For the past six months, more than a dozen journalists from ethnic media outlets across California have covered news about water pollution, stormwater management, endangered species recovery and river revitalization — topics they might have not investigated before.
The stories, which appeared in newspapers, on television, and in online publications, were produced with support from a fellowship and training provided by UCLA’s Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies and Ethnic Media Services, a San Francisco-based nonprofit. LENS was founded in 2016 to support the creation of media about environmental issues for non-English speakers and people from different cultural backgrounds, groups that are often disproportionately affected by those stories.
Ensuring that people of color have credible information on issues involving the state’s watersheds — the areas of land that drain into rivers, lakes and other bodies of water — is becoming more important because increasingly state and local environmental measures are being drafted with those communities in mind. For example, Measure W, a stormwater management parcel tax for Los Angeles County was approved by voters in the November 6 election.
And in June, California voters passed Proposition 68, a bond measure that provides $4.1 billion for state departments and local governments to use for programs intended to conserve natural habitats; parks and recreation projects; and projects to increase flood protection, recharge and clean up groundwater and provide safe drinking water. These measures include provisions that specifically designate funds for communities with lower-than-average incomes.
The goal of the ethnic media fellowship is to use relevant media outlets to better engage low-income and minority communities in the discussions that shape the state’s environment. The fellowship focused on watersheds because low-income and minority communities are increasingly the focus of watershed improvement projects.
“Environmental agencies and scientific institutions often don’t cultivate relationships with journalists from the ethnic media in the same ways that they do with the mainstream media,” said Jon Christensen, an adjunct assistant professor in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA and a founder of LENS. “So the reporters from Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Native American and African-American media and their communities are too often left out of important conversations about the environment and sustainability.”
Polls consistently show California’s ethnic minority communities — Latino, Asian-Pacific Islanders, African-American and Native American — are among the strongest supporters of environmental protections. But the media that serves their communities often lack the resources to cover the issues on their own or face language barriers that prevent them from making connections with sources that can help them.
“Right now in California we are investing billions of dollars in watershed improvements and management,” Christensen said. “It’s important to open up channels of communication in those communities as we try to make water management in California sustainable.”
Over 40 percent of adults in California speak a language other than English at home, while 18 percent speak little or no English, according to a 2016 study by the U.S. Census Bureau. And a 2005 survey by National Public Radio found that 13 percent of U.S. adults regularly consume ethnic media instead of mainstream media and that, in some ethnic communities, up to 80 percent of adults depend exclusively on ethnic media for their news.
The fellowship began with a two-day training in Sacramento that brought journalists together with officials from environmental agencies, advocacy organizations, and legislative staff, and included a field trip to a local watershed. The fellowship was supported by the Resources Legacy Fund and the Keith Campbell Foundation for the Environment.
Araceli Martinez, who covers politics for La Opinión, the nation’s largest Spanish-language newspaper, was one of the program’s fellows. Among the stories she has written since participating was her coverage of planning for a new park on the Los Angeles River that will capture and filter storm runoff before it reaches the river while providing an urban orchard for the surrounding low-income, largely Latino community.
Martinez said LENS is a much-needed resource at a time when smaller newsroom staffs and shrinking budgets have made it harder for ethnic media to devote staff to covering environmental issues.
“We can play a significant role in creating awareness and educating our community,” she said. “Efforts such as the LENS fellowship, connecting the ethnic media to experts, decision makers and resources to enhance their reporting, give me hope that things can be better.”
Stories from the fellowship continue to be published in the ethnic media and at lensmagazine.org and LENS plans to expand collaborations with the ethnic media in the future.