathering places where people linger to talk about things they care about. Try a bench in the park, a popular gym, a coffee shop or a community center. The first time you show up, listen and observe. The next time, identify yourself as a reporter and ask people broad questions. What do you care about? What are your concerns? What issues come up here? How well does media cover your community?
Take a walking tour. Notice the local enterprises, what the shops show in their windows and what the residences are like. Better yet, find someone to show you around — a well-known and respected local is best.
Get to know people. You might start at a community or recreation center and strike up some conversations. Try to figure out who knows everyone else in the community, who is the unofficial organizer, who makes sure kids have somewhere to go after school.
Find cultural brokers, people who can teach you how to introduce yourself and interact with others in a polite, nonthreatening way. Observe people’s physical language, such as when it’s OK to shake someone’s hand.
Most importantly, Wagner says, realize that you can’t get to know a community in one visit.
“You have to be willing to make mistakes, be rejected, and still go back,” she says.
If you take the time, a whole new realm of story ideas will unfold.
Sally Lehrman is a member of the SPJ board of directors and national diversity chairwoman.
Tagged under: diversity