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Six Stories About the Census

How Medill students and local ethnic papers came together to find a common immigrant experience

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In these trying times for mainstream media, which Chicago journalists have the most to say to one another but are least likely to say it? My nominees would be the publishers of the region's ethnic press. Most run shoestring operations, serving readers of modest means who share a common experience as strangers in a strange land yet are divided by such profound partitions as religion, history, neighborhood, and language.

If you'd told me a few days ago that six ethnic papers would run long stories this week on the upcoming federal census, I'd have assumed it was an interesting coincidence—one reflecting the apprehension felt by all newcomers when government comes around asking questions.

But coincidence doesn't explain the six stories—idealism does. The stories were all written by undergrads at Northwestern's Medill journalism school taking a class called "Connecting with Immigrants and Multi-ethnic Communities." The six papers were brought together by Jack Doppelt, the professor teaching the class, and Steve Franklin, a former Tribune reporter who spent two years in the Peace Corps in Turkey before joining the paper and after leaving it taught journalism in Egypt.

Supported by a Carnegie Foundation grant, Doppelt's class was created a year ago on the premise that "much of urban journalism is falling apart [and] we must find novel ways to tell stories." Working out of Columbia College's Community Media Workshop, Franklin has dedicated himself to helping the local ethnic media survive and grow. The two of them came up with the idea of an "ethnic media summit."

It was held last October 27 in Doppelt's classroom. Journalists from half a dozen papers and one independent Web site met not only Doppelt's 11 students but one another. Until that meeting, "I wasn't aware that there was a Korean publication in Chicago," says Silvana Tabares, managing editor of the bilingual Latino weekly Extra.

Franklin and Doppelt's idea was to divvy the students up among the six papers and have them write stories sharing a common theme. Health care was one they kicked around, foreclosures another. But immigration was the compelling experience everyone's readers shared, and when the journalists looked for a more specific focus, they landed on the census.

From the six papers:

Jessica Abels, Raphaelle Neyton, and Shasha Zou in al Moustaqbil ("The Future"): "When Arab Americans fill out their census forms in just a few months, they won't find an Arab category listed next to Asian, Black or African American, or White. 'Arab is not considered a race, so there's no racial category,' explains Louise Cainkar, a board member of the Arab American Action Network. 'They have to check the white box, and a lot of people feel that their experience is not the white experience, so that's unfair.'"

Kate Endeley and Clara Lingle in the Korea Central Daily News: "Han and Kim cite many reasons why Koreans who are not U.S. citizens opt out of participating: they are undocumented and therefore fear the legal repercussions; they struggle with English (the 2000 census forms did not come in a Korean version); they find the participation process too tedious or they are unaware of the census itself."

Zoe Jennings in Pinoy: "Many Filipinos may not understand the importance of the count because in the Philippines, there is no census equivalent and they had never been counted. In providing the government with their name and family information, Clarito says, many Filipinos fear that the government is keeping tabs on them, or at the very least, will demand they perform jury duty or another civic duty."

Jessica Allen in the India Tribune: "Kamaria said many people don't know why the census matters, and that in general it needs to be better explained. Even she expressed uncertainty about how the census would affect illegal immigrants who choose to fill out the forms and whether illegal immigrants or students are even supposed to fill it out."

Matthew Bellassai and Alex Hollander in Extra: "Although the Census is separate from the rest of the government, people tend to associate the two. 'It's all "the government" as far as anyone's concerned,' Espinoza said. '"The government wants to charge me more taxes, the government wants to get me arrested for immigration purposes." There's no distinction there,' he said. Many people in the community tend to agree."

Arianna Hermosillo and Nadine Shabeeb in the Polish Daily News: "Another barrier to filling out the census form is that people may not even recognize it when it arrives in the mail, according to Zajaczowska. 'We will have to teach them that the Census 2010 means "Spis Powszechny,"' Zajaczowska said. This literally translates to 'common list' which is what the census is called in Poland."

Franklin and Doppelt say the papers participated enthusiastically, and I wondered why. They were committing themselves to running major stories on their communities by ethnic outsiders who were moreover still learning the craft of journalism. And the stories would be written in English, meaning that in some cases they would have to be translated. (Pinoy and the India Tribune publish in English, Extra in English and Spanish.)

"In the best of all worlds," Franklin allowed, the stories on the census would have been staff written. "But most of these papers are very small-staffed. We gave them an extra boost. . . . And for the students it was an eye-opening experience."

Like the Peace Corps, I observed. Whatever they did or didn't accomplish in the villages they were sent to, for the volunteers themselves the experience was life-changing.

"One thing I've learned," Franklin replied, shrugging off the crack, "everything you can give [the papers] in terms of content is a gift, because they're so strapped. They have maybe one reporter. My goal is to help create content. And—more Peace Corps—isn't it great that six editors have been brought together and said, 'Look at how much we have in common'? My dream is to stabilize these papers and make them stronger, but my larger dream is that immigrant groups can start sharing stories."

Sharing stories across language barriers is no easy feat. When Franklin told me about this project, he was excited by the idea that each paper would post all six stories on its Web site in whatever language it published in. (Franklin looked for papers with Web sites, and for al Moustaqbil, which didn't have a site, he created one.) But although each paper was expected to translate the story written specifically for it, it couldn't be expected to translate all the others.

So Doppelt is creating a corps of translators from the Northwestern student body. In addition to translating the students' stories so they'll all be usable by every participating paper (when the project is repeated this spring it will involve some 15 papers), they'll maintain a kind of ethnic-press clearinghouse. Translators will be assigned local papers in their native languages—for example, a student from Korea will monitor the Korean Central Daily News. "You ask yourself, 'Is this the kind of story anyone else would want to read?'" says Doppelt. "If it is, you translate it into English." These translations will be posted on the Web site he's created for the class, immigrantconnect.org, where other translators as well as the public can find them. "The idea is for this corps to translate both into and out of English," Doppelt says. The story a Korean student translates into English other students will—if they think it should be shared—translate into Arabic, Polish, Chinese. . . . The same story could wind up in a dozen or more languages on the site, which participating papers will monitor, publishing whatever they like.

"It's a cool idea," says Doppelt.

The rest of us are also welcome to monitor the site—or Franklin's site, chicagoistheworld.org, which also will post the stories in English. In some respects, the rest of us might make a better audience. Student journalists writing for an unfamiliar community run the risk of telling their readers a few things they already know—but we're not likely to know them.

Mag Partyka, a contributor to local Polish-language radio and TV, runs the news site 4 News Media (informacjeusa.com), and she took part in the ethnic summit. "I don't think any American English-language media would cover those stories the way those [students] did," she says. "I don't think anybody would pay attention to things like immigration issues, the undercount, the overcount. For the Polish community, the census is the only place you can find some information about how many Poles are here, and unfortunately this census is not so great because there's no question about ethnicity. Ten years ago people were asked about the language they speak at home. This year there's just a question about race. It's actually pretty messed up. The translation [of instructions] into Polish is horrible."

The editors shepherded the students through the reporting process, suggesting angles and sources, and the ones I talked to liked the results. Extra's Silvana Tabares says her story was "really well-written" and full of information "our readers deserve." She put it on her front page, and says that when the other stories are translated she'll post them all online.

Not every paper will.

"Why would a Polish newspaper publish an Indian story?" wonders Lakshmana Rao, editor of the India Tribune. In other words, why would he publish a Polish story? He won't. What he will do, he tells me, is carry a sidebar summarizing the common concerns reported in the other five stories. Mariano Santos, editor and publisher of Pinoy, says he was going through the other stories looking for quotes "here and there" that might flesh out his paper's 2,600-word article (the longest of the six). Santos is ready to repeat the process: "Working together gives us a kind of unified purpose," he says. But printing the other articles "would be, so to speak, a waste of space," even online, where space is for the wasting.

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