Ethnic media take up the mantle of public interest

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America has been battling over press freedom ever since the Europeans landed. In fact, the British brought their struggle for press freedom with them. If you were alive in the 50s, 60s and 70s, you will remember that U.S. media were then revered worldwide for their history of challenging authority in the public interest.

The respect America once enjoyed overseas (despite a perception of brashness and naiveté) was due in large part to those who fought for freedom of the press and idealized the concept.

In many respects, ethnic media in America have stepped into that role of societal liberator and public watchdog.

Minnesota has numerous ethnic media, some with decades of work behind them – The Circle, Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, Asian American Press, Hmong Today, La Prensa, Insight News, to name a few.

According to a 2002 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights “fact-finding” mission on Minneapolis-St. Paul News Coverage of Minority Communities, “The state is now home to the largest settlement of Somalis outside of Africa. Most live within the Twin Cities, as do 90 percent of all African American Minnesotans. Two-thirds of the fastest-growing minority group, Latinos, is of Mexican origin. Minneapolis’ Latino population tripled in the 1990s. The state’s largest Asian ethnic group is the Hmong, a population that has increased almost 150 percent since 1990. St. Paul is the core of the Hmong community, with more than 24,000 Hmong residents. Unlike the state’s population as a whole, the Native American community is primarily growing through natural increase—births exceeding deaths—and not through in-migration to Minnesota from other places. About 40 percent of Minnesota’s Native American population live in the Twin Cities metropolitan area.”

Mshale (em-sha’-lay, meaning ‘arrow’ in Swahili) is a newspaper for African immigrants, and one of the latest ethnic newspapers to sprout here. Edwin Okong’o, a Kenyan-born journalist who holds a master’s degree from the Graduate School of Journalism at UC-Berkeley, edits Mshale and is the only full-time journalist on staff. Other writers are freelancers, many of whom Okong’o is coaching to be citizen journalists.

In addition to a web site with daily news content and bloggers, Mshale prints a run of 10,000 to 18,000 for its monthly print edition.

How does a small operation serve the African immigrant communities in Minnesota differently than the Star Tribune, St. Paul Pioneer Press and the TV stations? Mshale covers international news along with the local and state news of interest to Somalis, Kenyans, Liberians and other African émigrés. Okong’o says mainstream journalists tend to “parachute in” when news happens, expecting to get the full story in a few minutes, whether it’s violence in Kenya or a local shooting of an African immigrant. The lack of historical and cultural context shows up as shallow reporting and stereotypes, says Okong’o.

So how can the media build trust when covering the “New Americans?”

Attending community meetings and building long-term liaison relationships is a common sense approach to building trust, says Okong’o. Anyone can do that.

But nothing can beat walking a mile in their shoes.

Okong’o knows what it is like to be threatened with a taser and hauled off to the police station “on suspicion.” He’s observed poor immigrants paying a fine rather than take a day off work to fight a citation in the courthouse.

Mshale has featured information on depression among elderly immigrants, legal information by an immigration attorney, and this week’s editorial calls for creation of an immigrant voting bloc to combat the “predictable immigration debate circus from Congress – the one where Democrats propose a solution and Republicans oppose and vice versa – to the campaign trail.”

Ethnic media, with 3,000-plus entities, is the fastest growing sector of American journalism, according to New America Media (NAM), a collaboration of 2,000 ethnic news organizations headquartered in New York. NAM’s Anthony Advincula will join Okong’o and other editors and reporters on a panel that will discuss the challenges and successes of ethnic media on Sat., June 7, as part of the National Conference for Media Reform taking place at the Minneapolis Convention Center June 6-8.

Kathlyn Stone is an independent journalist in St. Paul. She maintains a health and science news site at fleshandstone.net.