Ryerson journalism professor argues for more local news in ethnic media

By SAHAR FATIMA
Ethnic media outlets will better serve their communities if they put more emphasis on reporting local news, Ryerson journalism professor April Lindgren suggested during a recent presentation to ethnic media representatives.

Lindgren, who presented her findings from the Local News Research Project to about 35 members of the National Ethnic Press and Media Council of Canada (NEPMCC), said many ethnic media organizations that publish in languages other than English devote too much time and attention to homeland news that is easy to access online. Offering more local coverage would give ethnic media a competitive advantage, she argued, because it isn’t as readily available on the Internet for people with limited English-language skills.

“I’m not saying eliminate home country news,” Lindgren said during the April 16 presentation at Queen’s Park. “Some people don’t have access to the Internet or don’t use it for news. My plea is to just think about the balance” between news from home and news about the Greater Toronto area.

Lindgren said that local stories act as a road map for newcomers trying to understand the people, places and events in the Greater Toronto Area. Yet many ethnic papers have so little local coverage it was difficult to find papers with enough content to explore as part of her ongoing investigation into local news and its role in Canadian cities.

Lindgren analyzed the news content of four ethnic newspapers as part of her ongoing work on The Local News Research Project. She examined the Chinese language daily, Ming Pao, in 2008, and then in 2011, she looked at the dailies Canadian Punjabi Post and Korea Times Daily, as well as the weekly newspaper, Russian Express.

With the exception of Russian Express, all the newspapers paid much more attention to homeland news relative to local coverage. Eight per cent of Ming Pao’s news content was local compared with 26 per cent in the Canadian Punjabi Post, 16 per cent in the Korea Times Daily, and 39 per cent in Russian Express.

Some members of the NEPMCC – which has 530 members across Canada – defended their emphasis on news from their country of origin.

“In our community, they want to know what’s happening back home,” one member said during the question-and-answer session with Lindgren.

Another member, Arif Ahmed of the Bengladeshi newspaper Jogajog, said in an interview that probably only about 40 per cent of his readers are interested in local news.

Many in the audience, particularly those from weekly or monthly publications, also expressed concern about regurgitating local news that readers have already heard or read in the mainstream media.

“You look for stories that bounce off the news,” Lindgren responded. She said a stale story about a robbery can be turned into a feature on the issue of crime in the neighbourhood as a whole. Stories can also be “localized” to include the voices of people from the news outlet’s target audience, she said. A story about Toronto homeowners who are fined for not clearing snow from the sidewalk in front of their houses is a good example of how news can indirectly inform readers about local rules, responsibilities and practices. It would be even stronger, she argued, if it included community members reacting to the bylaw, or talking about the challenges faced by newcomers who aren’t used to dealing with snow and its many complications.

HOW TO INCLUDE MORE LOCAL NEWS:

Lindgren also said that mainstream media outlets miss local stories specific to certain ethnic communities, a reality that ethnic media can use to their advantage to attract audiences. Her research, for instance, shows that the Toronto Star published 21 local stories dealing exclusively with the Chinese community while Ming Pao had more than 300 in the same period.

“So, obviously, Ming Pao is telling its community about local news that people aren’t going to get from the Toronto Star or CP24,” she said.

Lindgren said greater emphasis on local news coverage would also be a way to introduce members of different racial and ethnic groups to one another. The GTA, she noted, is a place where visible minorities will become the visible majority by 2030 yet other groups turned up rarely in the ethnic publications she examined.

“Ethnic media can play a major role in introducing these different groups to one another even as they improve their local coverage,” she said.

Journalists working for ethnic media, she suggested, could identify issues affecting other groups and then explore those issues within their own communities. A newspaper could point out that another ethnic group is grappling with tensions caused by interracial marriages, she noted, and use that as a jumping off point to explore how its own community handles the same problem.

Lindgren said it is also important for journalists working in ethnic media to avoid negative representations of other groups. In Ming Pao, for instance, 25 per cent of stories that mentioned other racial or ethnic groups did so in a way that was inconsistent with Canadian Press guidelines. The guidelines state that a person’s racial or ethnic background should only be mentioned if it is relevant to the story.

The problem was particularly pronounced, Lindgren said, in crime stories involving the Vietnamese or Black communities. Stories that gratuitously mention the arrest of  a Vietnamese man for running a marijuana grow-op or the shooting of a Black man sitting in his SUV present those two communities in a negative light, she said, especially since there is little positive coverage to offset the unflattering coverage. There is no reason to mention the racial or ethnic background of the individuals involved in either story, she pointed out.

Conversely, Lindgren said, it is also inappropriate to mention race in a positive story about a person from another ethnic community.

“By doing that, you’re making them exceptional,” she said, noting that the reference would suggest it is unusual for a person from that group to do something positive.

Gerald Paul, associate editor at The Caribbean Camera, said he was intrigued by Lindgren’s suggestion that ethnic media should introduce readers to other groups of people in the Greater Toronto Area.

“That’s an area that I will mention to (my editor) that we need to get into,” Paul said. “As Caribbean people, we do intermarry with other ethnicities and do business.”

Parry Long, reporter and marketing director for three Chinese-language weekly magazines – Ads Guide, Chinese Real Estate Magazine and My Home Guide – said his magazines only mention whether or not subjects are Chinese. Reporting on on other ethnic groups, he noted, can be difficult.

“In our community, we are familiar with which event is an important one and most attractive,” he said. “For other communities, maybe there’s a big event, but we are not familiar with that. So in that case, we cannot write too much about it.”

Long and representatives from other ethnic media outlets said reporting local news is a challenge for many of their news organizations.

“If we just put homeland news, we can get it all from the Internet,” Long said, highlighting how much easier that is than local coverage. “For local, we should translate, we should interview in person or by calls, and also we should go to some event to be involved in the event so we can write (the story).”

Ned Blair, a journalist at The Caribbean Camera and vice president of business development of the NEPMCC, said many journalists working for ethnic news media confine their reporting to covering events: “Hardly likely do we have the staff or the expertise to follow up on a particular story that would take weeks and weeks.”

NEPMCC members said increased training opportunities would make boosting their local news content easier. They cited the need for workshops and professional development that address issues such as:

  • Canadian media law and how to avoid being sued
  • Journalism ethics in the Canadian context
  • How to find and develop local stories the target audience can relate to
  • How to handle negative reaction to stories about sensitive issues that cast the community in a less-than-positive light
  • Canadian Press style for coverage of other groups