Ethnic Media Practice Serious Journalism at Risk of Peril
New America Media, News feature, Kenneth Kim , Posted: Apr 09, 2008
Editor’s Note: Practicing the first amendment in America can be hazardous to your health, especially if you work in the ethnic media sector, according to editors at a New America Media-sponsored conference on ethnic media and freedom of expression in Los Angeles this week.
LOS ANGELES – The First Amendment may have guaranteed the promise of a free press, but for ethnic media reporting on their own communities that can be as perilous as covering a war zone. In ethnic enclaves where the power of protest is mightier than the pen, it takes a combination of physical courage, mental perseverance and sometimes even the willingness to risk one’s own life to practice journalism.
A diverse group of leading editors from ethnic news media gathered in Los Angeles on April 7 to share accounts of threats they had received from their own communities. The roundtable discussion, “A Challenge for Ethnic Media: When Coverage Provokes Threats from Your Own Community,” was co-hosted by New America Media, the California First Amendment Coalition, USC Annenberg’s Institute for Justice and Journalism, CSU Northridge’s Center for Ethnic and Alternative Media, The Society of Professional Journalists-Greater LA Chapter, UCLA Center for Communications and Community, California Chicano News Media Association (CCNMA) and other media advocacy groups.
Journalists, editors and publishers of ethnic media told harrowing tales of having been boycotted, protested, sued, harassed, and physically threatened by members of their own communities who wanted to dictate what the ethnic news media could and couldn’t cover.
On the morning of Aug 2, 2007, as he was heading to work, Chauncey Bailey, editor of the black newsweekly Oakland Post, was gunned down with a 12-gauge shot gun in downtown Oakland, Calif. He had been working on a story about the suspicious activities of the local business Your Black Muslim Bakery.
While reporting on Korean organized crime in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, Tom Byun, former editor of the Korea Times, received a letter assuring him that his fingers would be cut off if the coverage continued.
Hassina Leelarathne, editor of Sri Lanka Express in Arleta, Calif., recounted an incident that was provoked by a simple line in her story criticizing the rude behavior of a Sri Lankan Prime Minister’s wife when the couple visited the United States. Leelarathne husband, also a journalist, was beaten when he covered a meeting supporting the Tamil Tigers.
“I felt really violated. I can’t explain and describe how terrible those messages were,” said Leelarathne. In a fragile voice, she recalled a flood of death threats and sexually explicit messages that were left on her answering machine.
The conference was organized in response to the ongoing anti-communist protests targeting Westminster’s Nguoi Viet Daily, the largest and oldest Vietnamese daily in the United States.
Ever since the Vietnamese-language newspaper published in its New Year’s special edition a photograph of a footbath with the reflection of the South Vietnamese flag that some saw as an insult to the community, hundreds of raucous protesters have picketed every day outside the newspaper in Orange County’s Little Saigon neighborhood.
In response to the public outrage, the newspaper apologized, took back the issue, and even fired its two top editors.
But the protesters were not satisfied. They stormed into the newspaper’s lobby, blocked the entryway and exit to the parking lot, urinated on a mural dedicated to freedom of speech and the Bill of Rights, took a stack of the newspapers from a newsstand and shredded it, and sent a bomb threat to the newspaper. Protesters continue to harass anyone who comes in or out of the building and to threaten advertisers. Last week, the Westminster Police Department arrested a man who on suspicion of assaulting one of the newspaper's reporters. On Tuesday, Orange County Superior Court Judge Derek Hunt restricted protesters from threatening employees and vandalizing newspaper property.
“I’ve got multiple people coming to visit me or calling me to say what we can cover and cannot cover. It’s infringement on our inherent freedom of press,” said Anh Do, executive editor of the Nguoi Viet. Do, whose late father founded the paper three decades ago, says that some protestors have even threatened to dig up her father’s corpse in order to desecrate it.
The fact that journalists working for ethnic media are more likely to be threatened by people from their own community can be attributed to a double standard, editors said. According to Andrew Lam, editor for New America Media, members of ethnic communities see these journalists as community insiders and hold them to a different standard than they would of a mainstream journalist. If an ethnic reporter exposes a dirty secret in the community, it is often seen as an act of betrayal, not a practice of journalism. Ethnic media are seen as the voice of the community and are not expected to air dirty laundry.
According to Ted Fang, publisher of San Francisco’s pan-Asian American newspaper AsianWeek, mainstream media also face physical and economic threats. But there’s an intimate relationship between ethnic media and its consumers, he said, who take it personally when they disagree with what they read.
When AsianWeek was embroiled in a controversy over an article attacking African Americans, the vehement opposition came from members of the Asian-American community, Fang noted, not from the black community. Asian Americans claimed the publication as a newspaper that spoke for them and demanded a change in top management to prevent other inflammatory stories from being printed in the future.
This dynamic between ethnic media and their audiences can be beneficial, according to Fang: ethnic media tend to have a strong, loyal following. But it also can be a serious challenge when journalists trying to do their job – telling the good as well as the bad about their own community.
Facing constraints that can be demanding both mentally and physically – and sometimes economically – for ethnic media journalists, some go on a defensive mode, and many more reluctantly stay away from news stories that can be misunderstood. As a result, some attendees at the gathering noted, honest and comprehensive reporting – the lifeblood of democracy – has become a rarity in ethnic journalism.
“In ethnic media, you often become a self-censoring writer and editor because you can only push the boundaries by taking enormous risks,” said Lam.