If newsrooms want to rebuild trust with underserved audiences, they can start with immigrant communitiesFor the past four years, my life in New York City consisted of a regular trip from my home in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, to spend an evening with my in-laws in Ridgewood, Queens. There, my husband’s mom introduced me to Andean dishes like llapingachos — a pillowy, cheese-filled, potato pancake — and taught me how to create perfect folds in the preparation of empanadas. The food, of course, wasn’t the only cultural difference between my husband’s family and my own. When it came to news, I was effectively traveling from the most media-saturated landscape in the country — one designed for a college-educated, iPhone-equipped, white professional like myself — to a very different ecosystem for Spanish-speaking immigrants. My husband’s parents, Ecuadorean immigrants who construct condominiums and clean homes, do not receive email newsletters or mobile news
The ‘Unnewsed’Since Trump’s election, many journalists, news executives, and media funders have undertaken a long overdue reflection into the disconnect between the media and much of America — a gap that is often framed as separating the cosmopolitan coasts from the rural and suburban heartland. But we need not hop on a plane to find communities that have been neglected and unnewsed. Media bubbles are not only geographic, they are also linguistic, cultural, and economic. And like middle America, immigrant communities are increasingly neglected by local newsrooms and left behind by the industry’s investment in new business models, distribution strategies, and reporting methods.< According to Michelle’s List, a nationwide database of local digital news outlets, only 3 of more than 300 publications describe themselves as serving immigrant communities. In a similar database compiled by the Columbia Journalism Review from 2010 to 2012, not one of the three-dozen digital outlets out of New York City focused on covering immigrants, who make up nearly 40 percent of the city’s population. (Outlets serving black audiences have similarly been left out of the innovation race, as journalist and publisher Glenn Burkins outlined in the recent Columbia Journalism Review.) With little resources to invest in innovation and training among local ethnic press, the urgent needs for verification of fake news and misinformation have largely gone unmet. The struggles of the ethnic press, like that of local newspapers across the country, are not new. But since the election of President Trump on a platform of anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies, the disconnect between the media and immigrant communities has come into sharp focus. At a time of widespread fear, why would an immigrant want to speak to a reporter, especially one from an outlet they don’t know and trust? A recent NPR story about how fear of deportation has led to a drop in the number of immigrants receiving food stamps and other social services ended with this unusual footnote: “We tried repeatedly to find immigrants willing to talk to us for the story, even without using their names. But we were unable to do so.”
Think about that for a moment. One of the country’s largest newsrooms was unable to find an immigrant to talk to for a story about immigrants. Notwithstanding some excellent reporting on immigration by journalists around the country, many local and national newsrooms lack the relationships with immigrant communities that are needed to uncover and investigate urgent and important stories.
A better media ecosystemHow can we create a media ecosystem that better serves today’s America — a country where immigrants and their U.S.-born children make up more than one-quarter of the overall population?
From media funders and investors to researchers, editors, and entrepreneurs, there are steps we can all take to bridge the gap between the news media and immigrant communities. Here are a few suggestions, and I invite you to share your own in the comments:
- Researchers and innovators: Study news consumption among immigrant audiences; they may be different from that of white, college-educated, English-speaking news consumers. Foreign-born Latinos, for example, are more likely than other groups to access the Internet from a smartphone — just one of many factors that may drive a unique distribution strategy to engage immigrants rather than native-born audiences.
- Editors and reporters: Collaborate with ethnic media to report on issues in immigrant communities. They may be tapped into important stories and sources, and collaboration can strengthen the reporting of both outlets. Daniela Gerson has outlined steps news organizations can take to get started.
- Funders: Support media innovation serving immigrant communities by inviting ethnic media publishers and innovators to conferences and prioritizing reporting that serves immigrant audiences for innovation grants. Whether the focus is on fake news, community engagement, or business models, it is likely that ethnic media outlets are facing those challenges just as much as mainstream outlets, and may well be addressing them with novel solutions.
- Finally, understand the difference between covering and serving a community. Newsrooms can invest in an immigration beat, but if the reporting does not address concerns of immigrant communities, is not reported in their languages or distributed via tools and platforms that they use, then the journalism — while by all means important for one audience — may not make a dent in addressing the information gaps facing immigrant communities.
As we design ways to reinvest in local reporting, it is important that we consider all of the diverse audiences who can benefit from innovative, in-depth, and engaged local journalism.
Madeleine Bair is a journalist, human rights documentarian, and civic media innovator. She is researching the information needs of immigrant communities in Oakland, California.
Thanks to Diana Montaño and Daniela Gerson for valuable feedback.