Ethnic Media – Opportunity or Curse?

As elections are once again upon us, voting advocates and experts continue warning Americans to watch out for misinformation. As academics, we should consider the notion of “trust” indoctrinated within journalism and public relations in terms of bias and objectivity, and how we should also consider - now more than ever – the terms "understanding" and "empathy." The effort among newsrooms to recruit and hire more people of color (especially Blacks and Hispanics) acknowledges this fact. It assumes that people from different backgrounds will view and report news differently. More important to this discussion, it believes communities of ethnic background receive information and content effortlessly and with trust when it comes from a reliable and relatable source (like people of an identifiable race or background). Is this true?

A recent US study revealed that as many mainstream news outlets disappear, some areas of the news and PR industry have seen an increase in offerings aimed at various ethnic groups and reflecting the nation’s changing demographics. By 2045 the US Census Bureau estimates that non-Hispanic whites will be outnumbered by the current minority population, composed primarily of African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and Asian Americans. What will this mean for news production & consumption, the public relations industry, and society?

The PR industry is not different. With segmentation, we have witnessed a proliferation of strategies and outlets that speak directly to ethnic communities. More ethnic media outlets mean PR firms are hiring PR professionals that can speak to these communities with reliable and relatable campaigns. As academics, we teach students the same skills; however, are Hispanic and Black students better suited to cover race-related topics and communities? Although we celebrate when these new outlets provide new job opportunities for up-and-coming professionals, we frown on corporate agenda and/or the use of black and Hispanic professionals to develop only black and Hispanic stories and campaigns. Whether those stories are news articles to reach certain communities or PR campaigns that engage those communities, it makes us wonder if they are encapsulating our up-and-coming talents instead of allowing their skills to propel them to all kinds of stories and campaigns.

As you snuggle in bed to watch these upcoming elections, pay attention. When you hear a Latino reporter on mainstream media, is he or she covering Hispanic issues and/or concerns? Are they covering news about the Hispanic vote and how it can swing the election? Are they talking about the topic of immigration? If not on a mainstream network, is the Latino reporter working for a Spanish-speaking outlet? On the other hand, if you see a black reporter, he or she might be a topic of social concern. Some editors still assume that black journalists should have a unique understanding of race and racism. You often see Black journalists covering disparity and social discord, social uprising, and unrest. During elections, they also cover the black vote and black voters' concerns. Although this has not become a primary concern, I want to think we are more than our ethnic identity - we are, above all, professionals.

Academic Yu Shi proposes an operational definition for ethnic media: "Ethnic media are often regarded as media by and for ethnic in a host country with content in ethnic languages.” She adds that ethnic media "can be published by big ethnic media groups and small organic, ethnic communities.” So, if ethnic media is media fashioned with a particular ethnic minority group or ethnic minority community in mind, should organizations define stories and publications (news, television, radio, online, print, magazine) to cater to a specific ethnic community? In what language or appealing to what system of ethics, principles, or beliefs? To what extent or at what percentage? Should we treat ethnic majority and ethnic minorities differently? Should we consider indigenous communities, recent migrants, or subordinate ethnic groups? And should we adjust accordingly?

Although the proliferation of Ethnic Media is evident, we are still sorting out some of the ethics and even the best practices. What is apparent is that, as many mainstream news outlets disappear, some areas of the United States have seen an explosion in new media offerings aimed at various ethnic groups, reflecting the nation's changing demographics. As the makeup of the country's population changes, journalism and PR roles provide essential news and content to groups of people who often get insufficient attention in the mainstream press. Ethnic media and publications cover various nationalities, cultures, languages, and generations. PR strategies that consider ethnicity have better results. More than information, ethnic news offers a counter-narrative to the mainstream or the truth, adjusted to cultural understanding and beliefs.

Although most ethnic media outlets are developed in urban areas, we still consider rural areas underserved. Today, the most significant number of ethnic news outlets are aimed at Latin Hispanic communities, but their results make us wonder about their effectiveness in other communities as well. A Pew Research Center study found 224 Latino-Hispanic newspapers, 173 TV stations, and 27 radio stations. Meanwhile, 243 newspapers, 28 radio stations, and seven TV stations serve the African American population. Some 35 news outlets in the UNC database serve the Asian American community, and 10 more are aimed at Native Americans. Other communities, Polish, German, Italian, Russian, and others, are served by 67 outlets.

Although ethnic media is often presented in the language of the target audience, ethnic media publications are increasingly experimenting with delivering news in English (or bilingual) and beyond traditional print formats. More importantly, ethnic media makes ethnic and minority groups visible to civic leaders. While ethnic media serves target audiences, they also serve the community at large. A study published in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies suggested ethnic media presents points of view and stories readers won’t find in the mainstream press, enriching cross-cultural understanding and creating a “multi-ethnic public sphere.”

At the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication, we feel comfortable saying that we serve as a bridge of communication between the community and the audiences. However, we understand that being based in Long Island and New York (one of the most diversified regions in the world) has inherited responsibilities. As minority populations grow, should we change to provide chances for a more-sustained success for ethnic media, or should we change our current media to have a more diverse ethnic endowment? Many believe that this change has been largely influenced by millennials and GenZ, who comprise a significant percentage of the US population.

We can all agree that younger people don’t read newspapers but read articles on their phones and other digital sources. Meanwhile, ethnic media has succeeded in developing a trusted relationship with the audiences, and they are reaching a higher percentage of our national audience. The reason? The content is purpose-heavy and reason-driven, with a heightened understanding of the audience's needs. Is this the new way of doing journalism? According to the Pew Research Center, Blacks and Hispanics place more importance on the media’s watchdog role than non-Hispanic whites. While some question the legitimacy of mainstream media using jargon like "Fake News,” others embrace ethnic media and its ethical disposition. They welcome a journalism practice that checks the ruling classes' actions and inactions for the nation's good. Is it the role of the media or the level of trust it can achieve?

As people look to rely on the “trusted messenger,” ethnic media is seen as a more “relatable” outlet. It is media that selflessly serve their communities. This purpose is remarkably appealing and surprisingly inspiring, even in a world where the demand for information is through the roof. As ethnic media is slowly coming to the forefront of delivering the news, some wonder if it's re-shaping and re-creating who we are as a nation. I call it the collective experience of media - the common bond developed from an emotional experience that, through storytelling, grows out of the individual members of our communities, making issues relatable, achieving mutual support, shared understanding, and collective empathy.