About a week ago, not quite a dozen editors and reporters hopped on a call to talk about their COVID coverage, specifically, their coverage of Coloradans who have yet to be vaccinated, a group that encompasses the skeptical and the hostile, the foot-draggers, shoulder-shruggers and chest-beaters, the loud and proud and low-key and low-profile.
You get the picture. It’s not a one-size-fits-all bunch.
But, then, neither are these editors and reporters. They represent a subset of the state’s ethnic and specialized media, its community radio stations and its community organizations. Each has deep connections within communities of immigrants, refugees, Blacks, Latinos, Asian and Pacific Islanders and American Indians.
Were it not for the pandemic, for COLab, the Colorado Media Project (a COLab partner and funder) and its partners at the Rose Community Foundation and The Colorado Health Foundation (who also fund COLab), I don’t know that such a coming together ever would have happened. I do know that I would not have had the privilege of working with this group as a COLab convener/coach/connector of dots.
It’s a new experience for me. For as long as I have been a journalist, the mainstream outlets for which I have worked largely ignored the journalism of ethnic and specialized media. The reasons varied: language barriers, hubris, markets and bottom lines. Mainstream outlets serve mainstream English-only or English-dominant speakers, preferably those flush with the money to buy all those new cars and living room sets and vacation packages advertisers are selling.
In that scheme, where does The Denver VOICE, which serves the capital city’s unhoused population, fit in? Or KSUT public radio, which strives to cover Colorado’s Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute nations and the larger Four Corners region? Or Radio La Tricolor, which serves the Spanish-speaking and immigrant community of the Roaring Fork Valley?
The answer is they don’t. They haven’t. Part of COLab’s work is to try to change that, to share expertise and resources not just among mainstream newsrooms, but all newsrooms serving Coloradans. Yes, the economics of local news are demanding greater collaboration. But when newsrooms team up, across silos of race, ethnicity, income, region, we can turn shallow coverage into deep. We can better inform — and be informed by — our communities.
Samuel Bernal, the man behind the mic at Radio La Tricolor Aspen, describes our new collaboration this way: “We want to provide the most useful information for our listeners and readers and that is why it is important to have a moment to connect with colleagues in different parts of the state, and learn from them. To learn what they are doing, directly from them. To learn what is working for them and what is not. To put yourself in their shoes. To know we are not alone.”
Besides Bernal, The Denver VOICE’s Elisabeth Monaghan and Jennifer Seybold, and KSUT’s Tami Graham, the group includes Bee Harris and Tanya Ishikawa of the Denver Urban Spectrum, Jesus Sanchez at El Comercio de Colorado, Shannon Young and Rossana Longo-Better at KGNU, Annie Guo VanDan of Mile High Asian Media and Amy Gillentine of the Southeast Express in Colorado Springs. Two community leaders, focused on messaging and public education, round the conversations: Donna Garnett, executive director of the Montbello Organizing Committee, and the Rocky Mountain Welcome Center’s executive director, Diana Higuera.
In April, their organizations were awarded grants of up to $10,000 by Colorado Media Project, Rose and The Colorado Health Foundation. That money helps pay for reporting and community outreach around vaccine hesitancy in communities of color, where vaccination rates are generally disproportionately low and COVID cases and deaths are disproportionately high. This is especially true of the state’s Hispanic population.
Not everyone in the group has formal training or background as a journalist. So, in our meetings, we focus in detail on the reporting being done, on the successes and challenges, including navigating the line between allowing someone to explain why they haven’t or won’t get a COVID vaccination without spreading mis- and dis-information.
El Comercio’s Sanchez has visited Latinos in four different regions in the state and in each, a different primary reason for remaining unvaccinated has asserted itself: politics, religion, misinformation, distrust and fear. The Denver VOICE has turned to its workforce of trusted vendors to conduct roughly 700 surveys of people in unsanctioned campsites and near daytime shelters to learn more about the unvaccinated among them and their reasons for being so. Those responses are now informing its COVID reporting.
We talk about the ways in which COVID’s toll can be more deeply felt in tiny newsrooms — as these are — and how that might inform coverage. The Urban Spectrum has been particularly hard hit, with the COVID deaths of its longtime film critic and the mother of its editor in chief.
We talk about the tension between collective and individual rights, particularly acute among some Asian and indigenous communities, and how that makes the reluctance or refusal to get vaccinated even more fraught. Respecting and protecting elders is ingrained in tribal values, noted KSUT’s Graham in our last meeting, but that value is hard to uphold when elders themselves will not be vaccinated.
“It is about the collective,” Guo VanDan said, echoing Graham. But, she said, when people are shamed for being unvaccinated, they may be reluctant to openly share their concerns. And with more than 30 ethnic groups lumped under the “Asian” category and generational differences, the available data does not paint a clear picture of who is being left behind.
Guo VanDan told the group she is now working with a public health doctoral student to better understand which ethnic and age groups have lower vaccination rates within the Asian community.
Meanwhile, KGNU’s Young said, resistance is running through parts of Boulder’s white, affluent wellness community, and Longo-Better added, among immigrant parents whose children want vaccinations. KSUT’s reporter, Sarah Flower, a non-Indian, talked about the painstaking work of building trust with tribal administrators and those who control access to information. And, in recent conversations, the Rocky Mountain Welcome Center’s Higuera has spoken of hard lessons learned on the outreach front where what works with, say, the Ethiopian community, in terms of the message — and, equally important, how it’s delivered, email? WhatsApp? Video? — may fall flat with the Afghan community.
They are out interviewing public health officials, community and religious leaders, doctors, epidemiologists for radio shows, Facebook live interviews, website and print stories. Earlier this month, The Spectrum held a community town hall on COVID-19 and vaccines. At a pop-up clinic outside the forum, 44 people received a shot that day, Harris, the monthly magazine’s publisher, told the group.
You need to know that as COLab donors and supporters, you are part of this work. You help seed my role as connector and mentor. It’s a pretty remarkable thing to contemplate, the power of this network we are building — the way in which one thing feeds another, the lines drawn from each of you to COLab to this group of journalists and community caretakers — and from it all, a mushrooming of better, more connected local news, vast, deep and still growing with possibility.
This post was sent as a letter to our email subscribers on Friday, August 28, 2021. Join our email list to learn more about COLab and the work we are doing.