Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Reporting on diverse communities that are not our own

This tip sheet was prepared to accompany a panel presentation at the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Philadelphia, 2015.


Advantages of multilingual, multicultural newsrooms

According to stats released by ASNE: for the past number of years only 13 percent of journalists in newsrooms across the nation are journos of color. The demographic composition of the majority of newsrooms doesn’t reflect the city or town they propose to cover, no less the nation. 
In Philadelphia, for example, by 2010 Census categories: 44 percent of the population is Black; 36 percent is white; 13 percent is Latino; 7 percent is Asian and Pacific Islander; 0.8 percent is American Indian and Alaska Native.12 percent is foreign-born, 21 percent speak a second language at home.
None of our newsrooms represent those percentages. 
At the moment, at AL DÍA, 63 percent of our staff is Latino; 26 percent white; 11 percent Black; and 0 percent are Asian and Native American. 47 percent of us are foreign-born; 84 percent of our staff is bilingual (the languages we speak are English, Spanish, Arabic, French).
Because of our relative demographic diversity we do pretty well covering stories across most of Philadelphia; because of our demographic shortcomings we’ve become very proactive about collaborating with our colleagues from community and ethnic media to ensure that our coverage isn’t plagued by erasure or flattening, and to enable us to interview in more languages than we speak.
An example of this was a collaboration between AL DÍA reporter Ana Gamboa and Metro Chinese Weekly editor Steve Yuan, focused on Chinese restaurant owners who hire Latino kitchen workers. Interviews were conducted in Cantonese and Spanish. Steve brought years of experience in covering the Chinese business community, Ana brought years of experience covering Mexican and Central American immigrants. Both brought a very nuanced understanding of what otherwise would generically be labeled Asian and Latino in our city, and were well-versed in specific distinctions in language, regional custom and more — all of which contributed to a story that could not have been written by either media organization alone. The resulting story was published on both websites in English and Spanish and English and Chinese, and published in print in Spanish and Chinese.
Protip: Hire bilingual or polyglot reporters, and reporters from the communities your media organization should be covering better. In the interim or in addition, work collaboratively with the ethnic media in ways that will inform and engage both readerships and benefit both media organizations.

Collegial collaboration 

Beware of thinking that just having work translated — or engaging a translator for interviews for a particular story —is enough. We’d like to assume that cultural literacy and an understanding of the history and complexity of the particular community being covered would be part of any translator’s bag of tricks, but it’s not necessarily so. Particularly if it is an academic translator who lives outside of the community and has little awareness of the dynamics of the community. Collaboration with an ethnic news organization that has a history of covering the community is a far better move. 
Collegiality is one of the sticking points in the relationship between mainstream media and ethnic media. We are often asked by our mainstream colleagues to share our sources, or to be sources, or to function as translators for what will be a single-byline, single-media organization story. 
Worse, our own investigative work of years is ruthlessly mined, without credit or even so much as a cursory hat tip to the reporter or media organization involved. Because ethnic media is, consciously or unconsciously, not viewed by mainstream media as a peer. 
An example of this happened for us a few years ago when we conducted an hour-long video conversation with then Governor Tom Corbett. We always ask public officials about the number of Latinos on their administrations, and Corbett responded that he couldn’t find any Latinos for his staff. We immediately put that segment of the interview on our website and someone at Think Progress found it. They used the video in a piece that pointed out Corbett’s cluelessness and his erasure of the growing Latino population of PA — which was fair. But despite the fact that Corbett and I (who conducted the interview) were seated in front of an AL DÍA News Media drop, the only mention of us in the Think Progress piece was to say that the video clip was part of a longer interview conducted by “a Spanish-language newspaper in Philadelphia.” Can you imagine the parallel attribution of “an English-language newspaper in Philadelphia” if the video had been pulled off the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Daily News or even Philadelphia Magazine’s website? I can’t.
By the next day, Salon, Huffington Post, and a dozen other news media organizations had picked up Think Progress’ story and replicated the lack of attribution and lack of link. While Think Progress did — after prodding — change “a Spanish-language newspaper” to AL DÍA News Media and inserted a link, I’ll never forget the conversation I had with one of their editors. He told me I shouldn’t be annoyed by the lack of attribution but glad that they picked up the video since it garnered far more attention than we would have gotten otherwise. I had to point out that the very reason they picked it up is that no other news organization had, at that point, bothered to ask the governor about his Latino hires, and that their lack of attribution betrayed a fundamental disrespect for us as a journalistic entity, representing a parallel to Corbett’s erasure of Latinos —  which was, after all, what they were decrying and ridiculing.
Pro-tip: Attribute. With at least the same level of respect accorded to mainstream news organizations. Treat ethnic media journalists as your peers — because they are. If some ethnic media organization’s investigation prompted yours, a hat tip is in order. Don’t anticipate silence on our part when we see what you did — because, hey, we can call you out in at least two languages.

Let’s talk about writing and editing

Code words, stereotypes and the political choice to break style

Protip: Language matters.
It will come as no surprise to any of you that AL DÍA doesn’t use the terms “illegal immigrant” or “illegal alien” which we believe are — at best — a wholly inaccurate representation of people who are out of status in our nation, and — at worse — an intentional criminalization and way to slur Latinos and Asians, regardless of documentation status. 
In 2013, AP changed its stylebook, and many news organizations changed usage with it. But not only are we now seeing a resurgence in the use of these terms by big media organizations, but there have always been organizations  and individual journalists who choose to use these terms. Sometimes, the editors or copyeditors at an otherwise AP-style news organizations are, by inattention or intention, complicit in this choice. 
We don’t have nearly enough time to argue the rationale behind the use of these terms, but many defend them as a description of an actual aspect of a group of people, and therefore not a slur. We don’t see it that way. For example, it is true that some people who speak English with a Spanish accent pronounce the word “speak” as “spic”. So that slur could be defended as a description of an actual aspect of a group of people. But of course we know it is not. 
In dealing with any ethnic community ignoring what those who are part of the community say about “code words”  or slurs is not a laudable defense — nor a wise long-term strategy for the news organization’s well-being.
Protip: Beware of adjectives
In the coverage of the recent mayoral primary in Philadelphia, I tracked a lot of stereotype plied in headlines and adjectives used to describe the one Latino candidate who made to primary day. He was described as “loud,” “outlandish” and headlines had him “flipping out.” He was also, with some frequency, left out of composite photos used to promote stories about the candidates as a whole. 
I know, beyond a doubt, that I irritated colleagues I esteem in the mainstream by pointing this out every time I noticed it. The thing is, it kept happening. The ethnic media doesn’t expect mainstream to be as attentive to the stereotypes of our communities as we are, but we do expect that, if we point them out, there will be care paid to keeping them from becoming the leit motif of coverage. 
Again, collaborations can be an effective way to dispel misunderstanding or misreading when certain terms are used. In the aforementioned collaboration between AL DÍA and Metro Chinese  Weekly, for example, the use of the word “Amigos” is key. Now, if we were working the story alone, the fact that Chinese restaurant owners used that word to refer to their Latino kitchen employees, would most likely be interpreted as a little iffy and paternalistic. After all, “amigo” is most frequently used by non-Latinos not for its actual meaning (friend) but as punctuation (to draw attention to our ethnicity and “otherness”) in sentences that often purport to tell us things “as they really are,” not as we imagine them to be. 
There is, of course, ethnicity and otherness pointed out in the use of the word amigo by the Chinese restaurateurs as well, but because we were collaborating with a Chinese journalist we were able to understand that there is no collective term for “Latinos” in the Chinese vernacular spoken in Philly’s Chinatown. And that in this case “Amigos” was the chosen collective term. It makes its use throughout the story quite a different thing, and something we would never had known had we not been working a collaborative story. 

Default audiences, single stories, and according credibility and authority

None of us, no matter how large or small our news media organization, can afford to write to whatever was once our default audience. Demographic changes in our cities and towns demand that we reexamine if we are speaking only — or even primarily — to one portion of the population. At AL DÍA, for example, after 20 years of publishing only in Spanish, we know have a website that is about 75 percent bilingual (we are working toward 100 percent). Many second- and third-generation Latinos prefer to read in English. Likewise, you don’t have to be Latino to be interested in a Latino perspective on what is happening in our city and nation, or to find stories about the Latino communities intriguing and engaging. 
Protip: Write for people who aren’t you.
I think it is fair to say most media organizations would like to reach millennials, even when we aren’t millennial ourselves. But ... what about Latino millennials?
Broadening the default means really broadening the default. 
Protip: Be aware of the specific heritage composition of the ethnic communities in your city. 
The Puerto Rican community has shared challenges with the Mexican immigrant community or the Dominican community in Philadelphia, but also many distinct ones. A journalist at a mainstream news organization here and I play this little game where we point out to each other the number of times Puerto Ricans are called immigrants in stories. Puerto Ricans aren’t immigrants, of course, but Americans no matter whether they were born on the mainland or on the island. 
Also remember that the asylum or refugee application outcomes are quite different for Cubans and Venezuelans than they are for Mexicans or Central Americans. Latinos with indigenous heritages may have access to quite different levels of services in your city — so a Mam speaker from Mexico cannot be served by the same interpreter a Mam speaker from Guatemala would be. 
Likewise the Asian community — some challenges are shared by the Korean, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Indian and Indonesian communities here, but many are specific to the particular neighborhood or community. 
Communities are complex, and deserve real legwork on your part before you think of filing your story.
Protip: Honor everybody. 
Too often the single story leads to stories without the particular community’s voice in them, or the same story written over and over (stories about police brutality in communities tend to be particularly bad about this). And way too often credibility and authority are assigned only to those outside of the community. 
Again, using the mayoral primary race here as an example, a story about low Latino voter turnout and the Latino candidate’s chances of getting any sort of vote count was trotted out early. With its fundamental flaw of not citing nor including any Latino voices, this piece felt — to a number of us in the community — as more anthropological treatise than journalism. 
No community wants to be the subject of an anthropological study. We have to move out of our own feelings of authority as journalists — even long-term and acclaimed journalists — to get a full story. For us, that has meant collaborating with Solomon Jones, a journalist from WURD (an independent African American radio station) to do stories about African American and Latino relations in North Philly, and upcoming (hopefully) in South Philly as well. 
Protip: Look at and revise your go-to list.
We need to acknowledge that our contact lists and sources are sometimes as segregated as our neighborhoods, and then we need to make sure we do something about it — with every story we file, not just the ones we understand to have an ethnic component.

Responding to criticism about coverage

None of us like to know we got it wrong. Or that we didn’t consider a hugely important aspect of a story. For us, that happened with the story about African American and Latino in North Philly, which I just mentioned. We were called out by Afro-Latinos — and rightfully so — for the very structure of our story which centered on two “separate” demographics and their interaction. We effected, without intending to, a further erasure of those who are already usually erased from Latino, and to lesser extent, African American, discourse in the city.  
It is incredibly important to hear this sort of criticism. Which is one of the reasons I don’t agree with removing comment sections on stories. While it is true that comments can become toxic very quickly, it is also that this section does away with intentional or unintentional gatekeeping. It is the comment section where these sort of omissions and erasures are most usually pointed out to us. 
Protip: Read the comments on your stories. Be willing to admit that your story may have flattened, done damage, reinforced stereotype in ways you had no idea it did. 

Protip: Cultivate a collegial enough relationship with your peers at ethnic community media that when you still don’t see it, they can help you understand it.