Solmaira Valerio grew up in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood. Back when the COVID-19 pandemic was first starting, Valerio, who is now a journalism student at Temple University, recalls watching the news, her concern growing. “I asked my dad, ‘Hey, do you have any awareness of what’s going on? Do you know what this means? Or how this happened?’ And he was like, ‘No, I don’t really know what’s going on.’”
Intergenerational conversations about the seriousness of COVID-19 are a familiar experience to many. But Valerio’s example illustrates a particular structural dynamic that has shaped the experiences of marginalized communities across the U.S. Like many others in the working class neighborhood of Kensington, Valerio’s parents are Puerto Rican and Dominican and do not speak much English.
In this article, we explore the information needs of this community and other marginalized communities in the Philadelphia region. We follow Valerio’s work to increase access to Spanish-language news, and how it converged with the efforts of three local journalism projects in Philadelphia: Kensington Voice, the Germantown Info Hub, and Resolve Philadelphia.
Kensington Voice and the Germantown Info Hub began around the same time, each with connections to local universities, and each attempting to provide hyperlocal information and stories for communities that felt stigmatized by larger media outlets. Resolve grew out of a reporting collaboration initially supported by the Solutions Journalism Network. While each initiative has a distinctive mission, approach, and scale, they all have sought to center communities in their work.
We approach these projects as participant observers — having been directly involved in the Germantown Info Hub, and having worked with Kensington Voice and Resolve as partners. In the early phases of the lockdown in Philadelphia, we conducted a series of focus group discussions on Zoom with residents and community organizers in the Kensington and Germantown neighborhoods, as well as interviewing journalists and project organizers of these initiatives. Here we offer a look at their responses to COVID-19 to understand how they are determining the information needs of vulnerable groups, and how they envision their work extending beyond the pandemic.
COVID-19 en español
For Valerio, it was her involvement with Kensington Voice that allowed her concern for her dad to grow into a project providing Spanish-language news about COVID-19. Kensington Voice has been committed to providing stories about a range of issues relevant for residents of this majority Latinx neighborhood. In broader media coverage the neighborhood had become synonymous with an open-air drug market that had ballooned there in recent years. Kensington Voice took a decidedly different approach, covering issues such as housing, education, and community gardens, often with input from community members.
Valerio said that when the pandemic was starting, the Spanish-language news her family got from national and local outlets was far from clear. She recalled watching TV where Spanish was dubbed over an English-language broadcast. “It was so hard to follow, and I could barely keep up with it or even understand what was really happening.”
Valerio decided if there was not accessible Spanish-language news she would have to source it herself, for her family and for the workers at her family’s restaurant. “I basically just would try to translate stuff for them. I would pull things up, and I’d be like, ‘Look, Dad this is what this means. You should look out for this. Wash your hands. This is what may happen if you have to close the restaurant.’”
When Valerio started her personal translation project, she reached out to Kensington Voice editor Jillian Bauer-Reese, explaining that she was looking for articles about COVID to translate. “How many Solmairas are there out there who are translating this information for their parents right now?” Bauer-Reese wondered. “And how inefficient is that?”
Around the same time, the nonprofit journalism organization Resolve Philly reached out to Bauer-Reese and around 25 other news organizations — including The Philadelphia Inquirer, the local NBC affiliate, the Black-owned radio station WURD, Spanish-language outlets, and community projects such as Kensington Voice and the Germantown Info Hub — offering to help them coordinate around COVID-19 coverage.
Bauer-Reese asked the other news organizations for COVID-related articles for Kensington Voice to translate into Spanish. It worked: Kensington Voice got many articles that it could translate and run on its site, share with Resolve partners to publish, and circulate through neighborhood networks.
She said it would have been nearly impossible to access news articles from outlets like the Inquirer without the support and network of Resolve. “Can I take your content, much of which is paywalled, translate it into another language, and run it for free on my website?” would have seemed like a ridiculous question if she asked it on her own, she said. But through Resolve, it was a natural part of the collaborative partnership.
Information needs of marginalized communities
Highlighting the information needs of communities like Valerio’s is at the heart of projects like Kensington Voice and the Germantown Info Hub. Like Kensington, Germantown, which is majority-Black, has also historically been stigmatized by negative news depictions. Two years ago, we did a research study that highlighted residents’ frustration with news coverage that they believed was disproportionately negative and focused on crime. Community stakeholders called for a more nuanced narrative and a hub to circulate information. We created the Germantown Info Hub as a collaboration between a community advisory group, university professors and students, and community reporters and organizers.
Over the past two years, the Info Hub has produced occasional solutions-oriented stories and profiles of Germantown residents. But the heart of the project has been community outreach and convenings that connect residents, community leaders, and local media. When the coronavirus emerged, all of these core activities were thrown into question. What did it mean to do community organizing when we could not have a physical presence in the community — particularly when we sought to reach residents who had uneven access to digital resources?
Since the Info Hub designs its activities based on research about community needs, we decided we should update this research in the context of the coronavirus. We organized a series of seven Zoom focus groups with residents and representatives of community organizations. With support from the Independence Public Media Foundation and our Kensington Voice partners, we conducted these sessions for the Germantown and Kensington neighborhoods. Our conversations focused on how people were sourcing information, gaps where they needed more, and how the situation affected their attitudes toward news media.
Because the conversations were taking place at the hyperlocal level, we were able to get pretty granular. Participants shared the names of organizations posting information in their windows, Instagram accounts of local influencers, and email lists and phone trees coordinated by community groups, churches, and informal groups of neighbors. They also mentioned where they saw gaps: Spanish-language information, food distribution, meals for students, and store opening hours, particularly for those who were immunocompromised. Much of the information people wanted was at the neighborhood level.
While participants did reference local news outlets, many thought those outlets focused too much on Washington, DC, and not enough on neighborhood-level needs. They also wanted actionable information to be easier to retrieve. If a resource is mentioned as part of a television story, one resident complained, “It’s so fast, before you can get a pen and paper to write it down, they’re on to the next story.” Participants suggested such information should be showcased prominently on news websites: “It’d be nice if that was just the cover story right now. Like, these are the things that you need to know. This is where you can get the kind of help that you need.” Several participants also wanted guidance on topics like unemployment benefits and business loans.
A resident who had subscribed to the Inquirer and WHYY for the first time explained, “If you’re going to tell me how to stay alive, it feels like I should pay you for that.” But, consistent with Pew Research Center findings, many participants mentioned that they were avoiding the news or going straight to government websites to avoid third-party filtering and commentary.
Several suggested they avoided news to minimize anxiety: “I think they’re scaring the public a little too much.” Others shared their frustration with media for giving airtime to what they saw as misinformation from national leaders. “The both-side-isms of the news that’s happening now is putting fact up against opinion as though those two are equal,” one participant said. “Trying to present both sides like that…is a disservice to a great many people who are who have now started to succumb to COVID.” This participant suggested the problem could be attributed to the influence of corporations on local news: “Corporate gets to tell them exactly what they get to talk about.”
Most participants were getting at least some information from social media sources like Facebook, Instagram, or WhatsApp. Some relied on local influencers like pastors or council members to fill in what they saw as gaps in local news coverage. “That’s dependent on me following them — it’s not dependent on information being disseminated to me.” Neighborhood Facebook groups, particularly in Germantown, were noted as useful sites to coordinate mutual aid and exchange. As one person said, “you kind of got to weed through it to see the good stuff, but the good stuff is totally there.”
At the same time, social media was also associated with misinformation. For example, several participants who identified as Latinx referenced examples they observed circulating in their networks — home remedies for COVID-19; rumors that Latin American countries were responding to the virus by dumping bodies into the ocean.
Finally, participants were concerned that the crisis was taking a particular toll on vulnerable and marginalized groups. “It worries me that our most vulnerable communities are the ones that are going to be most vulnerable to this disease,” one participant said. “How to get information out [has] been a real struggle, because folks might not be on social networks or may not be listening to news.” A resident in another group pointed out that many marginalized groups didn’t know how they could access resources: “When you already have access, getting more access is easier.” Another participant raised concern that warm summer weather might put more people at risk, particularly when they lived in crowded environments without air conditioning.
Finally, in what now seems particularly prescient given it was shared prior to recent uprisings, a participant warned that marginalized residents might be driven to protest: “There are people in Philadelphia that are getting very desperate right now. I don’t think it’s just the warm weather that’s going to be driving people out into the streets….Unless people get the resources they need, there’s going to be a lot of trouble in the cities, from people who are desperate and don’t have anywhere to turn.”
People wanted easily accessible information on local resources. So the Germantown Info Hub and Kensington Voice compiled resource guides for each neighborhood, offering information on topics like job opportunities and COVID-19 testing. Both projects print the resource guides and distribute them — handing them out at, for instance, food distribution sites — to residents who are unlikely to access them online. The Info Hub has also teamed up with G-Town community radio to share resources via a weekly call-in radio show.
Participants in all of our focus groups expressed the expectation that news media should not only provide information, but should also work to raise issues on behalf of the community. For example, a Kensington participant suggested that media needed to hold authorities to account about the lack of testing availability: “If the media has one role to play, it’s making it clear that that…we can’t possibly get an idea of how to adjust to the situation without mass testing.”
Another participant argued that it was important for media to raise concerns about how reopening before adequate provisions are made for childcare and other needs could take a particularly hard toll on marginalized neighborhoods. Germantown participants also expressed a desire to have easier access to facts about COVID that illustrated the inequities of the virus, such as reporting on the number of cases by zip code.
Finally, while the coronavirus was a central concern for participants, several expressed a wish for coverage that was not exclusively devoted to the pandemic. “We can have more than one thing in our heads at the same time,” one participant said, suggesting that the singular focus obscured other key issues like elections, the census, immigration, and mass incarceration.
“I don’t trust my government. That doesn’t mean I don’t trust the media,” another participant said. “I just am concerned that local media is not addressing the real stuff…it’s wonderful that we’re paying attention to, you know, the healthcare heroes and all those kinds of things…but I am very concerned about what sneaky ridiculous things are being done in our name without our approval.”
Creating collaborative structures for crisis
COVID-19 is a “kind of perfect storm,” said Resolve Philadelphia co-executive director Jean Friedman-Rudovsky, who previously spearheaded the Broke in Philly collaboration. “There is this crazy public health crisis and the people who are most responsible for getting out verified news and information are not trusted…We have to somehow work with people who are trusted. Who are those trusted community gatekeepers?”
Resolve received a $1 million grant from IPMF to coordinate its COVID-19 work. “There’s critical life-saving information that needs to get out on a daily basis — and we have to be creative with how that is done,” Friedman-Rudovsky explained. The “normal channels” of journalism are not enough, particularly when so many communities have historic reasons not to trust these channels.
Because of this, Resolve has sought a more expansive approach to collaboration with its Equally Informed Philly project. The project focuses on vulnerable communities, including Black and Latinx people, people with disabilities, immigrants, people in low-wage jobs, and people in unstable or unsafe housing, as well as those living in ZIP codes with the highest scores on the COVID vulnerability index.
Sharing information and public health messaging can look quite different from traditional news articles. For instance, Resolve is printing yard signs with health messages on them, to be placed six feet apart at food distribution sites. It’s working with a neighborhood association to print and distribute its newsletter with COVID information to senior citizens.
“There are folks on the ground already doing this work. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel or start a ton of new things,” Friedman-Rudovsky said. “They’re disseminating this life-saving and business-saving info. How can we help with that?’”
Building ties between journalists and community organizations can be difficult. Resolve has worked to manage the expectations of journalists who may not be used to thinking of community organizations as partners. It’s also tried to assure community groups: “We need to be very conscious of the ways that we’re trying to be supportive and not make people feel like we’re trying to dictate actions or take over work that they do, or take credit for work that they do.”
Resolve Philadelphia, Kensington Voice, and the Germantown Info Hub hope that elements of their efforts will extend beyond the pandemic period. In particular, they’re thinking about:
— More non-English-language news and information: As Kensington Voice’s Valerio pointed out, “We should all have access to the same news.” She hopes collaborative translation of news coverage will become an ordinary practice. Editor Bauer-Reese hopes that translation into Spanish is just the beginning: “Just because we’re translating information written by non-Hispanic white people, mainly for non-Hispanic white people, doesn’t mean that we’re creating culturally competent news. That’s a problem.” She hopes that some of the Latinx student reporters from Kensington Voice will get full-time positions in newsrooms across the city to change the perspectives these outlets can offer.
— Greater diversity in journalism project teams: All of these projects enacted ideas that came from the populations they serve. Five of the six core Info Hub team members are people of color. A number of Resolve’s initiatives were inspired by the life experiences of staff members of color. Having more diverse perspectives enables projects to go beyond reporting about communities to reporting for and with communities.
— Rolling assessments of information needs: Moments of crisis necessitate checking in with communities to ensure that projects are responsive to their changing circumstances. For projects connected to universities, research may be a built-in component. But specialist training isn’t required to organize simple assessments like Zoom focus groups, where the goal isn’t to make representative claims about a community, but to listen and solicit feedback. When groups lack time even for thats, they can approximate such input by reaching out to community groups that are close to the constituencies a project is seeking to represent.
— Collaborations with community organizations: For each of these projects, working with community organizations is a routine part of how they source and disseminate information. This crisis has pushed these media organizations to extend and deepen partnerships and to explore how they can better support the needs of organizations as part of the communication fabric of communities. Each of these organizations has, from its inception, grappled with notions of journalistic objectivity that had long made many journalists wary of collaborating with organizations. And, critically, the people behind the projects have worked to be mindful of local power dynamics and how their work intersects with the work already being done in communities.
It is too early to know what will persist beyond this period of crisis. Resolve hopes its Equally Informed Philly project will be an ongoing structure that can be used for other future crises. Kensington Voice and the Germantown Info Hub will continue to work to assess and serve the needs of their respective neighborhoods, and we plan to continue to follow these projects.
Reflecting on how people were responding to the pandemic across Philadelphia, Bauer-Reese shared a note of optimism that some very old problems may finally get some attention. Suddenly, change to “policies that people have been fighting forever” appears possible.
Dr. Andrea Wenzel is an assistant professor at Temple University, co-founder/researcher for the Germantown Info Hub, and the author of Community-Centered Journalism: Engaging People, Exploring Solutions, and Building Trust. She became interested in engaged journalism and solutions journalism after working for 15 years as a public radio producer in Chicago and DC and as a trainer and project manager for media projects in Afghanistan, Ghana, Iraq, and Sri Lanka. Letrell Deshan Crittenden is program director and assistant professor of communication at Thomas Jefferson University, interim board president of Gtown Community Radio, and a co-facilitator of the Germantown Info Hub. A former police and government reporter, Crittenden is an emerging scholar who specializes in issues related to community journalism and diversity and inclusion in journalism.