Faculty Spark Initiative to Improve Coverage of Vulnerable Communities

Wednesday, June 29, 2016
Journalists and students grapple  with the news media’s shortcomings during symposium. Photo by Erin Liu

Event details

San Francisco State University journalism faculty have launched an ambitious initiative to help Silicon Valley news media to overcome stark deficiencies in the coverage of the region’s ethnic communities, immigrant groups and the poor.

The effort started with a Feb. 12 campus symposium in which prominent news media leaders acknowledged that local journalism fails for a wide variety of reasons to adequately cover the region’s most vulnerable communities. They spoke of “media blind spots” – groups and places that journalists simply fail to see – as well as “media deserts” – geographic neighborhoods that lacked a media voice of their own.

The media leaders warned that the coverage gap imperiled vulnerable communities, likening it to the chasm that separates the haves and the have-nots in the Silicon Valley, one of the most diverse, affluent and technologically advanced regions of the United States.

The symposium, called “Media Deserts: Local Ethnic Communities Face a Crossroads,” featured leaders from 18 journalism and media organizations that together symbolize the diversity in today’s media ecosystem. The organizations included, for example, the San Francisco Chronicle, KQED Radio, SF Public Press, Central City Extra, El Tecolote, El Observador, Silicon Valley Debug, Youth Radio and Hoodline.

The symposium was organized by Prof. Jon Funabiki, who also directs Renaissance Journalism, a center that sponsors special projects; Associate Professor Venise Wagner; and Assistant Professor Laura Moorhead. The project is being supported by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. A preliminary report about the symposium has been completed and is available for download here.

The news media in the U.S. frequently are criticized for failing to accurately cover and portray racial/ethnic minorities and other groups. The creation of ethnic media outlets – African American newspapers, Spanish-language television, etc. – often is an attempt by the founders to counter prevailing news portrayals or to tap markets ignored that the mainstream media have ignored. Today, the problems are exacerbated because many news outlets are struggling to survive in the new digital economy. Courses offered by the San Francisco State University Journalism Department address these issues and attempt to teach students how they can improve diversity in news coverage.

During the symposium, a number of the participants argued that part of the deficit in coverage could be addressed if news outlets collaborated with one another to tackle big issues that are important to communities. Collaboration does not come easily because journalists and news organizations were used to being fiercely competitive during big budget times.

One idea that drew a lot of support during the symposium was that Silicon Valley news organizations could decide to work together to solve one of the most controversial issues of the day—homelessness. In fact, more than two months after the symposium, the San Francisco Chronicle contacted a number of media leaders proposing a version of this idea—that news outlets agree to simultaneously publish stories about homelessness on one day, June 29.

Profs. Funabiki, Wagner and Moorhead plan to continue to work with the symposium participants to develop systemic ways to address the diversity issues in the Silicon Valley. They also have partnered with the SF Public Press to organize a briefing on homelessness to help journalists participating in the June 29 event.

Event Organizer

Department of Journalism