By Richard Friedman
Journalism Day at Auburn University was highlighted by a panel on “ethnic media” which, among others, featured Larry Brook, editor and publisher of Southern Jewish Life and Israel InSight magazines, and Barnett Wright, executive editor of the Birmingham Times, Birmingham’s African-American newspaper.
Southern Jewish Life, Israel InSight and the Birmingham Times have developed a partnership through which the publications share stories that are of interest to the Jewish and African-American communities.
The session, titled “The State of Ethnic Media in Alabama 2021: Impact, Resources, Changes, and Opportunities,” was moderated by Dr. Gheni Platenburg, assistant professor in Auburn’s School of Communication and Journalism.
The term ethnic media is generally used to describe media that serve minority ethnic and religious communities.
Uniquely In Tune
“Recent U.S. Census data show Alabama’s population has become more diverse over the last decade,” Platenburg explained. “This growing diversity not only attracts but requires media outlets that are uniquely in tune with the storytelling and informational needs of these diverse residents.”
Appearing with Brook and Wright on the Nov. 4 program, which was held both in-person and virtually, were Vanessa Vargas, managing partner of Latino News; Cinthia Saenz, general manager of 1220 AM Radio, a Spanish language station; and Tori Bailey, general manager of radio station WZZA in Muscle Shoals, which serves the African American community.
Bailey captured a belief that all the panelists shared.
“We need media that speaks truth to and about us, prioritizes issues that are of importance to us, serves to counter misinformation often spread either by social media or other outlets that value profits over editorial responsibility, and paints a more balanced picture of our community,” she said.
Added Bailey, “Today it is as important as ever to provide the general public — not just our target audience — with our perspective, to explore and explain how certain events or issues affect us the way they do, and to counter false narratives and negative stereotypes or exaggerated images with a more accurate viewpoint.”
Support and Guidance
Vargas’ Latino News covers 13 counties in Alabama. Beyond delivering information in Spanish, including local, state, and international news, the media outlet serves as a resource for the Latino community.
“Imagine coming to a new country and not speaking English. Where do you find support and guidance? Our newspaper is community oriented and connected with major non-profits that support our community members regarding the many issues they face,” Vargas explained. “Undeserved communities struggle to have their voice being heard. We as a minority media have to give them a voice to be heard.”
Brook and Wright echoed many of these sentiments in their remarks.
The Birmingham Times, a longstanding, historic Birmingham area newspaper, has expanded its editorial impact and developed a powerful online presence under Wright’s leadership.
The Times was founded in 1963 during the Civil Rights movement. “That was a time when there was very little coverage of the African American community,” Wright explained. “Today there is just as much a need for our publications and the other media you are hearing about because the bigger media don’t have the staff to cover our respective communities,” added Wright, a well-known African-American journalist.
In the case of the Birmingham Times, he added, “We have access to community activists who are on the ground, who the larger media don’t always have access to or pursue. We give these people a voice. We go out and talk to people whose voices often aren’t heard.”
Southern Jewish Life, which serves Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Northwest Florida, has become a nationally award-winning publication under Brook’s leadership. Israel InSight, a new venture he has started, is oriented toward Israel’s Christian supporters.
Brook said the “relevance” of ethnic media is that it is “geared toward particular communities” as opposed to the general media which provide a broader view. “Sometimes you have to drill down and approach things in a different way.”
Jewish media, for example, provide in-depth coverage of antisemitism and Israel, and Jewish journalists such as Brook are often turned to by the general media for commentary on such issues.
Brook especially enjoyed telling his Auburn audience about a story Southern Jewish Life did a few years back on the University’s famous “War Eagle” fight song having been written by two New York Jewish songwriters. “Who else would cover that story? We did that article and it was one of the most looked at website stories in our history,” said Brook.
“There are all sorts of things where history touches different groups in a way you wouldn’t expect, which would be lost if we didn’t write about them.”