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Census Bureau Recruits Florida’s Ethnic Media

New America Media, News Report, Khalil Abdullah , Video, Paul Billingsley , Posted: Oct 16, 2009

The U.S. Census Bureau Meets With Miami's Ethnic Media from Paul Billingsley on Vimeo.

MIAMI, Fla. – Within the Latino community, there’s no better place than a weekend soccer game for U.S. Census workers to gather information for the 2010 Census, suggested Enrique Flor, a reporter for El Sentinel. In a recent meeting between U.S. Census Bureau officials and Florida’s ethnic media about how to raise their communities’ response rates in the impending Census count, Flor explained that the games are a tradition in many communities.

Soccer matches provide an ideal venue, not only for families and neighborhoods to relax and enjoy each other’s company, but to share information. Flor said he covered a story about how a church used a soccer outreach strategy to build a positive relationship with its parishioners.

Flor’s suggestion was just the kind of feedback Stephen Buckner was seeking. Buckner, assistant division chief at the Bureau’s public information office, and other Census officials had an animated discussion with local ethnic media at Florida International University’s Frost Museum. New America Media, in collaboration with the Bureau, sponsored the event on October 2.

While acknowledging to media attendees that, “you are the trusted voice among your population group,” Buckner also issued a challenge: “What can you do to help us?” He said the 2010 U.S. Census means “money and power” to American communities.

Paste alt hereEnrique Flor of the El Sentinel interviews
Marilia Matos of the U.S. Census Bureau.

If Buckner’s message is echoed often and loudly enough by ethnic media, perchance the public’s response rate to the Census will yield a truer picture of America than in years past. In the 2000 Census, there may have been an over-estimate of the total population, but some ethnic communities allege they were undercounted.

Manuel Landivar, a Census Bureau manager in the Atlanta Region, seconded Buckner’s appeal. “No matter how much we improve the methodology and technology, the success of the Census will still depend on your cooperation.” Landivar said if anyone should understand the Bureau’s need to enlist media, it should be the media themselves, noting that repetition is an essential element of effective communication. “You in the media know that it takes several messages for the message to sink in.”

At stake is approximately $400 billion in federal funds distributed over the next 10 years to states, counties, and municipalities based on 2010’s data. Electoral representation, as well, in both the U.S. House of Representatives and statehouses, will ultimately be based on who lives where – and on which side of the street.

Landivar said that state officials know what’s at stake in terms of potential federal revenue. He estimated that Florida will likely invest a few million dollars in marketing efforts to increase its response rate. In 2000, Florida’s Census questionnaire mail return rate of 63 percent trailed the national average of 67 percent.

Florida will more than recoup its investment, Landivar explained, if it can drive its rate higher. It’s the public, the Census officials agreed, that often seems not to understand that, just by returning completed surveys, they can bring resources to their communities.

“We’ve already been having our meetings [about the importance of the Census],” said Peter Webley, publisher of Caribbean Today. He encouraged the Census team to consider a public awareness campaign that blended radio, television and print ads. “You can’t get more grassroots than cross-pollination,” Webley argued.

The Census Bureau is already on track to heed Webley’s advice. Buckner said the Bureau is pulling out all the stops, including the use of a television character on a popular Latino telenovela—or soap opera--on the Telemundo network to portray a Census worker. And, on Oct. 1, Robert Groves, the U.S. Census Bureau director, appeared at a press conference in Washington, D.C., with a coalition of Latino organizations, including media representatives, to announce the launch of a Spanish-language campaign, Ya Es Hora !HAGASE CONTAR! (It’s Time, Make Yourself Count!).

Bucker said the Bureau plans to spend $312 million on advertising, with more than half allocated for local media buys. Miami New Times sales manager Alexis Guillen asked whether the Bureau was going to engage social media networks, and Buckner said there are plans to tap blogs, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and cell phones. Parts of the campaign will be digitally interactive, he said. There is a fiscal rationale for the expenditure and effort. “We save $85 to $90 million for every 1 percentage increase in response rate,” Buckner said.

When people don’t respond to the mail questionnaires, Census workers are dispatched to canvass communities in May, June, and July. Marilia Matos, associate director for field operations, said of the Census, “It’s an historic event; the nation’s largest domestic mobilization of staff.” Matos oversees 12 regional offices and the local field offices being opened throughout the country. Approximately 1.5 million temporary Census workers will be hired.

The challenge is daunting. The Census is a Constitutional mandate to count every U.S. resident, not just every U.S. citizen. But, despite the fact that Census workers face penalties of up to five years in jail or fines of $250,000 for disclosing information on the forms, there is concern, particularly among undocumented immigrant populations, that responses will not remain confidential – even though immigrant status is not asked. “Most likely [when] they don’t have papers; they are afraid,” said Tom Martinez, of Radio Caracol, which serves a primarily Latino audience.

Yet, the media attendees said they would find ways to use the strengths of their respective mediums to tout the Census’s importance. William Lacorra, also of Radio Caracol, said he could envision his on-air talent “ringing a bell 10 times” to encourage the listeners to take the 10 minutes needed to fill out the Census form. The 2010 form is the shortest ever, with only 10 questions. And radio, he reminded, has the capacity to reach what the Census Bureau terms “hard-to-count” Census tracts.

Related Articles:

Boston Census Officials Enlist Ethnic Media in Count

Census Boycott Splits Latinos

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