Extended Interview: Sandra Ball-Rokeach
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TERENCE SMITH: In an era when the mainstream media across this country are generally flat in terms of readers or viewers, ethnic media is growing, isn’t it?
SANDRA BALL-ROKEACH: Yes.
TERENCE SMITH: Why?
SANDRA BALL-ROKEACH: It’s not only because we have a lot of new immigrants coming into the country, but also ethnicity itself has become a much more significant part of people’s identities, even among old immigrants. It’s not just the new immigrants.
TERENCE SMITH: So old immigrants — you’re talking about people who have been here 15, 20 years or more?
SANDRA BALL-ROKEACH: Or many, many generations, like some of the Protestant-Anglos or the very old Jewish immigrants from a long time ago. African-Americans, the oldest of all.
TERENCE SMITH: And these groups and even newer ones have a greater emphasis now on their ethnic background — is that what you’re saying?
SANDRA BALL-ROKEACH: I think so. I think that an awful lot of what’s going on in this so-called globalization process is a sensitization to people’s ethnic cultural background.
TERENCE SMITH: Do you have any numbers on the growth of that type of media, at least in California?
SANDRA BALL-ROKEACH: In terms of the growth, there has been substantial growth in the last 25 years with the various immigrations of many different groups. But there are also ethnic media in the old immigrant areas that have been here for some time.
And there are media, for Latinos, for example, that have been here since California was part of Mexico.
TERENCE SMITH: So you’re suggesting that there are not only more immigrant people — a larger immigrant population — but that they’ve got a greater sense of self-consciousness?
SANDRA BALL-ROKEACH: Yes. Yes, all of these massive diasporic movements of people around the world — and it’s not only their choice to emphasize ethnicity — but it’s also how they’re responded to by the host country.
Are they labeled and targeted as, like in Germany, the Turks as just workers, and the like? So, it’s a combination of how they are received and also their choices. Also housing, as it has always been. You go where you can afford housing. And this tends to be areas of people like you, that you seek out with the kind of housing you can afford –whether you’re rich or poor.
TERENCE SMITH: There was a study not long ago that said a high percentage — 67 percent — of this population actually derives most of its news from ethnic media rather than mainstream media.
SANDRA BALL-ROKEACH: Yes.
TERENCE SMITH: What did you think of that study?
SANDRA BALL-ROKEACH: I think it’s extremely important for the mainstream media to know this, and very important for social researchers and policy-makers to know this.
It’s something we have been talking about for four years now, trying to get people to recognize the importance of these media in the daily lives of large populations. Not only for understanding their home country, but also leading their everyday lives — like where to go to purchase goods, where to go to have recreation, where is it safe, what’s going on in the community — that you should know about.
TERENCE SMITH: Is it that they don’t trust the mainstream media, or simply feel more comfortable with their own ethnic media? What’s the explanation?
SANDRA BALL-ROKEACH: Well, part of it has — for the very new immigrants — has to be language problems, so to the extent they can actually deal with English.
But I think a much more basic problem is that the mainstream media are not telling the kinds of stories that would interest these groups. The mainstream media are not connecting with them.
Because, for example, they might do one story on blacks in southern California. Well, that’s fine. One story — you do a very nice story, a good news story, let’s say. But it doesn’t really relate to African-American people living in Crenshaw. And they also know what’s happening. But this is kind of …okay, it’s time for us to have a good story.
TERENCE SMITH: So the coverage is not frequent enough and not specific enough?
SANDRA BALL-ROKEACH: It’s not local. Politics is local; life is local. We live our lives most centrally in our local residential areas. And these areas are largely ignored in the mainstream media.
TERENCE SMITH: Is that for lack of trying or lack of comprehension or what?
SANDRA BALL-ROKEACH: Well, The Los Angeles Times, for example, did try having sections, rather large sections — West Side, East Side, and so on — that failed.
And their judgment was that the journalism was not very good in those sections. Which suggests, of course, that they didn’t put very many strong resources in those sections, that they were kind of dealt with cheaply. So they pulled those sections.
So there was one effort there. There have been other efforts, certainly with columns and columnists, to try and bring in a Latino point of view; for example, Steve Lopez’s column now in the Times. So there are those efforts. But what they’re missing is that most people want to know about their local area. That’s where they live. That’s where they have to protect their children. That’s where they have to deal with traffic problems, potholes, and the like.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. Looking at that population, this immigrant population or ethnic population, has California reached that famous tipping point yet — where a majority identify themselves either as ethnic minorities or of two backgrounds?
SANDRA BALL-ROKEACH: Yes, it’s actually happened even a few years ago, so that now it’s very difficult to talk about the various Hispanic or Latino populations as minority populations when they are the demographic majority. They’re a plurality, I should say.
TERENCE SMITH: They’re a plurality. But if you add to them all the ethnic communities?
SANDRA BALL-ROKEACH: Absolutely. And if you look at the percent of Anglos, there has been a systematic decline in the percent of Anglos in the Los Angeles population.
TERENCE SMITH: From what to what, approximately?
SANDRA BALL-ROKEACH: Oh, it used to be, oh, 85, 90 percent… and then [it] declined, especially in the 1970s and also after the rebellion in the early ’90s.
TERENCE SMITH: And so today?
SANDRA BALL-ROKEACH: Today it’s about 30 percent.
TERENCE SMITH: Of what you call Anglo, you mean…
SANDRA BALL-ROKEACH: White. Of many different origins.
TERENCE SMITH: Of the city or county of Los Angeles?
SANDRA BALL-ROKEACH: In this case it would be the city. In the county, it’s a little higher percent.
TERENCE SMITH: If ethnic groups look to ethnic media as their principal and most trusted source of information, what effect does that have on those groups?
Does it help them assimilate into the larger society, or does it reinforce their ethnic separateness?
SANDRA BALL-ROKEACH: There’s no one answer to that question.
We interviewed the producers of these media in our study areas and we asked them this kind of question: What are your goals? What are you trying to do?
One of the big things they’re trying to do is to keep the newer immigrants in touch with their country of origin, to stay on top of what’s happening back home. They also want to try and help these people adjust and cope with immigration and legal problems and work problems, housing problems here. So, identifying how people can go about coping as new immigrants.
One of the things that’s missing — that could be a real service to these immigrant communities — is for them to talk much more about the areas in which these immigrants live. For example, we’ve talked to The Korea Times, and they’re now spending more time covering Koreatown, what’s going on in Koreatown. And there’s exciting things going on there. And they’re not stopping the coverage of Korea. They’re not stopping the coverage of how to cope. But they’re adding the coverage now of trying to have people understand much more about Koreatown.
TERENCE SMITH: I’m surprised they had to be encouraged to do that. That would seem like the logical thing for them to do.
SANDRA BALL-ROKEACH: Well, the tradition for Korean media is to try and be good citizens. And when they saw our research findings, they invited us in and did a huge story on us. We talked then with the editors and the people there — and they said we’re going to start doing this.
TERENCE SMITH: And did some of the findings surprise even them, the editors?
SANDRA BALL-ROKEACH: Yes. Very much, yes.
TERENCE SMITH: Have you done any studies or seen any studies that suggest whether this makes the readers and listeners of these news organizations feel more at home here — or less at home?
SANDRA BALL-ROKEACH: I think more at home. Not in all cases, of course, because there are different experiences that people have. When people feel that, gee — like some mainland Chinese may feel — why don’t we go back home, things are improving there — you have much more entrepreneurial freedom and the like.
But I think that’s still a minority response. I think most people — with having these media available to them and living in areas with people like them — they come to feel at home pretty quickly.
TERENCE SMITH: Mentioning the response of the Korean-American editors, do the ethnic media tend to serve as advocates for their communities, more than objective journalists?
SANDRA BALL-ROKEACH: I haven’t done an analysis where I could answer that question based on research. But I do think that they feel — from the interviews we did — that they feel a responsibility to highlight the positive things going on.
For example, who’s been successful in the high school, who’s just graduated from college, who’s just bought a new business — to celebrate the successful people in their community. And, in that sense, advocacy.
I think it differs in terms of political efficacy between, let’s say, the Latino and let’s say the Asian-origin media.
Because Latinos are much more politically organized. They have more candidates running. So I think there would be more likelihood of giving more positive coverage to those candidates, whereas in the Asian-origin communities, there are fewer political organizations and less political involvement.
TERENCE SMITH: If the ethnic media you’re speaking of are inclined to celebrate and cover the successes of their communities, does that suggest that they’re reluctant to investigate the failings?
SANDRA BALL-ROKEACH: I think so, to some extent. Because one of the things the mainstream media does, the only kind of story-telling where they’ll often appear, is with regard to problems, whether it be poverty, crime, drugs, and the like. Right?
So it’s not as if the mainstream media is giving balanced coverage, right. And so to me it would — as a producer of one of those media forums, I would want to point my people to the fact that, look, we’ve got some good things going on here and some good people.
TERENCE SMITH: But if there’s going to be some coverage of ethnic gangs in any one of these communities, where are you going to find that?
SANDRA BALL-ROKEACH: You’re going to find it in the mainstream media and you will find it in those media, the ethnic media, as well. Because it’s part of the alert system. It’s part of, ‘hey, gangs are moving in now to this part.’
So it’s part of that surveilling responsibility of the media. So it will be there.
TERENCE SMITH: Has there been any comparable response to this growth from advertisers — what you and I might call mainstream advertisers?
SANDRA BALL-ROKEACH: Yes. Well, I think that Sandy Close’s New California Media is really about getting this accomplished, drawing attention to the advertisers that, hey, you’re missing a bet.
TERENCE SMITH: And they are?
SANDRA BALL-ROKEACH: Oh, are they missing a bet, yes.
TERENCE SMITH: How?
SANDRA BALL-ROKEACH: If I were an advertiser of whatever consumer product, I would want to put ads in these media.
Those are the media that these people go to in large, large numbers to make decisions about where to go and what to buy.
TERENCE SMITH: But do they — the advertisers?
SANDRA BALL-ROKEACH: The advertisers? Very little. But, it’s increasing. It’s increasing now.
I think it’s taken an active effort with real data demonstrating the size of these populations, because they’re excluded from the normal rating systems, whether it’s Nielsen’s or Arbitron’s. You don’t know what the size of the audience is.
The researchers like ourselves and New California Media that are actually doing the research to establish the size of the audience I think might just really get advertisers’ attention.
TERENCE SMITH: If so, it’ll show up in numbers, of course. I take it it hasn’t yet?
SANDRA BALL-ROKEACH: I don’t think so.
TERENCE SMITH: Tonight at the Beverly Hilton [in Los Angeles], there will be apparently two or three thousand people representing over 400 ethnic media organizations in this state alone.
SANDRA BALL-ROKEACH: Yes.
TERENCE SMITH: What does that say to you?
SANDRA BALL-ROKEACH: First of all, it says that they’re interested in coming together to increase their power, to tell you and they should.
They should come together, regardless what particular ethnic group, because they share similar problems, they can help each other out through networking; but they can also come together to try and convince advertisers this is where the action is.
TERENCE SMITH: The state of California is in the middle of a campaign for governor — a statewide campaign in this state. What’s the role of ethnic media in that?
SANDRA BALL-ROKEACH: I don’t think it’s very much. I think the gubernatorial campaign is pretty remote, especially since it’s so pooh-poohed in the mainstream media. No one really likes this campaign. So I don’t think the ethnic media have too much to add to the conversation.
I think their focus is much more on the local races, where members of their community are running for office.
TERENCE SMITH: And the gubernatorial candidates, have they paid much attention to the ethnic communities?
SANDRA BALL-ROKEACH: They try to. They do the usual thing, you know, of going to the ethnic communities. I don’t know how many interviews [Governor] Gray Davis has had with Chinese-language newspapers. I don’t know. It would be an interesting question to ask.
TERENCE SMITH: But you suspect quite a few?
SANDRA BALL-ROKEACH:Yes, a few. Yes.
TERENCE SMITH: Is there a pattern here? You’ve been looking at this for a long time. Is it one of accelerating growth and attention, or what do you see when you look at the graph?
SANDRA BALL-ROKEACH: The question I have is will the thing that used to happen with immigrant media happen again — or will something new happen? In the past, immigrant media survived only through about the third generation, and then they tended to die off. So the question for me now is, will they stay around?
TERENCE SMITH: As readers and viewers?
SANDRA BALL-ROKEACH: Yes. Will they survive through fifth and sixth generation? Because we are in a changing world — where your relationship with your country of origin might be an advantage for you and your children work-wise. Your language abilities, your knowledge of that culture might give you a leg up in competing for jobs that involve multinational corporations or trade or information exchange. So that’s a question that we’re very interested in.
TERENCE SMITH: So that would suggest that people — the readers and viewers of ethnic media — do they read the mainstream news as well?
SANDRA BALL-ROKEACH: Some do. If they get into third and fourth generation, then they start connecting with the mainstream media more.
TERENCE SMITH: But for a significant portion, the ethnic media represent their source of news?
SANDRA BALL-ROKEACH: Yes. Even for third and fourth generation. For example, in East Los Angeles, you have many third and fourth and fifth generation people in addition to first and second generations. And that community, one of their top choices are these community ethnic media.
TERENCE SMITH: Let me get back at this notion of assimilation versus identity, and what effect — if they do rely on ethnic media, can you tell me which you think is the greater effect it has? In other words, does it tend to encourage assimilation?
SANDRA BALL-ROKEACH: I don’t think we’re going to find the kind of assimilation we used to find — where the parents were pushing their children very, very hard to become American, American, American in every single way.
On the other hand, studies do show that children are picking up English language at about the same rate they have in the past. So that it’s a false idea that they resist learning English. This is not the case.
I think we have to look at the media in context of how these communities are organizing themselves; for example, politically, or in unions. If [there are] union organizations, which are very active here in Los Angeles, then you have a bringing together of people, with Anglos and Latinos especially.
Or you can look at the way that a lot of the Asian-origin groups are coming together now to try and do what the Latino groups have done, to because an important political force. So that at least you get out of your completely provincial — let’s say I’m from Korea, and come more to the point of being able to say I’m an Asian-American. Okay?
And I think that these bridges that are being built will ultimately allow us kind of a more American identity.
You don’t have to become white to be American. That’s [something] whites have got to learn, too, that “American” now means many faces.
And when you ask someone who’s an American, the first picture that comes to mind is white. But maybe over time, we’ll make room for other ethnicities so that they can maintain their ethnicities at the same time as building a very strong identity as an American; that they’re not incompatible.
That’s what I suspect is going to happen. I don’t know if I’ll be proven right or not.
TERENCE SMITH: Thank you.
SANDRA BALL-ROKEACH: You’re welcome.