Adding refugee voices to the community news stream

It’s been so long since I last blogged that I forgot my password. I’m glad something finally got me started again.

David Cohn, founder of and now a fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri, has organized a carnival of blogging I can’t resist. The task for this round is to discuss what steps can be taken to increase the number of news sources in a community. About 50 or so people have signed up to comment. The first topic was the changing role of universities for the information needs of a community.

I joined the carnival after the first question, but I like it so much and it relates so directly to the second question about increasing news sources, that I’ll discuss both.

The quick answer is that colleges of journalism and mass communications can do much to increase news sources so long as they change their role in their communities.

At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the College of Journalism and Mass Communcations is working on a project to increase the number of refugee voices in the community news stream. Lincoln is a national refugee resettlement center, so we have pockets of people from a lot of countries. But you never hear of them or from them, and most people couldn’t tell you where they live.

Ann Arraseef a refugee from Mosul, Iraq

Ann Arraseef, left Mosul, Iraq, with her family, when she was 11-years-old, and now lives in Lincoln, Neb. When asked about the term refugee, she said, “The term refugee or immigrant never bothered me, after all this whole country was founded by refugees wanting freedom of religion.” (Photo by Elizabeth Garcia)

We created a class with a New Voices grant from J-Lab that would reach into the refugee community and particularly study the communication habits and preferences of the Iraqi, Sudanese and Burmese (Karen) communities. Each was a little different. The goal was to figure out how to get information to them and from them to help them assimilate into Lincoln.

Using what we learned from that first class, we now plan to offer the next one in a community learning center located in the midst of the refugees with whom we are working. We will take the class into the community. The community learning center typically is an elementary or middle school with a wide variety of after-school programs designed to help keep students in school by providing additional services to the students and their parents. As we teach there, what we teach will be available to anyone in the community who happens to be there.

We will market and recruit to get refugee families to attend the learning center on the nights that we teach there. The purpose of the class is to teach the refugees how to tell their stories, ask their questions and seek the information they need. Because language still is a barrier for many of them, we will teach video story-telling.

Our students will pair with refugee families as mentors and as reporting teams. Students and parents will be taught to shoot, edit and upload video, in much the same way that Video Volunteers works to give voice to the voiceless in India.

But — and I believe this is a crucially important point — it’s not enough just to teach more people how to tell their stories and upload them. If you increase the supply side of the equation (more stories from people normally not heard from) without also opening distribution channels to the mainstream and increasing the demand side of the equation (who wants these stories), you’ve only done a part of the job, and you probably won’t be very effective.

Journalism and advertising students

Journalism and advertising students study the different ways to reach Iraqi, Sudanese and Burmese (Karen) refugee populations in Lincoln. (College of Journalism and Mass Communications photo)

Therefore, we also have partnered with the Lincoln Journal-Star to publish articles from the refugee community. So now, the number of voices or news sources in the community will, indeed, increase. And those voices won’t be crying in the wilderness.

This class is just one of several where our College of Journalism and Mass Communications is redefining its role to be a news provider for Lincoln and for the state of Nebraska. We also have created the Nebraska News Service to provide legislative and state news coverage to any news organization in the state. In just six weeks of operation, we have 80 news clients across Nebrasaka. 80. That’s amazing, and shows we’re truly providing a news service people want.

The number of voices in the community’s news stream can be increased in a meaningful way that has an opportunity to bring about change, if you work on both the demand side and the supply side of the news equation. Colleges of journalism and mass communications are uniquely poised to do just this.

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