Phuong Ly

Phuong Ly is founder of Gateway California, a nonprofit that helps journalists connect to immigrant sources. The project was developed during her recent year as a John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford University. She began her journalism career at the Charlotte Observer and then spent seven years at The Washington Post, writing about crime, religion and education, with a focus on immigrant communities. In 2006, a portfolio of her stories won the American Society of Newspaper Editors/Freedom Forum Award for Outstanding Writing about Diversity and was included in the book “Best Newspaper Writing 2006-2007.”

How to interview, report on immigrants when you don’t speak their language

Growing up, I discovered the easiest way to get rid of someone soliciting from door to door: Just say your family doesn’t speak English. Most visitors turned away quickly.

Occasionally, a church group would really persist and invite themselves in. After some awkwardness, they managed to communicate with us, even though my parents’ preferred language was Vietnamese. They used me as a translator, showed books with photos and after patiently sitting around for a couple of hours, found out that my father did speak a little English, albeit slowly and shyly.

Many journalists could take some inspiration from those Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses who visited our North Carolina home. Immigrant communities are rich with stories, but reporters often cite language as an obstacle.

Tom Huang, assistant managing editor for Sunday and enterprise at the Dallas Morning News, told me that some reporters he’s supervised have assumed they wouldn’t be able to get much information. In truth, he said, they feel uncomfortable. “It’s fear of the unknown,” he said.

Hiring more bilingual reporters is one solution for media outlets. But that has limitations, too. In many communities, dozens of languages are spoken, from Arabic to Yiddish. Moreover, reporting on people who don’t speak English shouldn’t be handed off as the responsibility of one or two journalists. Immigrants are important sources for every beat, from city government to public health to religion.

Here are some ways to maneuver around the language barrier:

Realize that there may be more English speakers than you think.

Being an immigrant doesn’t mean a person doesn’t speak English. As a reporter for The Washington Post, I wanted to do a story about Koreans immigrating to suburban Maryland so their kids could attend the well-regarded public schools.

I worried about my ability to do an in-depth story about a family with an interpreter tagging along for hours at a time. But eventually, I found a family in which both father and mother spoke English — they had been educated at American universities years ago.

Seek out long-time residents and younger people as “cultural brokers.”

Use them to help you get an overview of the community, brainstorm story ideas and meet others. Many immigrants who have lived in the community longest serve as church leaders, social workers or hired translators at nonprofits and governments. They’re often trusted by other residents and can smooth the way for you. On the other end, the younger people provide a different perspective. The generational divide is a terrific narrative thread.

Many reporters, including myself, have also used community leaders or young people as translators. This should be done with some caution. Be aware that some people may have self-interests or conflicts — as in any reporting situation. Teenagers, for example, might not tell you everything their parents are saying — that’s a fact that crosses all cultures.

Take your time.

The longer you’re with people, the more comfortable they’ll feel. In-person visits are infinitely better than on-phone interviews because you can see and respond to the source’s body language. Multiple visits are essential for more complicated stories. Shajia Ahmad of the Garden City Telegram in Kansas, who has reported on Burmese and Somali immigrants, said she doesn’t bring in a photographer until after she’s visited several times. Her theory is that most families probably prefer one stranger in their home at a time.

Spending time with sources is also important for the sake of accuracy. You might need to go over a point several times, to make sure you understand it correctly. WCCO-TV in Minneapolis recently aired a story saying that a New York City Chinese-owned market was selling dog meat from Minnesota.

The employee that a reporter interviewed by phone likely meant “duck” not “dog,” but the station ran with the story anyway. New York inspectors found no basis for the allegations, and the story has since been erased from WCCO’s website. News Director Michael Caputa acknowledges the station was wrong, but still seems to be defending the story. “The person we spoke to said he didn’t speak English, but then gave an interview in English,” he wrote in a staff memo.

Use your other senses.

Reporting shouldn’t be limited to interviewing. Look at what’s on their walls. Notice their gestures. What type of music is playing? What type of photos or written materials can they show you?

Sometimes, I’ve used what I notice in someone’s home as an icebreaker. People talk more openly and are less embarrassed about their language abilities when they’re at ease. When I asked one woman to tell me about the family pictures on her shelves, she lit up. By the time she got to the last photo, she was even comfortable enough to tell me that it was of the daughter she had left behind in El Salvador. The years of distance had made them strangers.

Matt O’Brien of the Contra Costa Times told me via email that he relied on his observations when he interviewed an elderly Taiwanese immigrant through a community worker. He noticed her family looking uncomfortable at the woman’s responses and then moved the interview to another room.

Develop a network of translators.

Reporters I know have depended on friends, parents or colleagues at other newsrooms. Alhambra Source, an online news site in southern California, taps into a team of more than 30 community volunteers. The site, a project of the University of Southern California’s journalism school, publishes in three languages — English, Spanish and Chinese. The volunteers serve as citizen reporters and translators, and they’re given credit at the end of stories.

Daniela Gerson, the site’s editor, has relied on the volunteers to help report on stories such as a health center serving elderly Chinese that is facing budget cuts. (Gerson speaks Spanish, but not Chinese.)

She wondered whether other media outlets could use community translators just as they ask citizen reporters for news and photos. “We’ve found that people really want to help us,” Gerson told me in an interview. “People value that they’re able to provide a bridge to their community.” Read more


As people of color become a majority, is it time for journalists to stop using the term ‘minorities’?

Is it time to stop using the term “minorities”?

The word has long been used to describe people who are not white. But changing demographics make the term outdated and oxymoronic.

Consider the word usage in these stories:

From the Associated Press:

For the first time, minorities make up the majority of babies in the U.S., part of a sweeping race change and growing divide between mostly white, older Americans and predominantly minority youths that could reshape government policies.

From KTLA-TV in Los Angeles:

Not surprisingly, most of the states that experienced growth in populations of minority children are the ones where white children are in the minority: California, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Mississippi and Maryland.

David Minthorn, deputy standards editor at the Associated Press, told me via email that the wire service uses “minority” as it’s defined by Webster’s dictionary — a racial, ethnic, religious or political group smaller and different from the larger group. The term is widely used by academics and demographers, he added.

Minthorn, who is one of three AP Stylebook editors, said the AP isn’t considering a change in usage, but “I have no doubt other precise terms will emerge as the situation evolves.”

Wordsmiths aren’t the only ones interested in this issue. In 2001, the San Diego City Council voted to ban “minority” and “minorities” in all official city documents. Terms like “underserved,” “people of color” or specific ethnic identifiers are used instead.

City leaders said “minority” implied being minor and inferior. And in many neighborhoods, Latinos, blacks and Asians were the majority of residents. By the 2010 census, all of San Diego County was officially minority-majority, with whites who were not Hispanics making up less than 49 percent.

(Boston’s city council voted for a similar minority-word ban in 2002, but the mayor vetoed the measure.) The San Diego Union-Tribune continues to use the word “minority” in its stories. Editor Jeff Light told me that changing the terminology isn’t a front-burner matter for the paper.

For the journalists who formed UNITY, though, the issue was important. UNITY leaders recognized the demographic trend in the early 1990s and decided not to brand the group as an alliance of minority journalists, co-founder Will Sutton said via email. Instead, UNITY calls itself an alliance for “journalists of color.” The coalition included the Native American Journalists Association, National Association of Hispanic Journalists, Asian American Journalists Association and, until earlier this year, the National Association of Black Journalists.

Joanna Hernandez, the current UNITY president, said journalists should be as precise as possible when describing someone. It’s best to say someone is Latino, for example, and then go further by stating a country of origin.

Specifics keep readers from making assumptions. For example, “a lot of people assume that Latino means Mexican,” said Hernandez, who describes herself as Latina and more precisely, a “Nuyorican,” a New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent.

Still, Hernandez said, there aren’t easy alternatives when a writer is describing a coalition of groups. As a multiplatform editor at the Washington Post, Hernadez said by phone that she can understand why it’s hard for journalists to drop “minority” from their copy. It fits into a headline — or a tweet — more neatly than saying blacks, Latinos, Asians and Native Americans or people of color.

Hernandez and others who think that “minority” is outdated say they couldn’t think of a better replacement.

Merrill Perlman, a former director of the New York Times copy desks, rejected “ethnic” and “people of color” for being too vague. A term like “non-white” has negative connotations. “I haven’t seen a good alternative,” she said by phone. “Someone needs to invent a word.”

(Boston College uses the acronym AHANA to refer to African, Hispanic, Asian and Native Americans, but the term has not made its way into popular use.)

To Hernandez, the conundrum shows the beauty of language. “When you start questioning it and start thinking about it,” she said, “then it’ll change.”

Your suggestions: Let’s replace the word “minority” with… Read more


Vargas’ essay renews attention to media’s use of ‘illegal’ & ‘undocumented’

Should journalists call Jose Antonio Vargas an illegal immigrant or an undocumented one?

Discussions about how to refer to an immigrant who isn’t authorized to live in the U.S. have popped up periodically in newsrooms. But Vargas’ recent New York Times essay — and his stature as high-profile, Pulitzer-winning journalist — has thrust the media into a bigger role in the debate.

In his essay, Vargas refers to himself as an undocumented immigrant. In a tweet last week, he noted that many people were tweeting about the controversial essay with the hashtag #undocumented immigrant. “Undocumented immigrant is trending,” he tweeted from his @joseiswriting handle. “So let’s drop ‘illegal’ and ‘alien.’” No person is illegal or an alien.”

Increasingly, immigration advocates are questioning the media’s language usage. Last fall, Colorlines, an online magazine that covers racial justice issues, launched a campaign called “Drop the I-Word.” Supporters are asked to urge media outlets to use “undocumented” rather than “illegal.”

Independent of the campaign, publications such as the San Antonio News-Express in Texas and the Monterey County Herald in California have made changes, and others are considering doing the same.

Many mainstream media outlets use “illegal,” following Associated Press style. AP’s Deputy Standards Editor David Minthorn told me via email that “undocumented” isn’t used because the term “implies that the issue is more one of paperwork than the legal right to be in the country.”

The AP Stylebook also states that “illegal alien” and “illegal” as nouns should be avoided. Minthorn said that the AP adopted its entry in 2004 after “considerable discussion on adopting neutral terminology to describe this situation.”

The New York Times also uses “illegal immigrant.” Vargas was allowed leeway to use “undocumented” because he was writing a first-person piece, said Danielle Rhoades Ha, a Times spokeswoman.

The National Association of Hispanic Journalists, however, would like more media outlets to re-evaluate their style. The group’s resource guide says that the term “illegal” is often used as a pejorative. Calling immigrants “illegal” also unfairly criminalizes them, according to an NAHJ statement. Being in this country without authorization is not a crime; it’s a civil violation.

Last fall, it was language usage — not just content — that roused readers when the Fresno Bee published a seven-part series about the hypocrisies in the immigration policies and the farming economy of California’s Central Valley. Many readers protested the paper’s use of the term “illegal immigrant.” An English professor at Fresno City College, for instance, started a Facebook group asking people to boycott the paper during the series.

The Bee decided to continue using the term “illegal.” The paper believes it’s the “best option, but recognize that others disagree for various reasons,” Executive Editor Betsy Lumbye said in a story the Bee published about the controversy.

Claudia Melendez Salinas, an education reporter at the Monterey County Herald, pushed her newspaper to change its style to “undocumented immigrant.” The change was made in 2008, and staffers have been reminded when the term “illegal immigrant” slips into paper, Melendez said via email.

Melendez said that publications should change style when words describing a group have become outdated or inappropriate. Newspapers had previously used the N-word, she pointed out.

“I told them ‘illegal’ was offensive and compared it to other offensive labels like ‘spic,’ Melendez said of her talk with editors. “That’s how people use it, if you think about it.”

The San Antonio Express-News changed its style to “unauthorized immigrant” — a compromise decision. “It doesn’t have the bite of illegal immigrant or illegal alien … but it doesn’t have the sanitizing effect of ‘undocumented,’ which implies that said immigrant just misplaced his papers,” Public Editor Bob Richter wrote last year in a column about the change.

Recently, the San Diego Union-Tribune decided to re-evaluate its usage of “illegal immigrant.” Editor Jeff Light said the issue had been brought up last month by the publication’s Latino community advisory board, which works with the newsroom on staff development, coverage issues and Spanish-language products. Light has asked a few reporters to see how other news outlets are handling it.

“I am interested in discussing whether we should change it,” he said via email. “I have no idea whether we will or not at this point.”

Whatever is decided, the debate is a reminder of the power of words and the implications they can have for journalists, readers and sources.

Which term does your newsroom use, and why? Read more


California Watch’s engagement efforts show staffers what hard-to-reach audiences want

California Watch’s stories about earthquake safety problems in schools reached hundreds of thousands of people through a statewide network of radio, TV and newspaper partnerships.

But the ones most affected by nonprofit news agency’s investigation were the ones least likely to read it — children.

That’s where Ashley Alvarado comes in. Her job as California Watch’s public engagement manager is figuring out how to deliver information to the audiences who need it most but are hardest to reach. This means that her techniques have to be as unique as the diverse communities that she’s targeting.

With the earthquake safety story, the solution was putting information in a kid-friendly format — coloring books. And not just in English, but also in Spanish, Vietnamese and both simplified and traditional Chinese, the most spoken languages in California.

California Watch had planned to print 2,000 copies, but the demand quickly exceeded that. By the time the outreach campaign ended in June, California Watch published 36,000 coloring books and distributed them for free. The site, Alvarado said by phone, is still getting requests for books from schools and organizations.

While the coloring book has been a hit with children, it’s also helped California Watch forge relationships with parents and educators. Alvarado began her outreach long before the coloring book was published to get input on the type of content it should include. Conversations with Chinese language schools, where many immigrant families send their children on the weekends, even resulted in a tip for another story.

Alvarado got an email from XiaoLin Chang, the director of two schools in Milpitas, Calif., about a local public school teacher who had pinned a note to a kindergartener’s shirt and embarrassed parents.

Chang, whose Chinese schools include 200 families, said that the contact with California Watch was her first with any U.S. news media. Previously, she had never heard of California Watch. Now, she’s a subscriber to its news emails.

“They made me feel comfortable, and I think they give people good information,” Chang said in a phone interview.

Alvarado said the news organizations cannot afford to write off diverse communities. “You want to reflect the state that you’re covering, and California is diverse,” she says. “And to get at that, we need to be out on the streets and pull people into what we do.”

California Watch has also attended local street fairs and bazaars to help draw ties between its content and the community. To publicize stories about illegal levels of lead in jewelry, for instance, California Watch rented a lead testing machine for $1,400 and offered to test jewelry for people at several places, including a flea market.

Robert Rosenthal, executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting, which oversees California Watch, said the outreach ultimately improves the journalism.

“It isn’t simply getting information to these communities,” he said. “It’s getting information back to us to make our journalism more relevant and meaningful.”

Rosenthal said California Watch had wanted to hire someone to focus on reaching diverse audiences, but didn’t have the funds to do so until it received a grant from California Endowment — a foundation that was interested in helping marginalized communities gain access to news. Part of the $440,000 grant went toward funding Alvarado’s position.

Even though most news organizations don’t have such resources, there’s plenty they can do to tap into diverse communities.

Here are some lessons culled from California Watch’s efforts:

Bring your office to the community. Technology makes it easy to do everything online, but it also enables reporters to work from anywhere. So why not take your office to the community? California Watch periodically has an “Open Newsroom” day in which reporters work from coffee shops in different parts of the state. Reporters say they’ve connected with people who haven’t heard of California Watch previously, and a few of the contacts became sources.

Design outreach that allows active participation. For the coloring book, Alvarado solicited suggestions from the community about the name of the watchdog mascot (Sunny was the winner). For the stories about lead in jewelry, Alvarado passed out fliers in English and Spanish. The offer to test people’s jewelry, though, got the most attention.

Collaborate with partners to help fund projects. The coloring books campaign cost about $20,000, which included printing, translation and travel expenses for Alvarado as she visited schools around the state. Half of the cost was footed by partners — KQED radio, Patch, Inkworks Press, the Public Insight Network and the Isabel Allende Foundation. Rosenthal said that with diminishing resources, collaboration is the only way to do more.

Get introductions from a trusted resource.
Not knowing a language or being unfamiliar with an area can be daunting. It’s easier when you have someone who can introduce you to a community. That person can be the head of a nonprofit or a longtime resident. When Alvarado was trying to gauge Chinese speakers’ interest in the coloring book, she contacted the director of an association for Chinese schools. The person was a family friend of reporter Joanna Lin. The director in turn leveraged her network to help California Watch.

Alvarado said her work in the coming year will focus on engaging people before a story is written, rather than after. But the same techniques apply.

“I like to joke that California Watch is so old-school that we’re new-school,” she said. “We’ve gotten back to the basics of reaching out in person to readers, existing and potential.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story indicated that California Watch published 34,000 coloring books. More than 34,000 were distributed, but 36,000 were published. Read more

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