Special Report: Community Media Can Make the Census Count

  • By Center for Community Media

This year’s national census has higher stakes than ever before for a divided country in the grips of a devastating pandemic. Black, Latinx, Asian, and indigenous communities that have been historically undercounted have also been hardest hit by COVID-19 and the ensuing economic crisis. Demographers warn that, even though the Supreme Court ruled to exclude a citizenship question, other moves by the current administration, like immigration rule changes and an accelerated census deadline, are likely to further depress the count.

Reporting in languages spoken in many hard-to-count communities, with a context and in terms relevant to them, community media outlets are uniquely positioned to boost the count. While we won’t know the impact of community-based journalism on the final count until the census has been completed, we know community media outlets have been hard at work informing and engaging their many communities at a time of unprecedented obstacles to an accurate count.

A look at the journalism that serves communities in densely populated cities, rural or tribal lands with limited internet connectivity, and border regions shows us how community media are reaching overlooked, undercounted people with intimate messages and accessible information. Reporting in these media outlets also offers a closer, more nuanced picture of who the undercounted really are.

hard to count map
CUNY Mapping Service

Reaching historically undercounted and immigrant Black communities

As localities across the country report far more of their Black residents dying of COVID-19, publishers in Black media warn of another massive undercount in their communities. In Chicago, where Black people account for a third of the population but nearly two-thirds of COVID-19 deaths, Black media reported how COVID-19 has created additional barriers in counting hard-to-count communities.

The 70-year-old Chicago Crusader reported at the beginning of June that less than 47% of the residents in the city’s predominantly Black wards had responded to the census. The city’s largest newspaper serving Black communities passed on the warning from Black community leaders that another undercount could cost them dearly.

Race Categories, 1860 Census
Race Categories, 1860 Census

The TRiiBE, a three-year-old digital platform serving the city’s Black millennials explored the long history of misreporting and undercounting Black populations, from slavery through the Jim Crow era and beyond, and how this has not only fed mistrust in the census in Black communities, it’s also been a roadblock for Black Americans trying to trace their ancestry.

In New York City, census officials actively engaged Black media in an effort to build trust and boost participation in Black communities. Even as COVID-19 depressed census response rates across the city during its peak in April, an essay in the city’s largest and oldest Black newspaper, the 110-year-old Amsterdam News, argued that COVID-19 proved how important it was for Black and other undercounted New Yorkers to participate in the census.

Community media outlets serving Black immigrant and refugee communities reported on the unique barriers and dimensions their communities face in the census. The Haitian Times, serving Haitian communities in New York City, reported that their response rate was lagging far behind the already low response rates citywide, and what this might mean for their families. Sahan Journal, founded last year to serve refugee and immigrant communities in Minnesota, reported on the census as a local issue for the state’s Somali population, the largest outside of Somalia according to this article, as they navigate federal political assaults like the so-called Muslim travel ban.

Ernesto Aguilar, program director of CCM’s national partner, the National Federation of Community Broadcasters (NFCB), observed that it has long been a challenge to get the state’s Somali community to participate in the census. Amid protests that have rocked the state, “They may be suspicious about who’s at their door, and they may be fearing what those counts will mean to them.” But NFCB member station KFAI in Minneapolis has earned a lot of goodwill and trust in the community by building out its Somali programming over the course of 20 years. “KFAI has been able to educate people about what the census is and what it means,” he said, expressing hope for a positive impact on the count.

Speaking to the country’s second-largest population

In this first census to happen since the Latinx population became the country’s second-largest, many Latinx communities remain hard to count. Community media reported that Latinx children accounted for the largest share of undercounted children under 5, and why that matters. In Chicago, where Latinx communities comprise 29% of the city’s population, La Raza, the city’s largest Spanish-language outlet, reported that the consulates of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador in Chicago formed a joint working committee to reach their communities.

Even as mainstream outlets continue to report on Latinx communities as a monolith, community media outlets report on – and in their own voices from – Latinx communities, like indigenous Purépecha speakers from southern Mexico in Chicago or the Mam people from the western Guatemalan highlands, living in Oakland, California (published in this collaboration between Oaklandside and El Timpano).

Radio Bilingüe
Radio Bilingüe

Westchester Hispano, which serves Spanish-speakers in the New York region, carried reports aimed at reassuring undocumented Spanish-speakers and urging them to participate in the census, like this coverage of the New York State Attorney General’s lawsuit against the Trump administration over its memo to exclude undocumented immigrants from the count and thus exclude them from legislative representation.

Experts have long pointed to the language barrier as a major factor in the undercount of Latinx communities. Community radio stations can go the distance in bridging the language gap. NFCB member station KSVR in Washington State’s broadcasts half of its programming in Spanish. KVNF, another member station, reaches five counties in rural Colorado, and 12% of the population in its listening area is Latinx. It broadcasts regular census PSAs and reports in Spanish, and posts Spanish-language announcements on its website.

In many parts of the country, there is no Spanish-language press or even reliable internet access, but, said Aguilar, “Radio is ubiquitous. You really can touch a lot of communities that would otherwise be isolated or uninformed.” And likely uncounted.

Unable to move the needle on the Native undercount

Still, even reliable, trusted community media and radio stations express difficulty in reaching the census’ most undercounted population: Native Americans.

Aguilar said that undercounting has been a historical problem in tribal lands where NFCB member stations broadcast. KIDE, a tribal licensee in California, has been running PSAs for the census, and has partnered with nonprofits to organize door-knocking campaigns.

KWSO Census campaign

Another NFCB member station, KWSO, which broadcasts on tribal land in Warm Springs, Oregon, has also been running a lot of census PSAs, as well as news magazine pieces, and has also undertaken other efforts – hosting live online events, running social media campaigns, assisting at kickoff and drive-thru events. Said station manager Sue Matters, “Despite quite a lot of effort, we haven’t been able to move the needle on census participation that much. Our community is typically undercounted and that means we don’t get our fair share of federal dollars for a number of needs. I think people are just trying to put dinner on the table and make their way through the day. Census isn’t really on their radar.”

Connecting census reporting with community resources in Asian communities during COVID-19

Asian communities have long been undercounted, in part because of widespread unfamiliarity but also because a growing number of Asian Americans fear their data will be used against them. Community outlets serving Asian-American communities have amplified outreach efforts by community organizations in partnership with local census officials. News India Times reported throughout the summer on Census 2020 outreach efforts to battle undercounts in the city’s Indian and other South Asian communities, from form-filling drives at curbside food distribution and religious centers to PSAs featuring an Indian-American celebrity.

World Journal, which serves Chinese-speaking communities across the country, publicized temporary jobs as census takers, as Asian-American communities grapple with historic undercounts as well as rising joblessness from both lockdown and xenophobia during the COVID-19 pandemic. It also reported on coordination between 50 Asian-American organizations to communicate the importance of census data and get Asian-American communities counted.

News India Times’ executive editor reflected that any threat to an accurate count posed by the so-called citizenship question, which the Supreme Court ruled against in 2019, has been vastly eclipsed by COVID-19, but also by public charge rules, and more. Still, The Pakistani Newspaper struck a positive note, reporting on community leaders’ efforts to push for an accurate count despite the COVID-19 lockdown.

As early as March, Korea Times Chicago reported on complete-count committees organized by local and regional Korean-American community groups. Via Times explained to its Filipino-American readers the importance of being counted, as the second-largest Asian-American population in the U.S.

Nuanced picture of hard-to-count populations – and impacts

Community media outlets offered particular insight into who constitutes the undercounted, depicting communities rarely found in mainstream coverage. They described efforts to count formerly incarcerated women and essential workers in Chicago, or homeless people in El Paso.

These outlets also enumerated the programs and resources funded on the basis of census data in relevant terms to specific communities. New York City’s Norwood News urged Bronx residents to do their part and be counted – listing by name the many area housing, education, infrastructure, and health care programs funded on the basis of census data. Chicago community media outlets described the impact of census data on arts funding, the relationship between census data and redistricting on the city’s South Side, and how beloved social service organizations serving the city’s LGBTQ community would not exist without census data.

Other community media outlets took a close look at how the census purse was being opened, and to whom. New York City’s Amsterdam News reported on a $19 million grants program aimed at helping community-based organizations around the city reach their communities and get them counted. Chicago’s South Side Weekly followed the money, tracing census outreach funding from the state’s Department of Human Services to nine nonprofits that received grants to reach hard-to-count populations.

Connecting census to community histories and stories

Many outlets reported on creative strategies and parlayed urgent messages to their audiences. The Reader likened filling out the census to wearing a mask in a pandemic, StreetWise reported on creative strategies for reaching homeless Chicagoans during the COVID-19 pandemic, and The Chicago Crusader reported that a popular local figure, the dreadlocked cowboy, had been rebranded the Census Cowboy and dispensed to rally Black residents.

But not all census reporting in community media has hinged on urging communities to be counted and warning of consequences of undercount. The Caribbean Times, which serves Caribbean-American communities in the greater New York City region, reported that Caribbean immigrants can now self-identify in the 2020 Census. Lassi with Lavina, a blog serving Indian and South Asian communities, described how the census tells the Indian-American story. The Irish Echo couched its census coverage in news about a different kind of community documentation effort, Village Preservation, a neighborhood digitization project that will help Irish New Yorkers craft their “own census tract.”

Engaging community media to report

There are many reasons why so many have gone undercounted and uncounted in previous censuses – language barriers, fear and mistrust in government, lack of awareness about census procedures and timelines, misinformation and disinformation, or simply lack of information about how census data supports and funds vital resources that are especially needed in more vulnerable communities. As census officials wake up to the potential of community media to reach, inform, and engage the undercounted, CCM and our national partners have been able to bring census officials together with community media outlets, community-based organizations into conversations with community journalists, funding to support community-based census reporting, and more. Census officials, community-based journalists, and the organizations that support the national community media sector hope they will be able to succeed in boosting the count in this year’s fraught and critical census.

2020 CCM Census Fellows (Photo: Pamela Subizar)

Community media outlets have the trust and presence in communities that stand to benefit the most from the resources and political representation determined by census data. In this and future censuses, we hope local governments will not only engage community media as an essential tool in census outreach, but will work to preserve and support this sector as a powerful mechanism in American democracy.