Tow Center

The Tow Center COVID-19 Newsletter: Ethnic media and the pandemic

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For many ethnic media outlets in New York City, contacts and sources within the hospital system necessary to covering the COVID-19 pandemic were already known to them in their communities. In my new report for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, I reinterviewed local journalists in New York City who had spoken to me for my report on the city’s news ecosystem in January. I asked how they knew these sources, and how differently their communities understood the pandemic.

“It’s not via official channels,” according to Rong Xiaoqing, a journalist in the New York bureau of the Chinese-language newspaper Sing Tao Daily, who said ethnic media outlets often don’t have their phone calls to high-ranking officials returned quickly. Rong said the paper has longstanding relationships with organizations and clubs devoted to Chinese medical personnel. “Take the Chinese Cardiologists’ Club, or something like that,” she said, “maybe we covered their anniversary celebration. and took some photos and they were happy [with the coverage]. Now, when we want to locate some doctors in a particular hospital, we go to them and say ‘can you help us find someone?’ and they help us.”

Garry Pierre-Pierre, editor-in-chief of Brooklyn’s Haitian Times, said that, thanks to the overrepresentation of Haitians in the healthcare system, and his longstanding ties in the community, that his paper hadn’t struggled at all to find sources. Javier Castaño, founder and editor of the publication Queens Latino, and Roberto Lacayo, news director of the TV network NY1 Noticias, both also said they had been able to find sources within Queens hospitals from among their communities relatively easily.

At NY1 Noticias, local reporters are told they must live in the neighborhoods they cover for the network. “Traditionally reporters receive an assignment from the station, “ Lacayo said, “ but in our case, it is the other way around. The reporters tell us what is going on in that neighborhood and make assignments. So when Covid-19 happened, we already had the sources and network in place in Queens,” he said. Among NY1 Noticias’s coverage, Lacayo said, was an interview with the director of the embattled Elmhurst hospital.

The Chinese-language press’s coverage of Covid-19 has been particularly unique because of the community’s early awareness of the epidemic and its effects. Rong said her paper started covering Covid-19 as early as late January. At the time, she wrote about the cancellation of celebrations for the Chinese New Year due to fears of the virus, long before events were being suspended across the city. (A translated version of the article was the first piece about Covid-19 to appear on the website of City Limits, which operates an initiative called Voices of New York that translates ethnic, non-English-speaking local press into English).

Rong said it was at this time that she started covering the question of mask use, which would gain importance over the coming months. According to Rong, she asked government officials about wearing masks three times between late January and mid-March, long before their usage was mandated in April. Rong’s first reporting on masks, she said, was about discrimination against people in the Chinese community who were wearing masks before they were widely adopted. When she asked the city’s Health Commissioner about this at a press conference in late January, she said she told her the city didn’t recommend that people wear masks as an effective measure against the spread of the virus. (Rong’s stories are no longer available to read online.)

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READ: The road to making smalltown news more inclusive

In a February panel moderated by Rong at the CUNY Journalism School, Rong said that Dr. Syra Madad, the city’s senior director of the system-wide special pathogens program, told her again that the city did not recommend mask usage. Finally, at Mayor de Blasio’s March 10 press conference at Bellevue hospital, she asked again about the contradictory nature of saying masks were vital for healthcare workers, but were not effective in preventing healthy people from getting infected. This time, she said, Health Commissioner Barbot mentioned for the first time the need to prevent a shortage of PPE for healthcare workers. After the press conference, Rong said, she wrote an op-ed in Sing Tao “questioning all of this mask propaganda.”

Later Sing Tao coverage included the closures of restaurants in Sunset Park’s Chinatown— several days, and in some cases, more than a week before Mayor de Blasio mandated shutting restaurants citywide. In our interview for my previous report, Rong mentioned her frustration that many stories in the ethnic press are ignored by or never reach a wider audience, and that accountability reporting doesn’t have any impact until it appears in English. While some of

her Coronavirus stories have involved debunking disinformation that was circulating on the Chinese social media platform WeChat, in general, she said, the Chinese community was “better prepared. They were closely following the news in China. They knew how to prepare and protect themselves. They took precautions earlier than everyone else.”

Read the full report here

An update on how platforms and publishers are reacting to the pandemic

Last week was one of the most difficult yet for digital media, with hundreds of layoffs at publishers including BuzzFeed, Vice, Quartz, The Economist, and Condé Nast.

In a memo to staff announcing 80 layoffs, Quartz CEO Zach Seward, who is cutting his own pay by 50%, wrote, “Even after the pandemic recedes, the likely recession to follow could hurt ad revenue for years to come. Prior assumptions about our business no longer apply.” Announcing 55 layoffs in the US and around 100 globally, Vice CEO Nancy Dubuc was more blunt: “Currently, our digital organization accounts for around 50% of our headcount costs, but only brings in about 21% of our revenue.” While Dubuc wrote that Vice management did “absolutely everything [they] could to protect these positions for as long as possible,” a statement from Vice Union claimed that Vice “repeatedly refused to discuss workshare programs, like the one the Los Angeles Times used to avoid layoffs.”

Arguably the biggest bloodbath happened at Condé Nast, which announced 100 layoffs and 100 furloughs a month after CEO Roger Lynch foreshadowed the possibility of “role eliminations.” Meanwhile, BuzzFeed, which had expanded its news operations globally, cut its UK and Australia news teams, stating that “for economic and strategic reasons, we are going to focus on news that hits big in the United States during this difficult period.”

Laura Hazard Owen and Sarah Scire summarize last week’s cuts at NiemanLab, while Poynter continues to update its running list of layoffs, furloughs, and closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

On the platform side, Facebook, which recently bought the gif database Giphy for $400 million, announced the latest in its series of COVID-19 News Relief Fund Programs, which will award grants ranging from from $10,000 to $60,000 to Australian news organizations facing pandemic-related setbacks. COVID-19 has accelerated the ongoing journalism crisis in Australia, where more than 150 newsrooms have shut down since January 2019.

Lastly, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and his wife Wendy announced a $4.7 million grant to NPR’s Collaborative Journalism Network to “create two new regional newsrooms–one in California and a Midwest hub connecting Member stations in Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska–that will increase local coverage across the states, especially in underserved communities, and will expand investigative reporting capacity.”

ICYMI: California newsrooms know how to prepare for disasters

Other stories of note:

  • Freedom to Tinker notes that the vulnerability reporting process at a number of web platforms is badly broken, opening those sites up to cybercrime—a problem that has increased as COVID-19 continues to plague tech companies where a large majority of staff must work from home, and sometimes from their personal devices. “Throughout the process, we encountered two wider issues: (1) lack of security reporting mechanisms, and (2) a general misunderstanding of authentication policies. As a result, 9 of these 17 websites, listed below, remain vulnerable by default,” the authors wrote. Snapchat responded quickly, while Mailchimp did not respond at all to the researchers’ warnings.
  • Kenyon Farrow, editor of, and Tamara K. Nopper of the Center for Critical Race + Digital Studies spoke on “COVID-18, Medical Data, and the Racial Design of Public Health” in a discussion in Data & Society’s Network Talks series entitled The Fact of Blackness. Kellie Owens moderated. The full conversation is available for viewing here.
  • The University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business has published results from a new survey demonstrating that support for lockdown measures correlates with political beliefs and trust in the news media, Journalist’s Resource reports. “[P]olitics more than economics is dividing Americans when it comes to what is the right trade-off our government should make between saving lives and hurting the economy,” write authors Marianne Bertrand, Guglielmo Briscese, Maddalena Grignani and Salma Nassar. Resource reporter Clark Merrefield interviewed Briscese about the survey.
Sara Rafsky, George Civeris, and Sam Thielman work at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, a research and teaching center based at Columbia Journalism School.