This column was originally published in Tostada Magazine.
When the pandemic hit, a disturbingly familiar feeling came over me.
As a Detroit-based local news fellow for First Draft, a nonprofit organization dedicated to researching and collaborating with newsrooms to track and combat online mis- and disinformation trends online, I saw a flood of online panic from thousands of Michiganders desperate to find out what the heck was going on after the pandemic hit, and beyond that, with confusion around the election.
Would I lose my job? How can I apply for unemployment? How am I going to feed my kids if school closes down and I can no longer count on those free lunches or breakfasts? How am I supposed to go to the polls if we’re being told not to gather in large crowds? These questions quickly inundated private Facebook groups and Twitter feeds and became the topics of news articles in much of the local news landscape. However, one thing became clear to me. There were entire populations who were not getting these pieces of vital, lifesaving breaking news information. These were the immigrant communities where English is not the primary language spoken in the household. Metro Detroit is home to possibly the largest concentration of Arab Americans in the country. It has the third-largest population of Bangladeshi immigrants, behind only New York and D.C. Detroit has the largest Latino/a population in Michigan. How were these communities receiving this information, I kept asking myself. And if they’re not getting their news from trusted journalism sources, what was the potential that they were getting bad information from elsewhere? Yes, the region has a variety of smaller ethnic news media organizations, but if they’re not set up to cover breaking news, where are people to turn?
It reminded me of years ago when news broke about the water crisis in Flint. I covered much of the early developments there as a freelance journalist. Much of the city’s residents at the time were told not to use the water in their taps for drinking or bathing because of the risk of dangerous lead levels. But I kept hearing chatter that the area’s Spanish-speaking population was left out of these warnings. It was up to activists and volunteers to create Spanish-language materials to pass out on doorsteps or in church basements to get the word out.
In the first weeks following widespread quarantine orders to slow the spread of the coronavirus, I saw that Metro Detroit’s non-English-speaking communities were faced with the same potentially deadly dilemma. In addition to my year-long fellowship with First Draft I also am the founder and editor of Tostada Magazine, which in the before times was dedicated to celebrating the stories behind our region’s food culture through the lens of immigrant and BIPOC communities. For much of the spring and summer, I pivoted that focus and went into triage mode, delivering some of that crucial news content in Spanish and English in order to help readers figure out how they could put food on their tables.
As the election season came into full swing and my fellowship research shifted to unearthing examples of how misinformation is used as a means to suppress votes, that idea around language access came back into focus. You see, when communities lack access to reliable news information they turn to friends, family, trusted community leaders, and online communities like Facebook or WhatsApp for information. Without the benefit of fact-checking or context, dis- and misinformation has the potential to flourish causing panic, chaos, and influencing the choices that voters make when considering whether to complete a ballot.
With the support of the American Press Institute’s Trusted Election Network Fund, I’ve developed a glossary of keywords in English, Spanish, Bengali, and Arabic to help ensure that communities have the vocabulary they need in languages they can understand so they can make sure their ballots are counted. I’m sharing this resource with a number of local media outlets to distribute this information on their social media channels, and I’ll be posting printed versions of these materials in grocery stores, restaurants, and other public gathering spaces the weekend before Election Day to provide access to folks who aren’t online.
Our ability to participate in American civic life is dependent on access to the information we need to empower ourselves and our families. If being able to put food on the dinner table, find safe drinking water, or understanding where and how to vote is contingent on one’s literacy, it’s up to us journalists to reach people where they are and share that information in a way that everyone can understand.