Q&A with Viji Sundaram of New America Media: Swine Flu and the Ethnic Media

Published on
May 7, 2009

In covering the current swine flu outbreak, the ethnic media in the United States has been ahead of the curve on some stories the mainstream media is just picking up, such as a growing backlash against Mexicans.

Viji Sundaram, health editor and writer for the ethnic press collaborative New America Media, was kind enough to share her thoughts about recent swine flu coverage in the ethnic press. Before joining New America Media in 2006, Viji was a general assignment reporter with India-West, a national weekly published in San Leandro, Calif., where she won eight journalism awards. This Q&A has been edited for space and clarity.

Q: How would you assess how the ethnic media covering the swine flu outbreak?

A: Spanish-language media have been covering swine flu extensively, providing information for their readers and reacting against the way swine flu has been turned into an immigration issue by conservative pundits in some English-language media. Here are some briefs and stories we've translated from Hispanic media on the swine flu:

Editorial in La Opinión: Information and Hysteria

Frontera NorteSur: Swine Flu, Border Security and Public Priorities

Editorial in La Opinión: Staying Calm

Univision: Swine Flu Threatens May 1 Marches

Chinese-language media also have been reporting on the way fears of swine flu are affecting Chinese-owned businesses and immigration. Here are some recent stories:

Chinese Tourists Afraid of "American Flu"

Chinese Restaurants Lose Business Over Fears of Swine Flu

Q: Are you seeing cultural differences in how the swine flu outbreak is being covered?

A: While Spanish-language media has focused on the politicization of swine flu as an immigration issue, some Chinese language publications have focused on the run on masks and how Chinese businesses are hurting. Here's what our Chinese correspondent for New America Media had to say:

On April 27, New York's Chinese-language Sing Tao Daily has two pieces of reporting related to swine flu: one on Chinatown's pharmacies ordering extra masks to make sure there is no shortage when needed and the other about the state of NY opening a 24-hour infectious diseases hotline to allow the public to call and report suspicious swine flu cases.

On April 28, New York's Sing Tao reported that St. Francis Preparatory High School was closed for sanitization after eight students were found to be infected by swine flu. Chinese parents were worried that if the flu is widespread, not only would their kids' health be in danger, public schools would also need to be closed, thus affecting the kids' schoolwork.

There was more reporting on swine flu in the San Francisco Bay Area's Sing Tao Daily. On April 30, Sing Tao reported that the Chinese consulate in SF had not received any report about Chinese citizens infected by H1N1. Masks and hand soap were pretty much sold out in pharmacies and supermarkets and online sellers were also jacking up the price of the masks.

Q: What swine flu stories or angles have ethnic media covered that are not being reported in the mainstream press?

A: According to our Chinese-language correspondent, on April 29, Bay Area Sing Tao reported community leaders saying that since the Chinese community experienced SARS in 2003, they reacted more reasonably to swine flu, not much panic. On April 28, Bay Area Sing Tao also reported that masks were sold out in Chinatown and many people went to the local Chinese hospital to ask for more information on swine flu. And Chinese travel agents predicted that people will show less interest in a planned September/October Mexico cruise line trip.

Q: What resources are needed to help the ethnic press improve its coverage of this public health story?

A: New America Media sent out an e-mail to our 2,500 ethnic media partners nationwide with information and resources for covering swine flu. NAM also is working with the CDC to launch an emergency messaging system for the ethnic media. This would allow government agencies to send out emergency messages (regarding swine flu, for example) to NAM's ethnic media partners, who in turn will translate the messages and share them with their communities. The system will automatically allow the federal agency to know how the ethnic medium used the message.This is a work in progress.