A class of Hubert Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs students last night presented the results of a study they've just completed, entitled "Newspaper Coverage of Diversity in Three Minnesota Communities in 2004."
Rural Minnesota towns are presently experiencing some of the highest rates of new immigration in the entire United States.
Are the local newspapers accurately reflecting these changes, dealing with the social impacts, and playing a responsible civic role in helping to address the many challenges posed by this trend?
To answer these questions, the Humphrey students scrutinized every story in a random sampling of 24 newspapers published last year in three rural Minnesota communities (Albert Lea, Faribault, and Worthington). They also conducted interviews with reporters and editors at the newspapers about the challenges of covering minority communities. I visited the class three times during the semester as an informal sounding board and advisor.
The report's three main conclusions:
1. Substantial under-representation of minorities. Specifically, in Worthington, where 36% of the population is minority, only 3% of stories in the Worthington Daily Globe were minority-related. Those numbers were 22% versus 4% in the Faribault Daily News, and 12% versus 6% in the Alberta Lea Tribune.
2. A disproportionate use of negative themes in minority-related stories. Twenty-nine percent of minority-related stories were crime stories in the Albert Lea and Faribault papers, and 13% in the Worthington paper. The Worthington paper occasionally ran a special pullout section of FBI-style "Wanted" posters, the vast majority of which showed Hispanic men.
3. Significant newsroom barriers exist to covering minority communities. Staff shortages, a lack of Spanish- and other foreign language-speaking reporters, a lack of good news sources in minority communities, and ingrained attitudes -- such as skittishness about covering diversity issues, and a bias towards covering diversita in a feature-style instead of as straight news and analysis -- were all cited by editors and reporters as barriers to covering diversity well.
The Humphrey students who authored the reports, as well as reporters and editors from the three newspapers in the study, and assorted minority community group members attended the presentation. Aside from some minor questions about methodology, the reporters and editors from the newspapers in the study made it clear they had no quarrel with the report's basic findings.
Indeed, they made the point that they themselves were frustrated at the difficulties of getting good stories about minority communities into print -- and they were as eager as anyone to find out A) why it was so hard to get such stories in the paper, and B) what steps could be taken to improve minority coverage.
In small group sessions, the following came up as the basic problems that make it difficult for newspapers to significantly commit resources to covering minorities:
1) Lack of explicit commitment by the newspapers to covering minorities;
2) A Catch 22: newspapers need a minimum level of minority readership in order to commit new resources to covering minorities, but that minimum level will never be reached unless significant new resources are first committed;
3) The lack of basic cultural understanding by the newspaper's mainly white readerships, as well as their mainly white reporting and editing staffs, in minority cultures such as Mexican, Hispanic, Sudanese, Ethiopian, Somali, etc.;
4) The lack of bilingual reporters and/or interpreters;
5) Lack of good sources in the minority communities.
The small groups produced these ideas (among others) for how to improve rural newspaper coverage of the minorities in their midst:
1) Involve the publisher, editors, reporters, advertising salespeople, and other staff members at newspapers in a group decision to make coverage of local minority groups an explicit part of their newspaper's mission;
2) Publish minority-themed single pages on a weekly or monthly basis, with stories selected and written specifically for minority groups, such as English-language lessons; articles written both in foreign languages and in English; service articles related to issues like obtaining visas, health care, etc.; humorous articles about cross-cultural misunderstandings; and so on.
3) Try to change the newsroom mindset from one of writing about diversity issues only as feature stories, to finding the minority or global angle on every news story;
4) Invite guest columnists from local minority communities to write articles;
5) Make an attempt to call minority individuals for comment while writing ordinary news stories;
6) Publish more photographs of minority community members;
7) Publish articles about the life stories of recent local immigrants;
8) Make use of the "Certified Translator" program run by the University of Minnesota;
9) Write more stories that cross across sectors of society, such as stories about the impact of immigrants on agriculture; or computer talent recruitment from India; or outsourcing to foreign countries; foreign ownership of local retail businesses; etc.
10) Imagine story ideas and concepts that would involve reader feedback, including children and students, along the model of the "Mindworks" series in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Hooray to all these ideas, I say, and offer three additional comments of my own.
First, as a journalist, I heard a clear theme emerge from the discussion. The theme is that in southern Minnesota, the big untold story is the near invisibility of an Hispanic population that has reached historic proportions.
A reporter from the Worthington Globe told a story that brought this home. She recalled doing a recent piece for which she interviewed local grade school children about who their heroes were. While interviewing one group of four young children, one of the children refused to give her name.
The teacher explained to the reporter this was because the girl's family was undocumented and they lived in fear of being busted and sent back to Mexico.
A peek into the kitchen of nearly any Minnesota restaurant these days tells us who is cooking our food: Mexican and other Hispanic immigrants. If you've visited a Minnesota farm recently, you know who is shoveling our manure and milking our cows: Mexican and other Hispanic immigrants. Or shelving items at grocery stores after midnight: Ditto.
Yet look on Main Street, not to mention on city councils, school boards, or in the waiting rooms of local clinics, hospitals, and law offices: where are the Mexican and other Hispanic immigrants? Not there, because they are in hiding. There is a shadow population of illegal immigrants living among us, but living in fear and shame. And they are doing the work we consider to hard or dirty to do.
Cecilio Palacios, the editor of the monthly Spanish-language "Edicion Minnesota" newspaper, which distributes 1,500 papers monthly throughout southern Minnesota, said at yesterday's session that he had started the newspaper after approaching local newspapers and being told they would have to pay to get their articles in the paper. In other words, they'd have to buy ads to get published.
Why didn't Cecilio and his colleagues have a good sit-down talk with the news editors of these papers, instead of their sales staffs? Certainly, not only the language barrier but cultural barrier was at work here.
On countless immigrant stories I've written, immigrants express astonishment when I tell them I intend to publish a story about them without charge. Often I will interview them, only then to be asked: "How much will you charge me to publish the story you are writing?"
So, add to the cultural misunderstandings listed above, that many immigrants think if you interview them, they will be sent an invoice for the story you write.
Second, it was clear last night that in towns with large packing houses, these big companies can exert tremendous influence -- not always direct but always powerful -- on the way a local newspaper covers minorities.
In Worthington, for example, the Swift packing plant employs many immigrant workers. In interviews for the Humphrey study, reporters for the local newspaper told how difficult it was to cover the Swift plant, because the managers for the plant weren't physically located in Worthington. Thus they had to play endless phone tag, going from office to office across the state and the country, even to find an executive at the other end who had some responsibility for the plant.
Usually, in a time pressure environment, a reporter or editor will sit on a story if they can't get sources to talk. And they are less likely to go back or to make the first call next time, if they know it's going to end in a wild goose chase with no outcome.
This is a very effective way for companies to stonewall the press, and the companies know it. It's one reason they don't keep managers locally.
In addition, the Swift plant like most meat and vegetable packing plants in the U.S., have since 9/11 cracked down on visits to their facilities. Visitors, reporters, and friends who used to be able to access the packing plant floor with no more than a nod from the security guard, now can't get in without clearance given ahead of time after interviews, screenings, and so on. And even then access is often denied.
Security is always cited as the reason, but everyone knows what's really going on.
The packing plants don't want anyone to realize how many illegal immigrants -- that is, immigrants without valid visas -- they have working at these plants. It's another aspect of the shadow society.
Solid, fearless investigative stories about these packing plants, many of which are in blatant violation of immigration and employment laws, would be another excellent way that local newspapers could improve their coverage of minority communities.
In the process of writing these stories, the papers could also do a great deal to improve human rights for workers who often live in substandard housing, have no health care for their children, and lead desperate furtive lives.
Finally, I want to add my voice to the notion that getting publishers involved in this conversation is critical. Newspaper management cries and moans as if it were dying. Now that blogging, Craig's List, and other Internet innovations are drawing some readers away from newspapers, those cries are getting even louder.
But the fact is, what is endangered for most newspaper is not their existence, but rather the 20% profit margins they have come to expect over the past few decades. On the whole, newspapers are still a tremendously profitable business. The reason? Most newspapers are monopolies. The era of real competition in newspapers ended a few decades ago with generally only one, or at the most two, major newspapers now serving large regions of metropolitan and state regions.
The ethic of journalistic impartiality is also largely to blame for this impasse.
Over decades, journalists have lulled themselves to sleep with the idea that "balance" is the alpha and omega of their trade.
In the case of, say, a packing house with questionable employment and safety practices, the ethic of objectivity will actually prevent a story from being published -- because if you can't get the packing house to give its side of the story, you can't be balanced and therefore you can't publish the story.
Yet this isn't really balance, impartiality, and objectivity, of course. It's just missing a big story. The story of the hidden population of Hispanic immigrants in Minnesota.
Congratulations to the Humphrey class for beginning to shine some light.