Category Archives: Story Ideas

What coverage of a Michigan town can teach us about international coverage

Hamtramck, Mich., was one of three major centers of Polish Americans, Chicago and Buffalo, NY., being the other two.

The small city is completely surrounded by Detroit. And like Detroit fell on hard times when the auto industry started moving out of the area in search of cheap Southern US labor and then shrinking after a series of bad economic decisions by the auto executives.

The town was famous for its Polish food places with delis and bakeries getting customers from all over the region.

I know all this because Hamtramck is a part of my family’s history. Even now, whenever I visit Michigan I often stop by a bakery or two to pick up some items for my mother, who can no longer make her regular trips to the place.

A few folks I know expressed shock that Hamtramck has changed. Seems over the past few years more Muslims have moved in the area. I saw it several years ago when on one side of a street were all Polish shops and on the other were halal shops and offices with names common to the Islamic world. (I did not know where the immigrants came from, but I knew it wasn’t Poland. I later learned Bangladesh and Somalia were the main sources for the newest immigrants.)

As a population changes so does its political center. Last year the city council changed to having a Muslim majority. And, as expected, loads of people started freaking out that Sharia law was coming to Michigan.

Well, of course, no such thing has happened or will happen.

To begin with, Hamtramck is under state control. Yep, the state took over the operations of the city under the emergency control law Gov. Snyder used to run Flint and Detroit.

So even if the Muslim majority council wanted to impose Sharia law — which they don’t — it would never pass by the emergency manager.

Needless to say the change in the political powers in Hamtramck from Polish Catholic to Muslim got the press interested. The Washington Post, CNN and Voice of America all did pieces on the shift.

A recent piece by Michael Jackman for the Detroit Metro Times started out criticizing “national media” coverage of the change. (How international news media tried to find conflict in Hamtramck’s new city council — and missed it entirely)

Jackman opening paragraphs describe how “national news media” reps were peppering the Muslim members about Sharia law.

The Muslim councilman is telling the interviewer emphatically that “Sharia Law” won’t be a factor in politics. The interviewer changes his tack: how about in their own lives? Doesn’t Sharia Law enter into the day-to-day life of the community? The interviewer almost pleads, “In daily matters, outside of politics, do you ever say, ‘This doesn’t conform to Sharia Law?'” The interviewee is too clever for this trap.

For my money, it would have been nice if we knew what national media outlet was asking these questions. To be honest they sound more like the type of thing and the way Bill O’Reilly correspondents would ask, rather than any serious journalistic operation.

The rest of the article is a very good look at how things operate in Hamtramck. And with the exception of the origin of the names, it really sounds as if it is business as usual in the small enclave.

“It’s pretty amazing that they all see a story here,” [Mayor Karen] Majewski says. “It seems all kind of unremarkable on the ground. But to think that they are sending people on planes to come here to scout around. And they’re not finding what they’re expecting to find. They’re looking for the mosque with the big minarets. They’re looking for ‘the Muslim neighborhood,’ you know. They’re kind of, surprised that everything is so low-key, and nothing exciting is happening. And it’s just kind of normal life.”

When it comes to national media scrutinizing Hamtramck as a Muslim hot spot, this isn’t the city’s first go-round. In 2004, the city allowed the call to prayer to be broadcast by mosques. Back then, The New York Times was the outlet to put “tension” in a headline, and NBC News showed up too. “But this seems more of a frenzy,” Majewski says.

After November’s election results, international Western media haven’t been shy about as they’ve nosed around town, in search of tension and conflict.

Residents may be able to cite a handful of instances of bigotry, but it doesn’t sum up who we are. It’s the exception, not the rule.

Jackman writes the story in the first person. He makes it clear he has a stake in the city and its growth. It is also clear he has little tolerance for Islamaphopia AND for grandstanding politicians.

Linking coverage Hamtramck to global reporting

The complaints Jackman has about how national and international media outlets report what is happening in Hamtramck can be replicated around the world.

Too often American news consumers have to depend on parachute journalism for reports from around the world. Too many foreign bureaus have been closed by major news organizations. Or, where those bureaus still exist, the area is so large, the reporters assigned to the area have a hard time developing a deeper understanding about the situation being covered.

Sidenote: I was always disappointed that the transition to democracy in Taiwan got such limited coverage. I was told by an editor once when I pitched a story about the transition back in 1992 that if it was important enough the Beijing bureau would pick it up.

Dammit. Beijing and Taipei are two completely different places with loads of cultural and political differences. Not to mention all the political baggage that both carry regarding each other.

Too many of my colleagues have too many things to cover and not enough resources to do the job as it should be done. Editors sit hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away and decide what the story should be despite what an in-depth look at the situation might indicate. (I still recall the editor who asked me to do a piece about living as a journalist under Chinese communist rule. The only problem is that I was in Hong Kong and enjoyed all the freedoms and civic rights of any democracy. The editor fell for a misunderstanding of how Hong Kong operated since the Chinese take over in 1997.)

One way for news organizations to learn more about a place, without making the massive investment in a bureau, is to look for solid freelancers. We usually have a pretty good idea what is going on in the country where we live. Too often we are relegated to writing about tourism, trade or business relations. So a nice juicy piece on politics would be nice.

Leave a comment

Filed under Connections, Ethics, International News Coverage, Story Ideas

Local-Global: Cities Meet To Fight Extremism

Originally  posted at SPJ site: Journalism and the World.

Great story on NPR Morning Edition this morning (3/1/16) on how the US State Department is bringing together municipal leaders from around the world to talk about dealing with extremists.

Communities Encouraged To Share Ways To Combat Extremists

The State Department is embracing a new approach: It’s invited community leaders from around the world to Washington to compare notes about the best ways to counter extremism on a grassroots level.

What is especially great about this effort, is that the State Department is trying to get municipal leaders in the United States and other countries to learn from each other. The department is actually trying to build a local-global connection.

This is an excellent first step. Now, the State Department just needs to step up its efforts to help more Americans understand there are also local-global relationships in a whole lot of areas other than security. (Think, economic development, social programs and cultural activities.)

Leave a comment

Filed under Connections, International News Coverage, Story Ideas

Latest corruption case in China has global impact

When the Shanghai stock market fell at the beginning of the year, markets in London and New York shook.

When China showed official numbers that its economic growth rate might falter, economists around the globe talked of dire financial consequences around the world.

And yet, anyone who has spent any time dealing with the China and its government would know — or should know — that the numbers released by the Chinese government are always suspect and the Chinese stock markets are about as transparent as a block of onyx.

Rule one in dealing with the Chinese government is that all things must be bent to serve the official line. If the official position is that China will have a 7 percent growth in GDP, then the appropriate government agencies must ensure the numbers they put out show at least that level. (A 6.9 percent growth is not acceptable, because it is not at least seven.)

And now Wang Bao’an, director of the National Bureau of Statistics is under investigation for  “serious violations of party discipline.” That phrase is veiled code for corruption.

As Charles Riley at CNN noted, this calls into question the data presented by Wang:

The…announcement, which is bound to raise new questions about the accuracy of Beijing’s economic statistics, came just hours after Wang briefed reporters on the state of China’s economy.

China Digital Times notes economist Xu Dianqing, of Beijing Normal University and the University of West Ontario, has raised doubts about China’s official growth rate for some time. According to Xu’s calculations, the real rate is between 4.3 percent 5.2 percent, not the official growth rate of 6.9 percent for 2015.

Granted, the investigation against Wang may not be related to his current job but may involve other activities during his 24 years in the finance ministry.

Yes, the Chinese government and ruling party (one in the same) are moving on corrupt officials. It would be nice to say that they are doing this because it is the right thing and that corruption is bad. Instead, the move seems more motivated to prevent a popular uprising against the ruling party.

China ranks 83 out of 168 on the perceived corruption index of Transparency International. (The higher the number, the more corrupt.) And we all know that China ranks near the bottom for political, social and media freedom.

The Communist Party holds onto its power largely because it promises the people of China a better life. If that better life is stalled or blocked by corrupt officials, the people see fewer reasons to support the party. If people are hurt or damaged by shoddy workmanship in infrastructure projects or public buildings because of corruption, there is less support for the government.

By moving against corrupt officials, the government wants to show that it is “doing the people’s will” by rooting out the (few) bad influences in power. The problem is that an anti-democratic, free-press bashing government by its very nature is a breading ground for corruption. There are no independent checks on abusive government officials. The Chinese government only tends to move against corrupt officials after the corruption is so blatant as to cause social unrest.

So China is corrupt. What does that mean for the average American.

For starters, look at the first two paragraphs of this entry. The world’s economy went into a tailspin because of activities in a country that regularly cooks the books and that has no resources to independently check the factual nature of its economic numbers.

Jobs in the United States are put at risk when China falters.

Yes, the U.S. buys more from China than it sells, but in the past few years the exports to China have been growing. Until the Chinese economy started to hesitate.

Exports to China were on a steady growth pattern for the past decade. January-November exports to China rose from $37 billion in 2005 to $109 billion in 2014. Then, last year, that number slipped to $106 billion. In fact, 2015 showed a marked decline month-on-month in exports to China.

Unlike what we import from China, what we sell is high-end aircraft parts, machinery and electronic equipment. These are products made with high-wage labor. A reduction in sales of these types of products overseas could mean more people forced to take lower-paid jobs and, therefore, contributing less to the American economy.

So, a handful of experts were keeping an eye on the situation in China. And occasionally there would be a story about the status of the Chinese economy. There would also be stories about how the changes in the Chinese economy affect trade with the United States. But where were the stories that showed how the Chinese economic changes impacted individual Americans?

How difficult would it be for a local reporter in Seattle or South Carolina to ask the local Boeing factory how sales to China were going? Along with the expected follow-up of, “What does it mean to local production and employment?”Washington2China

Or maybe for a local reporter in Galveston, Tex., to ask about how chemical sales are doing with China. (Yes, they are also down.)

Or even a reporter from Louisiana to call the New Orleans Port Authority to make inquiries about how shipments to and from China are doing.

Or how about a reporter along the Mississippi River asking how grain sales are doing to the rest of the world — and China in particular?

Had any of these inquiries been made and followed through, perhaps there would have been less shock about the slow down in China. People would not have been happy about the slow down, but at least they would have understood what was happening and why.

And the last time I looked, explaining what happened and why is part of the job description of being a jorunalist.

Leave a comment

Filed under China, Corruption, Freedom of Information, International News Coverage, Story Ideas, Trade

Bags that tell a dramatic story

The International Rescue Committee put together a great series of questions, answers and photos to show what refugees have in the bags as they flee the violence of Syria. (Organized by Medium).

WHAT’S IN MY BAG? What refugees bring when they run for their lives

Leave a comment

Filed under Middle East, Story Ideas

Local-Global: Fairfax County Rescue Alerted for Nepal Earthquake Help

The Fairfax County (VA) Fire and Rescue team has a global reputation for its work. And now, once again, it is being called up to help people half a world away.

TWEET:

VA-TF1/USA-1 has been alerted for the Nepal earthquake. All media inquires should report to 14725-H Flint Lee Rd. Chantilly, VA 20151

This is one of the best examples of how something in another country has an impact on something local.

Specifically Virginia Task Force 1 has worked to provide rescue and relief in just about every major disaster around the world. (See their work around the world here.)

There is no better connection to the rest of the world than one that helps save lives.

And now they have been alerted to provide assistance to the victims of the Nepal earthquake.

ADDITION 4/27

 Following the Haiti earthquake I noted how the Fairfax team was involved.

At the time I said the Fairfax teams deserved more coverage — as did all the SAR teams. And I stand by that still.

Maybe some local news organizations might want to step up and do something about it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Connections, International News Coverage, Story Ideas

Toilets and Justice

I just love stories that link absctract concepts such as human rights and freedom with concrete, real-life problems.

A report on access to basic sanitation highlighted by the Open Society Foundations showed how the lack of functioning toilets and other basic sanitation facilities, results in poor health and unsafe living conditions

The Link Between Functioning Toilets and Justice

“Some residents are left to use open fields and bushes and become most vulnerable to criminal attacks, especially at night.”

No one should have to fear assault, rape, or murder while going to the toilet, yet this is an everyday reality for many South Africans and the world’s poor.

The report was done by a collaboration of the Social Justice Coalition and Ndifuna Ukwazi (Dare to Know), with technical assistance from the International Budget Partnership (IBP).

The bottom line is that there is more than just good health at stake. Safety issues and personal well being are at risk when there is no place to have a few private moments to one’s self.

People can talk all they want about the need for better health and safety among the world’s poor. Yet too few of us can really understand just how bad things can be. Breaking down the issue to one of the most basic and common functions of living creatures helps put the issue of poverty and health into a perspective most people can understand.

Leave a comment

Filed under Connections, Story Ideas

Freedom House: Where the attacks are

Once again Freedom House does a great job of putting things into perpective with thos nasty things called FACTS:
Democracy Is the Best Defense Against Terrorism

Just off the top of my head I can see a handful of useful articles that tie in domestic and international issues.

  • What are the conditions that lead to this conclusion? (If poverty is a major contributing factor — and in many cases it is — then maybe development aid programs and greater diplomatic involvement are a more cost-effective way to address terrorism and security. That means a closer look at the non-military international affairs budget.)
  • Why are there fewer attacks in democracies? (I would argue becuase there are fewer domestic terrorists. People have a legitimate way to fight back against the government.)
  • How do adherence to human rights and civil rights affect violence and terrorist acts? (Again, if a society offers decent treatment to its people in a fair and equitable manner, there are fewer reasons to engage in terrorism or any acts of violence against society.)
  • How are free and independent media operations important to democracy and limiting home-grown terrorism? (Access to information not slanted for poltical or governmental purposes goes a long way to easing tensions.)

I am sure there are more, but I am still groggy after a 10-hour drive back home.

Leave a comment

Filed under Censorship, Freedom of access, Freedom of Information, International News Coverage, Press Freedom, Story Ideas, Trade