Missing voices

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When we have three Minnesotans missing overseas for three months, you would think that would be the sort of thing that makes the news here. Since January, they’ve been missing in Laos with many suspecting a possible triple homicide involved.

The New York Times and Radio Free Asia covered the story, but outlets such as Minnesota Public Radio and the Star Tribune to date have only regurgitated barebone reports from the AP wire services. This, even though the Minnesotans’ families involved are quite willing to talk to the media and want help finding answers.This isn’t a case of immigrants closing ranks or a lack of people interested in sharing their perspective. Meanwhile, other mainstream news outlets haven’t mentioned the situation at all.

Little Laos on the Prairie was the first to break the local coverage. Asian American Press and the Twin Cities Daily Planet have had community-driven coverage of the case, but to me, this case highlights a glaring problem with how mainstream journalism is functioning today, and why I think citizen journalism is becoming a necessary part of community building.

When I was in high school, I had many English teachers who believed journalism was a high calling. Grueling, but a high calling. Responsible journalism didn’t just accept press releases at face value. It tried to present something for the record so that things didn’t fall down an Orwellian Memory Hole or get spun into the most politically convenient “truth” we need to justify ourselves. 

American media was admirable compared to many media outlets around the world, because in the US, you can speak truth to power. A democracy can not function driven by hype and bias confirmation. We need facts to make informed decisions.

A good reporter tries to get the facts as best as they can in a dynamic, shifting environment. In the case of these missing Minnesotans, Lao are seeing a ball not just dropped, but kicked out into the streets.

I can understand if the Wyoming news doesn’t pick this story up. There’s only 42 Lao there. But three Minnesotans missing for three months? Come on, Minnesota.

As I’ve mentioned time and again, there are enough Lao Minnesotans to form a city the size of Crystal. However, I find fewer and fewer Lao who bother with the news, because they don’t see themselves in it.

A case like the missing Minnesotans hampers our democratic process because a lack of media interest like this says: You don’t count. Don’t bother showing up. It reinforces the idea of the ‘perpetual foreigner.’ “You may have lived here almost 40 years, but your disappearance isn’t news.”

In college, I learned the importance of a community writing in our own voice, on our own terms, because I saw how often our stories were excluded from the mainstream media . When we were included, often, those stories were only presented if they fit safe, comfortable narratives of who refugees were and could be. 

When mainstream media cannot facilitate our authentic voice and cannot reduce the barriers to participation in our common story, I believe we all pay a cost.

For years, we have seen refugee and immigrant communities live in a fear of reprisals and loss of face for speaking out. They shied away from speaking with the media. But a fear of the media promotes a culture of gossip and grapevines. Fear of the media promotes cultures where our youth know nothing of our heritage, of what has worked and what has not. We are constantly left struggling to find solutions and reconstruct histories. Over the years we have seen so many voices get shut down and shut out. That has a cost.

For those of us from Laos, we should be able to appreciate how rare a blessing it is to be able to speak openly and freely in a participatory democracy. And we also have a responsibility to hold our media accountable when it excludes our voices, or anyone’s voices while we build a community together.

I have a certain sentimentality for the old media. Newspapers, TV, radio. I really don’t want them to be dinosaurs who go extinct. But when I see our ‘local’ media can’t even be bothered to call around to try and speak to the families of three missing Minnesotans for their perspective, it gets harder for me to defend them.