Jasvir Shameel, host and news director at RED FM, a Punjabi-language radio station, has yet to see a mainstream media outlet break a news story involving the South Asian community.
“Sometimes, I am puzzled to see a mainstream story about an issue the Punjabi media covered months and even years earlier,” he says.
While the mainstream media footprint shrinks and growth remains flat, the Punjabi diaspora media seem to have little trouble keeping and attracting new consumers.
A big part of that reason is immigration. In fact, that most of these stories never get aired by the mainstream in real time doesn’t even bother consumers of ethnic media anymore, as they learned to tune out of the mainstream a long time ago.
According to Bhinder Singh, a popular host and media commentator on Punjabi television and radio shows, the issues discussed in ethnic media outlets are often rooted in the community. For example, issues relating to international students have been featured and discussed long before such stories began appearing in the mainstream media radar, he says.
Invariably, it takes a study by a think-tank or a police report about an issue for the mainstream media to latch on to a story concerning the Punjabi diaspora, he adds.
Naturally, then, when South Asian-Canadians come across stories in the mainstream about illegal basement fires in Brampton or international students being ripped off by employers, they simply shrug and brush it off as old news.
“Unfortunately, many mainstream media reports have their basis in studies and surveys conducted by universities or funded by NGOs, and not from real life, so the format of most of these stories is to quote statistics and other findings in such studies and get a few quotes from people from the community to validate the material,” says Shameel.
But when they do a story, it is proper and with proof. We in the desi media don’t have the resources and manpower to go more in depth into stories. But it doesn’t mean that the stories we break in real time are less relevant.”
A human touch
The reason why Punjabi radio talk shows are so popular is because people call in with real concerns, insights and observations about the issues being discussed, and they talk about what they see around them.
For example, recently, Shameel had a trucker calling in to say he found it hard to believe there were shortages of grocery store items because of supply chain issues. The trucker, who made deliveries to dozens of stores in multiple cities, had yet to see half-empty store rooms or warehouses, Shameel recalls. He suspected there was an issue with companies hoarding and artificially causing shortages to boost prices and induce panic buying.
“This raw intelligence could well be dismissed by the mainstream media, because there were no numbers or proof to back up such a claim, but such a story would require investigative reporting,” Shameel says.
It is not as if mainstream news reporters don’t come across breaking stories involving ethnic communities, but they are often hampered by language and cultural barriers.
For example, according to a Punjabi reporter at a mainstream media outlet who requested anonymity due to concerns about his job, his editors are overly cautious about stories involving the community and are often terrified about offending anyone.
As a result, he says he has found it hard to get them to explore sensitive stories that are trending in the local Punjabi media. The stories have to be based on press releases from government agencies and studies and surveys, he says, echoing observation shared by many ethnic journalists.
Bala Menon, an editor of a local Brampton-based newspaper, has concluded that as a result, mainstream news are often very bland, safe and non-controversial. He says when it comes to reporting on ethnic communities, they present a very sanitized version of what really happens.
“Everyone is happy and well-fed, the journalists are well-paid, government agencies send out their press releases complete with talking points, which is dutifully picked up by news outlets,” he says.
“These press releases and studies spark off the news cycle and set the tone of the day’s reporting. Most media outlets are on the same page when it comes to news reporting, except for a couple of smaller outlets that might contest or raise questions.”
Shameel is convinced that in the next few years, the trend will be for mainstream media to go the multi-lingual route. Many immigrant communities, he says, prefer their news to have a cultural touch which is currently lacking in mainstream media. Thus, as Canada’s demographics change, so will media consumption patterns.
But “for that to happen,” he says, “these outlets need to have reporters who either live in the community or better understand it.”
This article is based on the results of the first Canadian study on the socio-economic conditions of first generation immigrant and refugee journalists, currently underway.
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Pradip Rodrigues began his career as a journalist at The Times of India, Mumbai. Since moving to Canada in 2000, he has written for several media outlets both here and in India on a variety of issues. Prior to joining NCM, he was at CanIndia newspaper for eight years.