Ethnic media finding it hard to offer broader context when covering policies that affect minorities

Ethnic media have done a good job honing in on the community impact of specific policy issues, like immigration, but still struggle to take a bigger-picture look at U.S. politics and the economy, ethnic-media journalists and other experts said recently.

As the U.S. government stands on the edge of a new budget — or a shutdown — and the Middle East and North Africa teeters in the throes of protest and revolution, domestic and foreign policy are in the mainstream-media spotlight.

But ethnic media sometimes focus more on home-country politics and policy, said Minhaj Hasan, editor of The Muslim Link. When they do address U.S. policy, it’s often with a narrow lens.

Ethnic media “cover policy as it relates to our communities,” Hasan told me at an ethnic media awards ceremony that New America Media recently co-hosted with American University’s School of Communication, where I’m on the journalism faculty. “The Muslim community is interested in civil rights and the Patriot Act. Latino communities follow immigration policy.”

Hasan, an award winner, said he would have liked to see more recognized articles on the economy and broader, mainstream policy issues — but acknowledged that his own paper, as well as others, didn’t have a lot of bigger-picture coverage.

The key, Hasan told me, is to explain how the system works and how policy is made so that the readership knows why it matters to them. He cited a recent WNYC-Transportation Nation radio documentary, “Back of the Bus,” which addressed racial inequities in mass transit. Any immigrant community should be interested in the topic, he said, but ethnic media don’t always deconstruct everyday things, like how bus lines and transit maps are decided.

Girish Pokhrel, editor-in-chief of Nepali Post, said his publication has covered federal elections with an eye toward immigration.

“We try to talk about who (among candidates) is going to be good for immigrants,” Pokhrel said. “We try to explain the process to them, and what to do if they have immigration problems.”

The ethnic media serve their communities first and foremost, often in the most practical ways. For example, when local municipalities started enforcing federal immigration laws, media felt an obligation to reassure and advise panicked readers on their rights. Taking a bigger-picture look at why and how immigration enforcement has evolved into its current state was secondary — not to mention difficult-to-report issues like the foreclosure crisis or the economy.

Michelle Mittelstadt, director of communications for the Migration Policy Institute, told me that ethnic media are particularly good at “bringing issues closer to the community. They see the impact of policy decisions on communities sooner than other media.”

But many ethnic media organizations do not have a presence in Washington or in their state capital, she said. “So it’s hard to walk back on issues.”

Hazel Trice Edney, a leader in the black press and editor-in-chief of the Trice Edney Newswire, said ethnic media must not only embrace their duty to cover policy issues, but also expose systemic disparities — in health care, unemployment and foreclosure rates, as well as inequities in mainstream media coverage.

There is much work to be done, Edney said, citing patterns in stories on missing children, which disproportionately favor white youth.

Some ethnic-media journalists said their main obstacle is not a lack of will to address inequities that affect their communities, but a lack of resources.

Jay Chen, publisher of Asian Fortune, said he’s had to pass up many opportunities to expose racial injustice, such as employment discrimination against Asian American employees. The reporting staff and legal counsel required to go up against a major corporation eludes nearly all ethnic media, he said.

“We cover policy issues,” he told me. “But we lack the resources to do true investigative and in-depth work.”

Edney said ethnic media may ultimately influence policy not in traditional, mainstream journalistic models, but rather in new media and social media. Witness the events in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and the role of social media in those, she said.

“Our revolution will not just be televised. It will be on Twitter and it will be on Facebook,” Edney said. “Let us revolutionize together.”

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