Role of Ethnic Press
Born in Tokyo to South Asian parents, Sreenath Sreenivasan spent
his childhood in many parts of the world, attending primary school
in New York and high school in the Fiji Islands. He now lives in
Manhattan. A journalist, teacher and self professed "tech guru,"
Sree speaks about technology issues every Thursday morning on WABC-7,
and often hosts Asian America, a nationally syndicated PBS show
about Asian American affairs. He is a co-founder of the South Asian
Journalists Association and a Columbia University journalism professor.
Sreenivasan spoke last month at the Ethnic Media of Queens Conference
at LaGuardia Community College. Here is an excerpt:
I love New York and am excited to be in the shadow of the 7 train
as a proud immigrant to New York City. Im also a proud journalist
who works in both the mainstream and the ethnic press. What I thought
Id do today is talk a little bit about lessons that we who
work with the ethnic press have learned since September 11th
and what we are doing to look ahead.
Im from an organization called the South Asian Journalist
Association and another called the Asian American Journalist Association.
We have been very adamant over the last eight years in asking for
more coverage of Asians and South Asians. Of all the things we have
learned [after Sept. 11], the one that stands out is to be careful
what you wish for.
Minutes after the first plane hit the World Trade Center, a Sikh
gentleman stopped while he was walking towards the World Trade Center.
Suddenly a group of young men started chasing him. He ran into the
subway, down to a barbershop, took off his turban, tied his hair
in a ponytail and got into the subway. He still didnt know
why he was running and no one told him. Once he was in the subway
he was able to learn what had happened. Thats when the backlash
first started against the South Asians and Middle Eastern and Arab
As a result, we started reaching out to journalists and various
publications saying, "Look, this is going on. The backlash
has started." An editor would say to us, " There are much
bigger things going on. 6,000 people are missing." We would
sort of back off, because that was our concern as well--the people
who had died.
Things changed when another Sikh gentleman in Mesa, Arizona was
shot to death. What we were able to do then was call editors and
say, "This death has happened, we need to cover it." Most
of the press still didnt care. Editors would say to us, "
You know, thats not our priority. So, okay, one person has
died." Our response was, "Give us the number, what is
the right number with which you would call me back? Is it 20 dead,
50 dead, 100 dead?" Of course that would shake up the editors, and
suddenly attention started being paid to that.
There was another phenomenon that was happening at the same time,
known as flying while Arab. People who looked like me
were being kicked off airplanes. This story, as with a lot of stories,
was given the most attention by the ethnic press. Not just ethnic
newspapers that cover South Asia, or ethnic newspapers that cover
Asian or the Arab communities, but ethnic newspapers who could see
what this would lead to. The first story that came out mentioning
that a few Middle Eastern men were kicked off a Northwest Airlines
flight out in Minneapolis didnt get much attention.
So, how did this story go from a tiny one line story in the wires,
to something that was covered on the Today Show and on Hard
Ball with Chris Mathews? One man, Esra Kahn (who was flying
out of San Antonio), couldnt be at his brothers wedding
in Pakistan because the pilot came up to him and said, "Id
like you to leave, Im uncomfortable with you sitting in this
plane with me." He had to leave the flight. The irony of it
was that he had a third brother who wasnt going to the wedding
because the family, which owns a cell phone business in San Antonio,
was donating 10,000 dollars to the World Trade Center relief that
Kahn spoke out, and that made such a difference for the coverage
of the event. Again, that coverage was led by the ethnic press,
and everybody else followed. It made a difference that one man was
able to speak and give courage to a lot of other people. We believe
it really affected the number of people that were actually kicked
Another thing we did after September 11th was to go
to newsrooms explaining what Islam is. It was a funny sight to see
a Hindu explaining what Islam is to a bunch of journalists, but
thats what we needed to do. So a couple of Muslim journalists
and someone like me became like a passport, going from newsroom
to newsroom explaining to people what Islam is, and explaining some
of the geopolitical backgrounds.
I am sorry to say that so many journalists working in the main
stream press had no idea. They didnt know or follow any of
this stuff partly because their coverage doesnt focus on it.
Thats where the ethnic press made such a difference. You are
covering the story as the American mainstream press will pick it
up the next day.
Id like to leave you with a couple of thoughts. As a journalist,
I focus on technology to a great extent. In this city, I see the
digital divide as a real problem, especially in our communities.
Many people are just trying to do their jobs. They are in professions
where they dont use the computer all day, and they dont
have the time or the ability to get to a computer. However, an increasing
number of things are online which werent before. This is great
for folks like us who have access, but what about people in our
communities that dont? I appeal to those who have access to
computers in our communities to reach out to those who do not. It
is up to the press to focus on this issue.
Also, please get involved with the various community groups, get
involved with the press.
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