Reporters and community representatives talk news at Asian Arts Initiative

Last Friday afternoon, the Center for Public Interest Journalism held the first in a new series of conversations aimed at building relationships between reporters and the diverse communities they cover, with the overall goal of improving and increasing local news coverage of those communities. Friday’s event, hosted graciously by the Asian Arts Initiative in Chinatown, brought together representatives of Asian American communities throughout the city and reporters from a few Philly-based news organizations.

The conversation, moderated by Temple journalism professor George Miller, was free-flowing and, in the end, constructive. From my point of view, the conversation revolved around a few overarching themes. I’ll keep my comments brief, and hope that this post can serve as a forum to flesh out some of these themes and discuss potential solutions to ongoing problems.

1. There are major problems with news coverage of Asian American communities …

… if that weren’t already well-understood—and particularly in the mainstream news outlets. Several participants expressed frustration over the difficulty of getting coverage of Asian American communities that doesn’t involve famous people or tragedies, such as hate crimes.

Part of the problem is financial hardship on the part of big news outlets, especially newspapers. Shrunken newsrooms provide reporters only enough time to cover the biggest, easiest, or most sensational stories.

But part of the problem is what Helen Gym, of Asian Americans United, called a “general unfamiliarity” with smaller immigrant communities in Philadelphia, among reporters as well as the general population. Gym said that unfamiliarity is what fuels bias and stereotypes.

Several participants bemoaned the press’ tendency to publish either “soft news” stories based on the experience of an individual or stories that focus on violence or conflict within or between certain communities. Mia-Lia Kiernan, who works with the One Love Movement in Cambodian communities, said she was particularly tired of reading profiles stories about successful, bootstrapping Asian Americans.

“That’s not the truth for most of the community,” Kiernan said. “The community struggles.”

Most importantly, some participants said that news stories about issues that affect Asian Americans lack context. Even when a reporter is able to spend time on a story about a topic like immigration, it’s often his or her first foray into an ongoing conversation, and the resulting story reflects that relatively narrow experience. Depth is needed, consistently.

Also, while several community and foreign-language news outlets exist geared specifically for Asian American communities in Philadelphia, there’s some question as to whether mainstream outlets consider these communities their target readership.

2. Newsroom diversity is essential

Another obvious one, which bears emphasis. Language barriers, for example, prevent certain Asian communities from engaging in easy communication with reporters. Dan Denvir, who writes for the City Paper, said the fact that he speaks Spanish makes it easier for him to cover stories in Latino communities; he has to employ a translator, however, when reporting in other immigrant communities, increasing the amount of work and money that goes into the story.

Moreover, said one participant, certain individuals—particularly refugees—are much more at ease in the presence of members of their own communities. At the outset, a newsroom staff of mostly white reporters faces an uphill battle in covering diverse communities.

3. Media workers and communities need to understand each other better

“The Indian population has really grown in this area, almost 200 percent, over the last decade or so,” said Akanksha Kalra, an immigration attorney and vice president of the Council of Indian Organizations in Greater Philadelphia, “but I don’t know of any relationship, per se, that our Indian organizations have with the media, and I think that needs to change.”

Kalra said she takes responsibility for trying to get press coverage of events happening in Indian communities in Philadelphia, but that press releases rarely work. Dan Denvir said it’s no surprise that press releases don’t drum up much coverage; he receives dozens every day.

The participants agreed that financial hardship in the news business contributes to the rift between reporters and communities. With fewer, broader beats and more stories to cover, individual journalists rarely have the time simply talk to people who may or may not tip them to a story. But poor financial situations don’t excuse news organizations for poor coverage outright. Some topics still receive consistent, high-quality reporting. News organizations’ priorities are reflected clearly in their output.

At any rate, it’s clear that more consistent interaction between individuals would improve communities’ access to the kinds of coverage they want as well as journalists’ ability to produce high-quality news stories.

An idea

Toward the end of the conversation, participants began discussing the possibility of holding a workshop in which journalists and community groups could explain their priorities to one another. Such a workshop would give community groups a chance to learn how best to catch the attention of individual reporters or pitch certain stories while giving journalists a chance to develop sources. The perceived one-way flow of information from journalists to readers seems to be growing more ineffective by the day. And if the best way to improve the availability of news and information for diverse communities throughout the city is to force interaction between their members and news workers, then perhaps it’s time to force it.

If you participated in Friday’s conversation, please feel free to add your thoughts/questions/criticisms in the comments section below. And if you’re a reporter who wasn’t able to come to the event, please consider participating in our next community conversation, on Sunday, December 9th, at Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church at 6th and Lombard. Details to follow.

Photos by Andrew Mendelson

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