Ethnic newspapers need to tell local news stories to help immigrants adapt

Staff Reporter

The ability of immigrants to understand their adopted place suffers when ethnic news organizations put home country news ahead of local news coverage, according to a recent study by Ryerson professor April Lindgren.

“The media transmits information about society in a way that helps people adapt to their new home,” said Lindgren, an assistant professor at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism. “If newcomers don’t understand English well enough to read the mainstream media, they really rely on ethnic publications for information about how things work.”

Her new study, published in Aether: The Journal of Media Geography, investigates how the Chinese-language daily Ming Pao, one of the GTA’s largest-circulation ethnocultural newspapers, represents the metropolitan area in its local news coverage.

Lindgren found that more than half of all photographs and news items published in Ming Pao dealt with issues, events and people in China. Only eight per cent of stories published in the newspaper on 28 days between January and August 2008 dealt with people, places and events in the Greater Toronto Area. By comparison, 39 per cent of news items published in the Toronto Star on the same days dealt with local issues.

Lindgren said that new technologies available to increasingly sophisticated ethnic news outlets allow central newsrooms to pre-make full pages of news that can be circulated around the world for publication of local editions. In Ming Pao’s case, for instance, about 30 to 40 pages in each issue are assembled in a newsroom in China and transmitted to Toronto and cities in other countries for the next day’s publication.

“It’s much more expensive and difficult to gather local news,” Lindgren noted.

She suggested that the lop-sided coverage of China-related news raises questions about the role of ethnic media in helping newcomers adjust and feel at home.

“Research suggests that while news coverage can’t tell people what to think, it can influence the topics they think about,” Lindgren said. “So news coverage that is dominated by home-country news helps keep home-country issues, rather than local issues, top of mind. And this in turn might have implications for how engaged people are with their new neighbourhoods and cities.”

The study involved training coders to identify local news items by topic and recording geographic references to places in each news story or photograph. Geographical locations were then entered into a database and used to create news maps that illustrate the spatial patterns of news coverage.

“This research approaches the study of journalism from a cultural geography point of view,” said Lindgren, who is also the director of the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre. “It asks: What picture are you painting of this area on your news pages and how might that affect people who rely upon your news organization in a big way to understand their new home?

“People who come here have in their minds a pretty complete portrait of what the rules of the game, the rules of survival, the societal norms are in their own home country. But when they arrive in a place like Canada as new immigrants, in many ways they are starting from scratch, especially if language at the beginning is an issue. So I like to think of journalists who write in the ethnic media or any media as painters who are applying the layers of paint to a canvas in a way that gradually helps people understand their new place.”

In her paper, Lindgren noted that other studies have suggested newcomers are not satisfied with the amount of local news and information they are getting from ethnic media. When other researchers investigated the role of South Asian media in making settlement information available to newcomers, for instance, one participant in the study observed that the news outlets do not provide sufficient information “on what you need to survive.”

Ming Pao serves the second largest visible minority group in the GTA after South Asians and is an essential resource for the 77,000 Toronto-area residents who, according to Statistics Canada (2006), list a Chinese language as their mother tongue but speak neither of Canada’s official languages.

“If you look at what the editors of many ethnocultural media outlets aspire to do, they tend to say that they want to build bridges between communities, they want to help people understand their new place while keeping in touch with home. But then when you look at the content, in many cases that is not what you see happening. Home country news takes precedence.”

Lindgren’s study found that police and crime news was the most common topic in Ming Pao’s local coverage, accounting for 18 per cent of all local news.

“I arrive in Canada and I pick up a paper and I’m reading crime coverage from all across the city. How does that affect my perception of this place?” Lindgren said. “If you don’t know what it is like, your new place, your adopted city, I think this could potentially influence your perceptions of how safe and secure you feel.”

Stories and photographs dealing with religious or cultural diversity, multiculturalism or immigration matters were the second most common topic closely followed by business news. Lindgren credited  Ming Pao with doing much more to reflect the GTA’s large Chinese-Canadian community than most mainstream media, but she observed that the extensive crime coverage crowds out other important types of news including education, health, political issues, transit issues, miscellaneous local matters, environmental and weather issues.

“The stakes are particularly high because you have people who really need to understand these sorts of things for practical reasons like earning a living, making friends and feeling a part of the community.”

The news mapping of Ming Pao’s GTA reporting revealed that local coverage is concentrated in the Chinese-Canadian enclaves of the GTA, an approach that Lindgren says makes sense given that it allows Ming Pao to focus its news coverage and sell advertising targeting that community.  At the same time, she noted, this focus means that there is only limited representation of other ethnic communities in Ming Pao. This finding, she noted, suggests the paper is not introducing newcomers to the human diversity that is a defining characteristic of life in Canada’s most populous metropolitan area.

“Here we are in this extremely diverse multi-cultural region and you see very little cross cultural news or reflections of other ethnic communities. The newspaper is targeted for and about the Chinese community but it seems to me that if I go back to what the editors of these papers want to do in general, there is a case to be made that a newspaper that does more to reflect the diversity of the GTA would perhaps serve its readers better, by introducing all these new people who are arriving, to this basic fact of life here.”

Lindgren said one way ethnocultural publications could boost their local news impact would be to put more local news stories on the front page.

During the 28 days of Ming Pao coverage examined in Lindgren’s study, the paper published 222 news items on its front page including 16 per cent that told readers about people, places, and events in the GTA. By comparison, 59 per cent of the Toronto Star’s front page dealt with local matters.

“Just put more local news on the front page. Give it more prominence. That’s a pretty cost-free thing to do. And I would argue competitively it makes ethnic newspapers stand out from internet news sites that publish news from home.”

Lindgren suggests that editors would need to rethink news priorities and reorganize at least some existing staff and resources to boost local coverage. She acknowledged, however, that Ming Pao, like most ethnocultural news organizations, is constrained by the size of its news reporting staff. At the time of this study, the GTA content of the newspaper was the responsibility of a 15-member team – two senior editors, nine general news reporters, one local business reporter and three photographers.

“While that is a significant commitment of staff to local news for a ethnocultural publication, it’s still a relatively small number of people to cover area the size of the GTA,” Lindgren said.

She said journalism schools have a role to play in research, education and professional development programs for ethnic media that emphasize the important role they can play in providing local news to help their communities.

“If your goal as the publisher of an ethnocultural paper is to build bridges between communities, I think I can make a pretty strong case for providing more local news, or at least giving the local news you do have more prominence.”

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