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What COVID-19 teaches us about the divide between mainstream and multilingual media

A five-part research series by New Canadian Media unpacks the impacts of ethnic media’s pandemic coverage for multilingual communities. Here’s how we did it Continue Reading What COVID-19 teaches us about the divide between mainstream and multilingual media

Alicja Minda, a Polish immigrant, researcher and editor-in-chief of the Editors Toronto official blog, BoldFace, sits in her bedroom-turned-office-space, scrolling through  COVID-19 coverage. 

There are hundreds of articles on her list, each translated into English by non-partisan consulting firm Multilingual International Research and Ethnic Media Services, in order for her to research and analyze multilingual articles.

Typing “interview” into the word search in the document for one component of the project, Minda is able to pull up an important detail: the number of people interviewed and asked whether or not they would take the COVID-19 vaccine. Bingo. This is exactly what she’s looking for. 

“Articles that stood out … were where I could see that this particular outlet … went to talk to somebody from the community and they were presenting a view from within,” Minda said. 

Our team at New Canadian Media created the Bridging the Mainstream-Ethnic Digital Divide in COVID-19 Literacy project to shine a light on the gaps in coverage and representation between mainstream and ethnic media — loosely defined as media produced for a particular ethnic community, commonly in a language other than English or French — during the pandemic. 

Minda was brought on board as co-researcher, analyzing ethnic media articles for how they conveyed COVID-19-related information. Naser Miftari, a Canadian journalist, assessed articles published by the Toronto Star. 

This research, conducted between October 2020 and January 2021, was based on a content analysis method, using a set of relevant keywords to retrieve ethnic media and mainstream articles covering five COVID-19-related themes: coverage of mental health impacts, economic impacts, challenges faced by temporary residents, migrant workers, asylum seekers and international students, minorities in COVID-19 and vaccine hesitancy. From there, the two compared and contrasted their analysis to see how the media differed in their coverage of COVID-19 in these areas. 

“Toronto Star was proposed as a relevant representative of mainstream media … because it is a newspaper that … has a solid record in covering a wide array of topics relating to immigration, immigrants, and challenges faced by immigrants in Canada,” said Miftari. “Toronto Star is the only paper that has a dedicated immigration reporter.”

In their exploration of vaccine-related coverage, Minda and Miftari concluded, for example, that while the Star was able to provide more in-depth coverage and analysis  of stories such as vaccine development efforts, ethnic media mostly focused on news coverage.

Ethnic media worked to counter the framing of some mainstream coverage, showed Minda and Miftari’s analysis, including in the case of messaging around high rates of COVID-19 in Peel Region and the city of Brampton, which are home to a large population of South Asian community members.

They found ethnic media combatting racist undertones in mainstream reporting, which sometimes glossed over understanding of multigenerational households, the factor of essential work and underfunded health-care systems. 

The research also showed that a small cohort of ethnic media amplified vaccine hesitancy. In some instances, outlets published opinion pieces critical of vaccines, including one which “questioned the value of [chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam’s] assurances about [their] safety and effectiveness,” wrote Minda and Miftari.

The research, which was funded in part by the Canadian Heritage Digital Citizen Contribution Program, “was like close reading,” said Minda. “A lot of the coverage [in ethnic media] was like straightforward reporting or taking content from mainstream media. So I would focus mostly on the content that I could see was an original interview or an original opinion.”

About 450 kilometres away in Ottawa, Miftari, like Minda, read through hundreds of mainstream news articles, keeping track of general themes and specific details that stood out. 

“I was doing some work around COVID-19 issues and coverage in the Canadian media, and [the idea for the project] sort of came naturally to me. So I thought the idea would be good to look at how mainstream and ethnic media kind of portrays different topics and issues around COVID-19,” Miftari said.

From October of 2020 to the end of January 2021, Minda and Miftari’s days were clear cut. They fell into the routine of working from morning to evening — and sometimes well into the night — of sifting through articles and analyzing them in their coverage of COVID-19. 

“We did ethnic and mainstream coverage analysis separately, and then we compared [the coverage],” Minda said.  

Each article includes direct commentary from NCM Collective members, a collective of high-calibre journalists who generate local content for NCM, in which they provided an overview of ethnic media coverage relating to COVID-19 in their own communities. 

For instance, NCM collective member and McGill history doctoral candidate Christopher Chanco spoke to how “mental health issues are tackled indirectly in the Filipino-Canadian media” in the project’s analysis of mental health coverage during COVID-19. 

Member Tunde Asaju, an Ottawa-based journalist and former head of press and public affairs for the British High Commission in Nigeria, told researchers that “African-Canadian news portals have yet to connect immigrants of African origin to the mental health needs peculiar to them.”

Minda said that this program within NCM was clearly an “untapped resource for more mainstream outlets,” which often lack newsroom diversity.

Ethnic media have been instrumental in conveying public health messaging to multilingual communities, Silke Reichrath, editor-in-chief of MIREMS, told researchers. 

The project noted that financial supports such as wage or rent subsidies have not reached most small media outlets

“The pandemic has disproportionately impacted marginalized communities, so the outreach to them should also be disproportionately resourced,” said Reichrath. 

For more from the Bridging the Mainstream-Ethnic Digital Divide in COVID-19 Literacy project, visit New Canadian Media’s website.

Reedah Hayder is a journalist based in Toronto and a member of the NCM-CAJ Collective. She currently attends the Ryerson School of Journalism and covers community, immigration, women's health and education.