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The Importance of Culture: Reporting on Health in the Latino Immigrant Community

Craft: Lessons From The Field

The Importance of Culture: Reporting on Health in the Latino Immigrant Community

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Maria Guzman has faced an emotional journey due to violence in El Salvador. Her son disappeared two years ago.

When I think about lessons learned in the past six months, two phrases come to mind: time management and narrowing the scope of my projects.

In my desire to expand our newspaper’s health coverage, I was too ambitious with my fellowship proposals. As I did more reporting, we refined the research questions and decided to focus on two projects instead of the three stories originally proposed. The projects were the impact of organized crime on the mental health of recent Salvadoran immigrants in North Texas and the disadvantages faced by monolingual Spanish-speaking families with children with autism in the region.

One piece of advice for reporters new to the health beat is to take into account the time you’ll need to familiarize yourself with scientific papers and data. Don’t underestimate how long it might take you to find key sources in a group or community when there is fear or a stigma associated with a particular issue.

These are additional suggestions for covering health stories in general and the Latino immigrant community in particular:

- Ask your subjects to bring a friend. Some of my sources were very afraid of talking with a reporter (or any authority figure) because they were undocumented and because they didn’t know what to expect. I found that they were more willing to share their stories if I told them they could bring someone they trust.

- Involve the family. After agreeing to be interviewed, the mother of a child with autism told me her husband preferred she didn’t speak with me. I asked her if he was willing to discuss his decision. After explaining him what I intended to do, they were happy to share their story.

- Don’t assume that everybody knows how journalism works. Explain what you are doing and what they can expect. Make sure they know their story will be published, including online. Also clarify that this is a long-term project and the stories will probably not be immediately published. Some of my sources didn’t want me or our photographer to take them any pictures. However, they agreed after I showed them photos we had taken for previous projects in which we didn’t identify the subjects. This helped them visualize what I was talking about and ease their worries.

- Make contact with the gatekeepers, but don’t rely on middlemen. It is important to contact community leaders and religious figures, but in the end you must have direct dealings with the subject or source. A good way to find testimonials is to attend community gatherings (like workshops, ferias and meetings) and court hearings. Speak directly to the sources, instead of relying on intermediaries. Some were more open to share their stories after a face-to-face encounter than through the intervention of a leader or middleman.

- Think about the best way to convey useful information. I realized that some of the families I was interviewing didn’t know how to use a computer or navigate the Internet. Therefore, we made sure to include telephone numbers of local resources in our print edition. All our stories included sidebars with information on resources available for Spanish-speaking immigrants. In both projects, we found that not knowing how to get help was a big part of the problem.

- Ask when the best time to call is. This seems obvious but it is even more important when your sources don’t have a 9 to 5 schedule. Also, if the cell phone is disconnected, try again in a few days. Sometimes they haven’t had the money to pay for the service.

- Be persistent but not pushy. After being very open during an initial interview, one family stopped returning my calls. I waited several weeks before contacting them again. When we resumed contact, I didn’t focus on why they hadn’t returned my calls, but on when we could meet again and on what questions they had about the project. After taking the pictures, they were comfortable with shooting a video.

- Use other reporters as resources. Others might be working on similar topics, so you can help each other. For example, I couldn’t go to a conference on mental health and immigration in San Antonio, but Heather Boerner, another 2012 National Health Journalism Fellow, was kind enough to send some of the speakers’ contact info. Similarly, because I didn’t have a lot of experience interviewing victims of trauma, I spoke to journalists that did. This Dart Center guide was also helpful.

- Get other colleagues involved. In addition to our managing editor Alfredo Carbajal, who got involved in the project from the beginning, our webmaster Francisco Rodriguez helped me editing videos and our local news editor provided key suggestions and editing.

- Narrow the data request to what you really need. And then ask for more, if necessary. After a rocky start with my open records request, I refined it and was able to get the data without the $500 fee I was originally quoted. I got in touch with the officer in charge of the data, which allowed me to ask specific questions and rewrite a more efficient (and less costly) request.

In terms of outreach, one strategy that helped us access key sources was to run our first story on autism early on (end of August). The project works as a package  we published four stories with multimedia components  but that first story on the growth of support groups in Spanish opened the doors for the rest of the stories. Also, I emailed the series to community leaders, and we posted links on a popular local Latino Yahoo group.

We got very positive reactions, especially for our autism series. One group organizer told me she had gotten more than a dozen calls from families who wanted to join her group or learn more about autism.

Photo credit: Ben Torres


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