How does census news reach hard-to-count communities? Collaboration
On May 10, an Armenian television reporter, an Iranian radio host, and a Thai newspaper writer sat down with about 30 other journalists who publish and broadcast in 10 different languages. Joining the ethnic media reporters at the half dozen tables scattered around the auditorium were journalists from Southern California Public Radio. They all cover Los Angeles, but many had never met each other, let alone worked together.
The big occasion was the not-so-sexy-but-incredibly-consequential 2020 census. Money and power are contingent on residents filling out a form, this year a mostly virtual one. In fiscal year 2016, California received an estimated $115 billion in federal funding tied to the state’s population count. At the meeting, journalists strategized about how they can ensure their diverse communities receive accurate information that conveys the importance of the census, and how they can come together to cover the concerns expressed by residents in the hardest-to-count place in the country.
It’s an urgent conversation in Los Angeles County, home to the country’s largest and most diverse immigrant populations, unprecedented numbers of homeless residents, and a plethora of unconventional housing situations. Overall in California, almost ¾ of residents belong to at least one group “that the census has historically undercounted, including renters, young men, children, African Americans, and Latinos,” according to the Public Policy Institute of California.
Ensuring verified information about the census is effectively disseminated could make the difference for billions of dollars and maybe even a congressional seat (or more) in California, not to mention accurate data that is used across planning programs from schools to health care.
The attendees at the meeting are trusted messengers in their communities. Often overlooked by mainstream media, the more than 100 outlets that serve Los Angeles-area residents span the globe in their connections and formats of news production. Publications and stations represented in the room were a sample of that range: among them, a Japanese American bilingual daily newspaper that has been around for more than a century, a small Oaxacan biweekly Spanish-language magazine, and a television station based in the Philippines but with special coverage for the L.A. diaspora community.
Their collective reach is vast, but reporting resources tend to be scarce. Working together on common issues could make journalists more effective at reporting on the census. It also provides connections so that they can identify shared issues across hard-to-count communities.
The most voiced concern during the convening was that the likely inclusion of a citizenship question would stop people from responding to the census. Mireya Olivera, editor of Impulso Oaxaca, said that her readers are reluctant to respond because they fear the government could target them due to their immigration status. Christina Oriel, editor of the Filipino newspaper Asian Journal, said this was also a top concern in her community.
Pilar Marrero, a Spanish-language journalist from Venezuela who is reporting on the census for Ethnic Media Services, warned that fears the government would use the data to identify undocumented immigrants may be warranted. Gwen Marukana, the English-language editor of Rafu Shimpo, the country’s oldest Japanese American daily newspaper, shared that after Pearl Harbor the former editor of her paper, as well as her parents, were rounded up using data likely gleaned from the census.
Since World War II protections were put in place that should guard against the sharing of information. Still, the journalists maintained that at a community level fears about government misappropriation of data are persistent.
Ara Khachatourian, the English-language editor from Asbarez, said he felt his community was left out because there was no option to select their ethnicity, Armenian, which meant they never knew how many Armenians really are in the United States. Others were worried that the mostly online nature of this census would confuse or create additional barriers for their communities.
This meeting was an initial attempt to connect trusted messengers in Los Angeles to forge a collaborative journalistic approach to census coverage. In February, Southern California Public Radio (KPCC + LAist) published a report on what kind of reporting would be most useful to L.A. residents. Among the findings was that a collaboration could be important to connect with communities beyond KPCC and LAist’s existing reach. At the same time, the Center for Community and Ethnic Media at City University of New York has hosted workshops on data collection, meeting with the city’s “census czar” and trained publishers on applying for advertising outreach dollars.
The May meeting was an opportunity to get feedback on some of the learnings, and brainstorm how to take them to the next level in Los Angeles. A first lesson is that just bringing this diverse group of journalists into a room to work on this issue can create important connections and raise awareness of important local stories.
“Usually we don’t have an opportunity to share thoughts and ideas with other media,” said Junko Yoshida a reporter at The Rafu Shimpo. And Elizabeth Campos, a journalist at Telemundo, who came straight from her overnight shift, noted, “This meeting opened my eyes to a real issue in our communities that risks representation and allocation of funds.”
Three top places for collaboration emerged:
- Education: Most of the reporters in the room had never used census data to report on their communities. They also wanted more information on how their communities could be impacted and had been in the past. The first step is to ensure they have the expertise and tools to understand the impact of the census.
- Verification: Many of the concerns and questions appeared to be shared across groups. We would like to create a joint Rumor Patrol or Truth Squad to project that pools questions asked from communities via various crowdsourcing efforts and is able to provide verified information and identify trends.
- Distributed Reporting: The 2020 census outreach effort is going to be a tremendous undertaking across disparate communities. No one newsroom can cover it effectively in Southern California.
- Report on disparate census awareness efforts in hard to count communities: Where are they connecting with communities? Where are they failing?
- Report on census translation error and lack of information
- Where are enumerators going and how are they being received?
In the coming months, we will be working on paths forward. We want to create a two-way, or more accurately multiway, partnership: a collaborative project where the ethnic and community and in-language outlets can benefit from some of the reporting, data and technology expertise at KPCC, and that similarly the KPCC reporters are able to learn from the disparate community and ethnic media outlets in the room.