Language Barriers Complicate the Geography of News


News deserts are expanding. Nearly two decades ago, the United States had about 9,000 newspapers; as 2019 came to a close, it had 6,700. Of the country’s 3,143 counties, over 200 have no newspaper or other sources of credible news. Half of these counties only have one newspaper and two-thirds do not have a daily newspaper. These losses have been especially glaring in the Midwest and the East.

A lack of access to credible news facilitates the spread of disinformation and drives up political and social polarization. It erodes trust in the news media and can exacerbate the digital divide between residents with good internet access who can seek out diverse sources of news and people with poor or no connectivity.

Residents who speak very little or no English who live in communities dominated by local news outlets that only provide news and information in English confront another serious problem: They live in linguistic news deserts. These residents are usually left behind when it comes to finding out about critical government, school, business, and other key developments and events in their communities.

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In Missouri, over 19 percent of the state’s population is Hispanic or Latino and nearly 22 percent of Missourians speak a language other than English in their households. About 33,000 people, nearly 3 percent of the state’s population, speak Spanish. More than 15 percent of people in Sullivan County in northern Missouri speak Spanish, the highest in the state; 8 percent have limited proficiency in English. But the county has only one newspaper, a weekly called The Milan Standard, which publishes in English.

Missouri has only ten media outlets that serve specific cultural and ethnic communities, but these are concentrated in St. Louis and Kansas City. For example, Red Latina, a digital daily news website (it also offers a monthly magazine) provides national and local news for the St. Louis area. It also covers state elections and legal developments, as well as cultural and entertainment events like the Missouri State Fair. The paper also has a companion radio program, “Radio Red Latina,” that features music and news updates.

Midway between St. Louis and Kansas City, Columbia’s nearly 190,000 residents have a healthy selection of English-language news outlets to choose from with about two newspapers, two magazines, four radio, and three television stations. But there are no publications providing news exclusively in other languages, even though about 10 percent of Columbia residents speak a language other than English at home, 3.7 percent of the population identifies as Hispanic or Latino, and about 6.5 percent of the residents in Columbia were born in another country.

The existence of multiple news outlets does not mean that all residents have access to news.

Kassidy Arena works at KBIA, the NPR affiliate in Columbia, Missouri. Last year, she produced “¿Dónde está mi gente?” a six-part Spanish-language news project that spotlighted Hispanic and Latino communities in central Missouri. For Arena, the definition of what constitutes a news desert is too narrow; the existence of multiple news outlets does not mean that all residents have access to news. The language barrier is just one issue: Often, Latino communities don’t see themselves or their issues reflected in the media.

Nick Mathews, a professor of journalism at the University of Missouri, writes that the presence of a local newspaper helps to foster broader connections: When people cannot access local news, the community connections and bonds weaken. They can end up isolated from their neighbors, resources, government leaders, and more. Without access to news, they cannot fully participate in their communities.

Community groups, social services, and local religious groups all play a role in disseminating news to people who can’t readily use existing English-language outlets. When COVID-19 peaked, many Latinos, who were disproportionately affected by the disease, lacked good access to Spanish-language public-health information about how to protect themselves from the virus and how to get vaccinated. Religious leaders stepped in to fill the gap. One pastor, Francisco Bonilla, founder of Casa de Sanidad, a church in the southwestern city of Carthage, ran a Spanish-language radio station that offered sermons and music. During the pandemic, he offered interviews with nurses and health experts.

College students are also leading efforts to broaden access. Four journalism students at the University of Missouri’s flagship campus in Columbia launched De Veras, a digital news website, earlier this year to serve central Missouri’s Latino communities. The social media–centered project translates local news as well as information on accessing resources for the region’s Spanish-speaking population. The students met with community members in towns outside Columbia with large Latino populations to better understand their needs. They also partnered with statewide online publications, like the Missouri Independent.

How can newsrooms bring down language and cultural barriers? Some New Jersey news outlets take advantage of special programs like the NJ News Commons Spanish Translation News Service, which brings English- and Spanish-language news outlets together to provide news and information first produced in English to Spanish-speaking communities. Public radio is also a valuable source of content. Radio stations are in a unique position: They are often available across large portions of the country and are accessible to people without reliable internet access. Iowa Public Radio, where Arena once worked, has established a beat for news, culture, and events for the state’s Latino and Hispanic communities. The NPR affiliate also translates some regional and statewide stories on the site into Spanish.

Hola, America, an independent online publication, has local affiliates in Iowa, Illinois, and the Quad Cities (a region on the border of Iowa and Illinois). This website offers all of its news in both Spanish and English.

News outlets should aim to create a specific beat or assign a reporter to an underserved community. Having regular contact with a journalist covering their issues creates a sense of trust between the community and the media. But these efforts must be sustained or any trust built up will fall apart. “We just have to figure out the sustainability part before we make promises that we can’t keep,” says Arena.

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