As Ethnic Media Suffers, So Does U.S. Democracy

Freelance writer Sally Lehrman (3/5/09) tells us the bad times for newspapers are even worse for ethnic media–and by extension, U.S. democracy as a whole:

AsianWeek, San Francisco’s English-language weekly for Asian-Americans, and San Francisco Bay View, which has served the black community there for three decades, both have dumped their print editions.

Siglo21, a Spanish-language paper published in Lawrence, is returning to publishing weekly after three months as a daily due to declining advertising. Ming Pao Daily in New York will shut down entirely, while Hoy New York abandoned print at the end of last year. At the venerable Ebony and Jet in Chicago, all employees must reapply for their jobs–that is, the jobs that remain.

With the ever-deepening cuts across the news business, these losses may seem worth no more than a shrug. AsianWeek, after all, employs only 11 staffers. But the harm goes deep. Ethnic media play a vital role in the communities they serve and do a great deal of unrecognized work for journalism.

Ethnic media, like other news media, recognize that an informed populace will help keep government accountable. Armed with knowledge of current events and issues, the public can become wise participants in societal decision-making. Ethnic media also cultivate democracy in ways that the mainstream seems to have abandoned.

Univision, for instance, has led bipartisan citizenship and voter registration drives during the past two presidential elections. This involvement in the democratic process might appear unseemly to some traditionalists. But at least according to the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, this is the U.S. news media’s fundamental role: to further democracy.

As just one example of how “day after day, the various branches of the ethnic media follow some of the most important and contentious issues, ones that grab the attention of the mainstream only sporadically,” Lehrman recounts how “the New Yorker and National Public Radio‘s Daniel Schorr declared that Barack Obama’s campaign signaled a new, “post-racial” era” and “the rest of the mainstream took up the theme,” it was black media that “were quick to point out that one black president might create dramatic change, but could not transform a history of institutionalized inequities.”

See Extra!: “A Different Race: The Black Press Reveals Gaps in Mainstream Election Coverage” (11-12/04) by Jacqueline Bacon.

Update: An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified Sally Lehrman as a writer for AsianWeek.