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Ethnic Media: The Missing Piece in Emergency Messaging

New America Media, News Report, Anthony D. Advincula Posted: Jun 10, 2009

ATLANTA -- When a natural calamity strikes, or an epidemic breaks out, communities with little or no English skills are at high risk because language barriers can prevent access to timely and correct information.

About 60 million adults in the United States rely on ethnic media for their news. Many of them might find themselves at a disadvantage when it comes to receiving information on emergency and preparedness plans.

Mindful of this, health and response management agencies underscored the integral role of ethnic media in "risk communications" at the two-day ethnic media expo June 4-5 in Atlanta, organized by New America Media.

They acknowledged that the ethnic media play a vital role in sending out emergency messages to the communities they serve.

"This is the reason that we're taking a huge step to reach out and work with not just the Latinos, but all ethnic communities," said Peter Macias, crisis communications and public outreach director of the U.S. Red Cross.

"One of our main goals is to go back and perfectly understand the sensitivity within a particular ethnic community - and that's what we are working on. It's very hard to do," he added.

Delayed emergency information not only poses a bigger threat to ethnic and minority populations, but also makes it harder for the U.S. government to facilitate damage control and quick recovery. It also increases the cost of damages, financially and physically, and complicates the situation all the more.

In 2007, for example, when E-Coli was found in fresh spinach, many Korean restaurants in Los Angeles and the Bay Area continued to serve the vegetable to their customers well into the outbreak because they were unaware of the outbreak. They only learned about it when Korean language publications translated a newswire piece and ran the story.

"We're aware of these cases," said Beverly Thomas, vice president of communications and public affairs at Kaiser Permanente in Georgia.

Thuy Vu, president of Radio Saigon in Houston, Texas, related her own experience of how an ethnic media outlet responded effectively to emergency situations.

When Hurricane Katrina ravaged the levees and inundated New Orleans in 2005, thousands of people fled to Houston and sought refuge. Vu said that her station became an instant lifeline and connected the people to their friends and loved ones, as well as directed them to evacuation shelters.

"Suddenly, we turned from being professional journalists to emergency relief workers overnight. Our staff had to put their pens, microphones and cameras down for two days to help at the relief centers," she said, noting: "Because we went through a lot of disasters and emergencies in our homeland, we know exactly what to do."

But the role of ethnic media in sending out emergency information is not as simple as getting it from a government agency, like say, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) or the U.S. Red Cross.

Translating the message correctly is a challenge, Thomas said. "I have to admit that the biggest fear of my organization is when people get incorrect information," she said.

In the process of translating the stories, the information could be altered. Or if the ethnic media outlet is a weekly, the distribution of information could be delayed.

Juan Proano, president of Plus Three, a minority-owned marketing and management company, said that if state and federal agencies had a system by which information could be quickly translated before it was sent out to ethnic media, that problem would not arise.

"The outflow of information from government agencies can be filtered through an organization, where a command system is already in place and (passed) on to ethnic media. We just don't need to do a monolithic message; we can syndicate and share content," he said.

Stan Washington, editor of Atlanta Voice, a weekly that serves mainly African Americans, suggested that the CDC and response management agencies could also tap into a telephone system that provides emergency warnings.

"Some people are going to be in their cars. They may have their cell phone, but may not be near a computer. So if we can have a telephone number that people can call and where the information can be put there so we can access it any time, whether day or night, that would be a big help," he said.

For Judith Martinez, editor of the bilingual weekly, The Atlanta Latino, the role of ethnic media in risk communications starts with a simple step: making sure that the data received every day should not be overlooked and ignored.

"Each of us gets about 200 or so e-mails a day. I know it is hard to go through all of it. But we have to open them and read them, especially if we know it is from the CDC or the Red Cross.

"If we do it we will be able to get the latest information and (that) will make our lives easier," she said.

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