Wick Communications

Bridging the language gap

In Writing techniques on December 2, 2011 at 9:33 am

We are often called upon to interview people who don’t communicate well in English. Contrary to popular perception, I wouldn’t necessarily say that American journalists are asked to bridge this gap any more often now than they were a generation or two ago; we have always been a nation of immigrants.

I think this is a significant issue at all of our newspapers. Let’s face it: It’s just easier to interview someone who speaks our language, both literally and figuratively. It’s easier to talk to someone who grew up in like circumstances. We recognize unspoken truths in such sources because we recognize those same truths in ourselves.

I would probably be more at home interviewing a 48-year-old white guy from the suburbs than I would a 23-year-old Hmong refugee from Laos.

The sad result is that we read a lot more about people who look a lot like our writers than we do about the rainbow of others who live in our world. That is a shame and a missed opportunity as today’s immigrant communities are alive with journalistic possibility.

Recently, Phuong Ly wrote a very valuable list of tips for reporters wishing to connect with minority communities. If you do nothing else today, I hope it is to open this link and read. Ly is a former Charlotte Observer and Washington Post reporter and Stanford Knight Fellow. …

Some of her tips are more obvious than others. I think we all instinctively know that interviewing in person is better than conducting a phoner, particularly when language may be an issue. We know that spending more time is better than spending less time. I was particularly taken by Ly’s suggestion that reporters open up all their senses. When you visit, what’s cooking? Is the room light or dark? Is it crowded with people or empty? Is there a scent in the air? Don’t return to your desk until you have a more full understanding of the person you are interviewing.

I also loved the idea of creating a network of people in your community you can count on for help with translation and just knowing what is going on in communities that aren’t lily white.

Here’s one last suggestion and it is mine. As reporters, we’re accustomed to showing up at someone’s doorstep at the worst-possible time. If the newspaper comes calling, it likely means that you have done something amazingly good … or something really, really bad has happened. You aren’t likely to make the kinds of connections you need to really report on immigrant communities at times like these. Try to make friends and professional contacts at more “cool” times, when you aren’t on deadline. Those contacts might mean a lot later on.

Clay

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