When firestorms ravaged the Southern California landscape in October, two of California’s mightiest forces collided: Mother Nature and the state’s booming immigrant population.
Calls to evacuate and other safety measures were not delivered to non-English-speaking residents in critical areas in a timely fashion. In the early days of the fires, safety information distributed through phone trees and mass media were primarily in English. And the disaster exposed urgent lessons for media as well as government agencies, who must remember who their communities are when reporting on emergencies.
Like many states, the makeup of California is changing rapidly. California happens to have the highest proportion of immigrants in the country; about
26.9 percent of residents are born abroad, according to the latest census. Additionally, about 40 percent of the state’s households speak a primary language other than English.
Yet Hispanic residents who needed to evacuate their homes in San Diego County had trouble finding information in Spanish about what to do, according to a report in New America Media (www.newamericamedia.org), an association of ethnic media that translates and compiles news from major ethnic publications. One Hispanic resident in the path of a firestorm said she was helpless as she watched a television news station broadcast evacuation orders strictly in English.
At the onset of the fires, anchors and reporters in her area did not direct their audience to alternative sources of information. This resident was among the last of her neighbors to evacuate and only did so when a law enforcement officer came knocking on her door. On the San Diego County Emergency homepage, links to evacuation, road closure and shelter information were primarily in English.
It was not until several days into the emergency that English-language television stations started scrolling information at the bottom of screen in Spanish in the San Diego area, according to an editorial in La Prensa San Diego, a bilingual English-Spanish weekly, which blasted this fact.
Safety information was also slow to move from government agencies to ethnic media, critical hubs for immigrant populations. When the information did finally come, Spanish-language radio and television stations did their best to get the word out; Chinese-language newspaper and radio stations directed their audience to evacuee provisions at Qualcomm stadium; and other outlets, such as the Korean-language media in the San Diego area, informed immigrants about their own community efforts: nearby Korean churches offering shelter and food.
Mainstream media outlets with the greatest success in communicating with their non-English-speaking audiences were those that already had partnerships with ethnic media. For example, at the onset of the Malibu fires, safety news and information on Spanish-language television broadcast station Telemundo in Los Angeles mirrored that of its media partner, NBC, according to Victor Franco, vice president of Telemundo public affairs.
“We covered every fire site, and so did NBC,” he said. “The reason we could do that is we are a duopoly, our resources are shared.”
The San Diego Union Tribune also worked closely with its sister paper, Spanish-language Enlace, throughout the emergency.
“From the beginning of the fires, Enlace published safety information for the Spanish-speaking community,” said Elena Shore, Spanish-language media editor with New America Media.
Enlace also was among the first to uncover the plight of undocumented workers who lived in the canyons in the evacuation zones. Many of these workers did not have computers, televisions or radios to keep them abreast of warnings in their area. And many were afraid to go to shelters or leave their camps for fear that they would be jailed or deported. Enlace helped gather donations for them.
Mainstream-ethnic media partnerships are important to develop, especially for when disaster strikes. When local and ethnic media along with agencies work together, they can create meaningful impact.