Ask an Expert Questions and Answers

Is someone’s immigration status public record?

Question: We need to check the immigration status of someone who has been convicted of a crime.  We want to find out if he currently has a green card or if his green card has been revoked as a result of the sentence. How do we find this out?

Answer: Immigration status is not public record, even at citizenship ceremonies. The ceremonies are open to the public but the names of the new citizens are not public record. Even at ceremonies where names are announced in public, those people have probably agreed to that beforehand and they were special applicants, like a foreign-born sports star or a war veteran whose naturalization had been made a symbolic cause celebre by United States Citizenship and Immigration Service. Generally speaking, the only time immigration status can be publicly released is after the person is deceased and only if their status has no bearing on living relatives. (Thanks to Mark Horvit, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, for supplying this answer.)


Why every community journalist needs a Twitter account – and where to start

The caller let me know in the first minute that he had “an off-the-wall question.”

No sweat.  The Center gets lots of those, I said. 

“So I am just trying to figure out if I should get onto Twitter,” he said. “I can’t see any reason that I need to.”

And as good journalists do, I asked him first to tell me why he hesitated to enter the Twitterverse. He had several solid reasons:

  1. Twitter isn’t really big in his town.  He didn’t know if there would be an audience for his tweets.
  2. He said he was stretched too thin already.  This was just one more thing to spend time on.
  3. And besides, he said, he doesn’t want to waste time reading small-talk or random comments or getting links to pictures of a dish someone had just cooked.

I told him those weren’t off-the-wall.  We hear those objections frequently.  And then I got his permission to pass along the advice I was about to give him.

Twitter isn’t big in a lot of small markets.  But it’s bigger than you may think, and you’ll never fully appreciate what may be going on in Twitter until you begin to participate.  Remember also that it’s not just the number of people who tweet in your community – there may be only a few, but those few may turn out to be great news sources.

On Twitter, you can be both a message-generator and a message-receiver.  You can send out links to stories and you can share news as it breaks, so that you develop the reputation of being the go-to news source in your town.  High school football games, fires, wrecks, city council and school board – all should be tweeted as they are in progress.  Let your Twitter audience know you are there, and share the big news – and of course, tell them they’ll get more details on your website and in the newspaper. One good way to encourage Twitter use among your readers is to put the Twitter handle of every writer either under your byline or at the conclusion of an article (something like Twitter: @ClarkKent). Your Twitter handle should also be on your business card.  And run some house ads that invite readers to follow your writers on Twitter.

My caller reminded me that he may have only a handful of people who would follow him.  Of course, some of that handful may be community leaders and important news sources — people among whom you want to build your reputation of being on top of the news.  And even if there are only a few, that number will definitely grow – and as new people get onto Twitter, they will be looking for local people to follow.

Remember, Twitter isn’t only for transmitting; it’s also for receiving.  Let’s say you can find only a few people in your town on Twitter – but one is a high school coach, one is on the school board, one is in county government, one is a pastor, one is a teacher and one is a hospital administrator.  Wow.  If that’s all you followed, you would be following six local opinion leaders.  And if each one tweeted only once a week, that’s maybe six news leads you wouldn’t otherwise have.

What about the time issue? Anything can eat your time – ESPN, mystery novels, video games, your garden. The reason most of us dedicated Twitter users spend time at the site is because we’re getting something of benefit.  We’re learning.  We’re getting ideas we didn’t have before.

He protested:  “But I have seen Twitter feeds.  There’s so much there.  I know this one guy who can never read through his feed for even that day!”

“So?  Do you feel guilty if you walk into a bookstore and see a shelf of great new books and you don’t immediately read them all?  Do you feel guilty seeing 20 new books on the shelf and leaving the store without buying even one, knowing that you will never read even a fraction of what’s there?

“Of course not.  If something really grabs you or looks like a topic you need right now, you get the book.  Otherwise, you don’t read any of them.  That’s the way Twitter works – you scan and skim and read what interests you.”

Actually, I explained, Twitter is a lot like having a good friend who works at that bookstore.  You explain to your friend that you like Dan Brown-type fiction and Civil War history.  You don’t care for nutrition books or world religion or science fiction, no matter how well they are selling.  You tell the clerk you will come by the store once a day, and if he has any Dan Brownish-type stuff or Civil War history, to put them out on a table and you’ll look them over.  And that’s what you do – just because the guy pulled a book on the battle of Gettysburg doesn’t mean you will buy it or read it.  Some you look at, some you buy, some you actually read.

That’s the way Twitter works. You get an account and you find people and organizations whose opinions or information interest you.  You scan your Twitter feed and follow up on what you find interesting or potentially useful.

If you miss a day, you don’t have to try to catch up.  Does it bother you if you haven’t been into the bookstore for several weeks, knowing that there are great new books there that would be great reads for you as a reporter?  No.  You know there will  be even more new books there when you finally stop by to spend some time.

Where do you start?  Just sign on to Twitter – establish your account.  Then find some people to follow. 

The Center has set up a list of people and organizations that will be of special interest to Texas community journalists.  Once you have your own Twitter account, go to Under the column “Tweets” on the right, you will see the people and organizations we recommend. Click on the name at the top, and you will be directed to the appropriate Twitter Profile.  You will see a button on the right side with the Twitter logo and the word Follow.  Click it.  If at any time in the future you want to Unfollow a person or organization, go back to their page – the button will remind you now that you are Following.  When you hover over that word, the word Unfollow will appear.  Click it and you have taken that person or organization out of your Twitter feed.

Once you have established your account, the rest is gravy.  Twitter will suggest other feeds similar to those you have followed.  And the people you are following will re-tweet others who will interest you and you’ll end up following them yourself.  Don’t be intimidated.  Spend 10 minutes a day with Twitter and you’ll be a pro in a week.

You will also want to use Twitter’s advanced search feature.  It’ll show you who has a Twitter account in your area and it will allow you to search for specific words.  Click here for a one-minute video on how to use advanced search to find people on Twitter in your area.

After you get your Twitter account established and get a feel for the Twittersphere, check out the Journalist’s Toolbox  for lots of additional Twitter resources and ways to expand your use of Twitter.

Twitter is a great tool for community journalists – and despite our caller’s fears, Twitter is a time-saver, not a time-waster.

Community Journalism Journal Issue 1 Volume 2

The Next President is at the Front Door Again: An Analysis of Local Media Coverage of the 2012 Republican Iowa Caucus, New Hampshire Primary and South Carolina Primary

Marcus Funk

Community newspapers in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina hold a front row seat to critical early presidential primary elections; they cover those elections, however, with an exclusive focus on coverage of candidate visits to local communities. Unlike national media, which focus primarily on “horse race” campaign coverage, community newspaper editors and publishers say they consider a candidate’s standing in state and national polls unimportant to their coverage; equally inconsequential are a candidate’s character, values, issues and policies. This survey of community newspaper editors and publishers supports gatekeeping theory but refutes its focus on normative, labeling and conscious deviance. It also helps develop literature on the “relentlessly local” focus of community journalism.

In 2008, Bill Tubbs had a question. The publisher of The North Scott Press in Eldridge, Iowa, asked the Scott County Democratic and Republican parties why their candidates for president were stumping in Davenport, a regional hub, but avoiding other nearby communities. They listened. By the time the Iowa Caucus was over, the Press had face-to-face interviews in Eldridge with the future president, vice president, and secretary of state, as well as a former senator and governor who would be embroiled in scandals within a year.

Eldridge, Iowa, is home to about 5,600 people. Tubbs’ newspaper publishes 5,000 copies every Wednesday. But during the Iowa caucus, Tubbs and journalists like him have more access to national politicians than Rupert Murdoch, Arianna Huffington or Rush Limbaugh – and, arguably, more influence over who will ultimately become president of the United States.

“Our rule: It has to be the CANDIDATE – not his/her sister, brother, husband/wife, or other surrogate. Only the candidate. If they come to our small towns and rural areas, we’ll be there,” Tubbs said.[1] “In Iowa, it’s about retail politics. The candidate who meets the most people and is the most authentic does the best.”

Local newspapers in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina play a unique role in the American political process. Every four years, men and women vying to be the next American president walk into the offices of community journalists and ask for local news coverage. Their visits are reported more or less verbatim; their speeches are quoted, local questions are asked and the visit itself becomes the news item.

Academic analyses have indicated that, on the whole, community newspapers are more locally focused, and more locally accountable, than larger publications (Hume, 2005; Lauterer, 2006; Reader, 2006; Smethers, Bressers, Willard, Harvey, & Freeland, 2007). There is also evidence that, under normal circumstances, smaller newspapers offer kinder coverage to visiting presidents than national media (Eshbaugh-Soha, 2008; Eshbaugh-Soha & Peake, 2008; Peake, 2007). Research on early presidential caucuses and primaries, however, has been surprisingly thin, and more focused on broad trends (Palser, 2004; Patterson, 1980; Tewksbury, 2006) and the New Hampshire primary (Freitag, 2000; Golan & Wanta, 2001; Kendall, 2005) than the Iowa caucus (Heim, 2013; Len-Rios, 2002; Schreurs, 1996) or South Carolina primary (Vinson & Moore, 2007). As the first three states in both the Republican and Democratic nomination process, these elections have incredible authority determining who will, and will not, be elected president of the United States. Often, they are decided by a thin margin of votes; in the 2012 GOP Iowa caucus, for example, only 34 votes ultimately separated former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) from former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.

There exists in these states a paramount opportunity to research the intersection between local newspapers and the most national of American politics. Conversing with community newspaper editors and publishers, rather than about them, allows researchers to better understand them. What motivates these journalists? What influences their coverage? What do they think of the job they are doing? And, what might their answers illustrate about gatekeeping theory and its focus on deviance?

This study offers scholars an illustrative look at perhaps the most influential community newspapers in the country, as well as an opportunity to test Gatekeeping theory (Lewin, 1947; Shoemaker & Vos, 2009; White, 1950) in a unique environment. Additionally, for professional journalists, this study offers insights, ideas and perhaps inspiration to community newspapers in other states. And, given the surprising length of presidential primaries in 2008 and 2012, it is also possible that party elections in states like Florida, Nevada, Minnesota and Missouri will continue to grow in importance; if so, community journalists in those states could benefit from learning the coverage practices of their colleagues in earlier states.


News Coverage of Presidential Primaries

While scholarly research has scrutinized general elections in remarkable detail (Brubaker, 2011; Davisson, 2011; Delavande & Manski, 2010; Hardy & Jamieson, 2011; Hill, Pitts, Smith, & Smith, 2010; Johnson & Perlmutter, 2009; Ragas & Kiousis, 2010; Woolley, Limperos, & Oliver, 2010), considerably less attention has been devoted to crucial early contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Published research offers interesting direction for the current study, but does not offer a comparable analysis of community journalism.

The broadest analyses have indicated a general shift toward “horse race” coverage among national newspapers and television media during the primaries. Freitag (2000) found that themes of “campaigning,” or news concerning strategy, style, strengths and weaknesses, occupied a total of 47 percent of news coverage of the New Hampshire primary between 1952 and 1996 in The Boston Globe and The New York Times; news on issues and qualifications occupied only 12 percent of the coverage. Similarly, Benoit, Hemmer and Stein (2010) found that “horse race” coverage was the most common overall topic (66 percent) among New York Times articles on primaries between 1952 and 2004. The bulk of that coverage focused on campaign strategy (45 percent), polls (11 percent) and campaign events (nine percent). Coverage of the “game,” including “horse race” coverage, also accounted for nearly two thirds of major media coverage of the 1976 primaries (Patterson, 1980). The consequences of an election are also considered factors in media consumption of political news surrounding a primary; high-stake elections see more reader interest than low-consequence ones (Tewksbury, 2006).

A study of the 2000 New Hampshire primary by Golan and Wanta (2001) found that generally, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) was treated more favorably in regional media than Texas Governor George W. Bush; McCain was positively associated with reform, leadership and patriotism, while Bush was considered more electable with the best chance to win. An intermedia agenda-setting analysis of the 2008 Iowa caucus found that neutral and liberal political blogs tended to follow the mainstream media’s agenda, while conservative blogs remained independent; agenda setting effects were also present between the media and Sen. Hillary Clinton’s (D-NY) campaign agenda (Heim, 2013). Farnsworth and Lichter (2006) found strong “network news effects” concerning relationships between “horse race” news coverage and poll changes in New Hampshire. Kendall (2005) found a close interaction between media and candidates on the campaign trail over many election cycles, but argued that online and social media are making that interaction less logistically co-dependent.

More specific scholarship has been devoted to political advertising in New Hampshire, which skyrocketed to more than $4.8 million in 2004 – up from $3 million during the 2000 campaign, and even more so from previous election cycles (Devlin, 1994; 2005). A number of studies have investigated the gendered (and arguably sexist) coverage of Sen. Hillary Clinton’s (D-NY) emotional speech during a campaign stop in Portsmouth, New Hampshire (Bligh, Merolla, Schroedel, & Gonzalez, 2010; Falk, 2009; Shepard, 2009), and one analysis argues that Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) reshaped the media narrative surrounding national security and “national insecurity” throughout the primary season (Ivie & Giner, 2009).

Perhaps most interesting for professional journalists is the innovative success of the Iowa Caucus Research Guide, a state-run program designed to piggyback news coverage of local economic development among the deluge of political reporting of the Iowa caucus. The promotion was designed to funnel news coverage, and subsequent revenue, from the caucus to local businesses and programs; estimates valued the program’s benefits at $1.4 million (Schreurs, 1996). Also noteworthy is research by political scientists Vinson and Moore (2007), who argued that local media in South Carolina had greater “local flavor” and tended to be more accurate than national media concerning the importance of “crossover voters,” negative campaigning and veteran’s issues. Coverage of character was also an important issue for local papers; it was less of an issue for national media.

“From our vantage point as scholars living in South Carolina and researching campaign spending in the 2000 presidential primary, we often wondered if the national media were covering the same event we were watching” (Vinson & Moore, 2007, p393).

Outside the election season, there is evidence that metropolitan newspapers are kinder to visiting presidents than the traveling White House press corps. President George W. Bush, in particular, was fond of shopping his policies to voters in their own backyards; Eshbaugh-Soha (2008; 2010) and Peake (2008) and found that, generally speaking, metropolitan newspapers covered presidential visits more positively than the national media. That support fluctuated based upon a newspaper’s resources, corporate ownership and local support for the president, as did support for the Iraq War. The pair also found most (73 percent) of the coverage of the president’s visits tended to be descriptive of the event itself – not a fundamental discussion of policy (Eshbaugh-Soha, 2008; 2010). There is also evidence that coverage of congressional representatives is highly related to geographic overlap between the congressional district and a newspaper’s circulation area (Schaffner & Sellers, 2003), and that local demographics and ideologies can shift metropolitan newspaper coverage in specific directions (Pollock, 2007).

Local Newspapers

However, the definition of “local” media in these studies refers more to metropolitan journalism than community journalism. Studies that specify local newspapers have referred to metropolitan publications like The Charleston Post and Courier and New Hampshire Union-Leader (Devlin, 1994; Freitag, 2000; Golan & Wanta, 2001; Vinson & Moore, 2007). While there is certainly a considerable gap between The New York Times and The Des Moines Register, there is arguably a larger gulf between the Times and the weekly Hampton Chronicle in Hampton, Iowa.

How might the Chronicle cover the caucus? Here, scholarship is blank. The researcher found no scholarship that has explicitly explored the role of community newspapers in the Iowa caucus, New Hampshire primary or South Carolina primary. While there is considerable evidence that community newspapers are more locally focused and locally accountable to local audiences, both offline (Burmester, 2011; Funk, 2010; Hume, 2005; Lauterer, 2006; Reader, 2006; Smethers et al., 2007) and online (Anderson & DeVault, 2009; Gilligan, 2011; Greer & Yan, 2010; Mersey, 2009), less scholarship is concerned with community newspapers and elections (Shaker, 2011). Community newspapers in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina potentially influence major elections; how would they characterize the effectiveness of their coverage, and what influences that coverage?

Gatekeeping theory

Here, Gatekeeping theory has clear utility. The theory is based upon studies of a Cold War-era wire editor at a major newspaper who documented his reasons for accepting, or rejecting, wire articles for publication. Some reasons were entirely practical, like not having enough space or feeling the topic had been fully covered already, but others like “He’s too red” (communist) were entirely subjective (White, 1950). The foundation expanded the World War I persuasion techniques documented by Kurt Lewin (1947), who argued that any number of deliberate or accidental forces could influence what food reaches the domestic dinner table, and what food does not. It has since been considered an individual- and organizational-level influence in Shoemaker and Reese’s Hierarchy of Influences model (1996) and has been expanded into a variety of news formats and environments (Cassidy, 2006; Cheesman & Nohl, 2011; Cuillier, 2012; Haiqing, 2011; Hardin, 2005; Hun Shik, 2010; Minic, 2008). That homogenization of media content has been abundantly illustrated by framing theory (Entman, 1993; Reese, 2001), which considers media content (and, in turn, media homogenization) more specifically than media production, which tends to be the realm of gatekeeping theory.

The national media’s preference for “horse race” coverage, often considered as a news frame, can also be considered a Gatekeeping effect. Journalists and editors crafting that coverage are mindful of an artificial industry standard, effectively, of the link between “horse race” coverage and professional newspapers. In a similar way, community newspapers writ large adopt a clear priority on their local communities. If community newspapers behave in unison concerning their communities, and national media homogenously focus on “horse race” campaigns, it seems logical that community newspapers might structure their approach to primary election coverage in similar ways.

Generally, gatekeeping theory can be considered relatively shallow. In their formative work on the subject, Shoemaker & Vos (2009) acknowledge that, “Regrettably, theorizing about gatekeeping has not been in large supply” (p11); the theory can even be considered primarily a tactic of the news-making process. While it dovetails with media sociology (Shoemaker & Reese, 1996) and framing (Entman, 1993; Reese, 2001) nicely, it arguably lacks the same rigor. There are two reasons, however, why it is a strong choice for this study.

First, although the theory is relatively shallow, that lack of depth makes it highly tangible. Studies that directly address practical news-making decisions, like this one, are better suited using a highly practical theoretical framework such as gatekeeping theory. Of critical interest here are an editor’s practical decisions; those decisions are best considered using practical theory.

Second, a highly theoretical consideration of news as deviance has evolved from that practical focus (Arpan & Tuzunkan, 2011; Boyle & Armstrong, 2009; Breen, 1997; Jong Hyuk, 2008; Shoemaker, 1984; Shoemaker & Danielian, 1991; Shoemaker, 1996). On a sociological level, news is like the canary in the coal mine – a barometer for potential threats, both real and imagined, meant to satisfy a basic human need for awareness and security. That focus on deviance, according to the theory, is derived from a lack of interaction between journalists and audiences (Shoemaker & Vos, 2009):

People routinely survey their environments for things that are deviant or unusual because they pose potential threats. These can be as common as a car darting in front of someone on a busy street to less frequent threats like invading armies. … The difference between professional information gatherers such as journalists and the rest of us is that journalists’ surveillance is institutionalized and sanctioned, whereas we generally survey the environment for our more informal and personal purposes. Journalists fulfill people’s innate desire to detect threats in the environment, keep informed about the world, and devise methods of dealing with those threats, whether real or potential (Shoemaker, 1996, p32).

The theory is focused on journalism and media studies, and has its roots in older analyses of social control (Lauderdale & Estep, 1980; Miliband, 1969). The general idea is broadly applied, however. Put another way, in a popular self-help book on anxiety:

The shape on the horizon was either a bear or a blueberry bush, and the only way to find out was to go and see for yourself. If you go off toward the vague shape often enough, eventually it turns out to be a bear, and that day you’re the bear’s lunch. … We’re the children of the children of the children (and so forth) of the ones that played it safe and went back to the cave” (Wilson & Dufrene, 2010, p30).

In journalism studies, deviance has been operationalized under three definitions: normative deviance, labeling deviance, and conscious deviance (Shoemaker, 1984; Shoemaker & Vos, 2009).  Shoemaker & Vos’ (2009) operationalizations are used here:

Normative Deviance: Behavior, ideas, groups, or events are deviant when they break social rules or norms.

Labeling Deviance: Behavior, ideas, groups, or events are deviant when an individual or group calls them deviant.

Conscious Deviance: A person or group is deviant when aware that their behavior is in some sense wrong or disapproved.

Gatekeeping theory offers fertile ground to study deviance because it is primarily concerned with editorial decisions – deviant or otherwise – and less concerned with the effects or implications generated by the final editorial product. This study on community newspaper coverage of early presidential primaries offers an intriguing window into the study of deviance as well. For most community newspapers, a visiting presidential candidate would be considered extremely deviant – an out of the ordinary event by any measure, if not a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. In Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, however, such visits are regular and routine. How might community newspaper editors’ editorial decisions surrounding those visits clarify or complicate the academic understanding of news as deviance?


This study focuses on the motivations and influences on community newspaper editors covering the 2012 Republican Iowa caucus, New Hampshire primary and South Carolina primary. Relatively little research has been done on American primary elections; much current scholarship has been devoted to the “horse race” focus of national media. As such, this study pursues five research questions.

RQ1: How important are a candidate’s visits to a community to community newspapers covering the Iowa caucus, New Hampshire primary and South Carolina primary?

RQ2: How important are state or national polls to community newspapers covering the Iowa caucus, New Hampshire primary and South Carolina primary?

RQ3: How important are a candidate’s character, values, issues and policies to community newspapers covering the Iowa caucus, New Hampshire primary and South Carolina primary?

RQ4: How do community newspaper editors characterize the value, strengths and weaknesses of their coverage of the Iowa caucus, New Hampshire primary and South Carolina primary?

RQ5: Does community newspaper coverage of the Iowa caucus, New Hampshire primary and South Carolina primary reflect Shoemaker and Vos’ (2009) concepts of normative, labeling, or conscious deviance?


To measure these research questions, this study utilized a 10-question survey of a sample of weekly and bi-weekly community newspaper editors in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. The survey was conducted online via Qualtrics, a detailed and highly customizable web survey platform. Technically, different surveys were conducted for newspapers in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina; in each, the names of the state and caucus / primary were changed as appropriate, but otherwise the survey content was identical.

Originally, the sample was designed to be generated randomly among 40 community newspapers each from Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Email addresses of newsrooms and newspaper editors were collected from online databases from the Iowa Newspaper Association, the New England Newspaper and Press Association, and the South Carolina Press Association. Forty community newspapers were randomly selected from databases in Iowa and South Carolina; however, given the small number of newspapers in New Hampshire, a large random sample was infeasible. Instead, a sample of 20 newspapers was chosen, which effectively represented a census of all independently operated weekly and bi-weekly newspapers in the state; several weekly publications are operated by the same editors and staff, which limited the potential dataset. Furthermore, while there are more than 40 independently operated community newspapers in Iowa and South Carolina, there are not many more. Given the small sizes of these states, too, this dataset represents the lion’s share of community newspapers in Iowa and South Carolina; as such, this sample can only barely be considered randomly generated.

The survey was emailed four times in March and April of 2012, and participants reached a 16 percent response rate. Fifteen completed surveys and one partially completed survey were returned. Although a higher response rate would obviously be preferable, it is important to note the small size of the potential dataset. Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina are all relatively small states; indeed, that’s part of their value as early primary states. This sample reached the majority of community newspaper editors in these states, and the dataset cannot be significantly expanded; also, as Lewis and Reese noted, journalists in the digital era are busy professionals who are “simply hard to pin down for an interview” (Lewis & Reese, 2009, p.89).

Responses and response information was kept entirely confidential. For each quantitative question, identical 10-question Likert-type scales were used, with one being “rarely” and ten being “very often.” To conserve space, similar questions were combined into matrixes on the Qualtrics survey.[2]

To answer RQ1, respondents were asked “Roughly how often did your newspaper write about presidential candidates who were …” followed by “Visiting your community?” and “Not visiting your community?” Respondents were then asked how often the newspapers ran Associated Press or other wire service articles concerning the presidential candidates. An additional question asked, “If you had unlimited resources, how many articles would your newspaper write about presidential candidates who were …” followed by 10-point scales for “Visiting your community?” and “Not visiting your community?”

To answer RQ2 and RQ3, a three-item matrix question utilized the same 10-point Likert scale. The question read, “Before the (Iowa Caucus / New Hampshire Primary / South Carolina Primary) in January, how much did you consider the following when planning your coverage of a particular candidate?” Three queries followed: “State or national polls?” “A candidate’s character or values?” and “A candidate’s issues or policies?”

A pair of open-ended questions was used to measure RQ4. Editors were asked “How important a role do you think local newspapers play in the (Iowa Caucus / New Hampshire Primary / South Carolina Primary)?” And “In general, what do you think about the way local newspapers covered the (Iowa Caucus / New Hampshire Primary / South Carolina Primary)?” Responses were analyzed qualitatively to determine majority and minority opinions. Samples culled from the responses and presented here are intended to reflect the majority opinion unless otherwise noted.

RQ5 was also determined qualitatively. Analysis of the open-ended survey questions, as well as qualitative results for RQ4, determined if editor’s perspectives and editorial philosophies were consistent or at odds with Shoemaker & Vos’ (2009) operationalizations of normative, labeling, and conscious deviance; operationalizations are also consistent with a bevy of literature on deviance (Arpan & Tuzunkan, 2011; Boyle & Armstrong, 2009; Jong Hyuk, 2008; Shoemaker, 1984; Shoemaker & Danielian, 1991).


Community newspapers in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina treated the 2012 Republican caucus and primaries as local news. Community newspaper editors and publishers bucked previous research on national media, which emphasized “horse race” campaign coverage; editors and publishers also argued that their coverage serves an important function in key elections.

RQ1: How important are a candidate’s visits to a community to community newspapers covering the Iowa caucus, New Hampshire primary and South Carolina primary?

Survey results indicated that candidate visits to a community are quite important to community newspaper editors. On a scale of one to 10, with one being rarely and 10 being very often, community newspaper editors in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina reported an average 7.69 level of coverage of candidates visiting a local community (N = 16, SD = 3.05); conversely, editors and publishers said they reported on candidates who did not visit a local community with an average 1.44 level (N = 16, SD = 0.81). Respondents were also asked, given unlimited resources, how much coverage would be given to candidates who were visiting, and not visiting, a local community; editors and publishers responded with an ideal 8.31 for visiting candidates (N = 16, SD = 2.5), and 2.25 for non-visiting candidates (N = 16, SD = 2.27).

Community newspapers also reported a 1.13 (out of 10) regarding use of Associated Press or wire articles on the caucus and primaries (N = 15, SD = 0.52).

RQ2: How important are state or national polls to community newspapers covering the Iowa caucus, New Hampshire primary and South Carolina primary?

State and national polls were not important to community newspaper editors and publishers covering the Iowa Caucus, New Hampshire Primary and South Carolina Primary. On a scale of one to 10, with one being rarely and 10 being very often, respondents reported an average of 2.00 (N = 15, SD = 2.07).

RQ3: How important are a candidate’s character, values, issues and policies to community newspapers covering the Iowa caucus, New Hampshire primary and South Carolina primary?

Community newspaper editors and publishers did not consider a candidate’s character, values, issues or policies important when determining news coverage. On a scale of one to 10, responses placed “Character or Values” at 2.20 (N = 15, SD = 1.97) and “Issues or Policies” at 2.80 (N = 15, SD = 2.91).

RQ4: How do community newspaper editors and publishers characterize the value, strengths and weaknesses of their coverage of the Iowa caucus, New Hampshire primary and South Carolina primary?

Generally speaking, community newspaper editors and publishers considered their coverage an important part of the early caucus and primaries; they also routinely emphasized their local focus on, and value to, their local communities. That local focus effectively meant that if a candidate did not step into a community newspaper’s footprint, they would be ignored entirely.  Representative comments include the following:

“We do not do any stories on candidates who do not visit our area. Simple reason is we only cover local events. If you are not physically in the area, you don’t exist.” (New Hampshire)

“We all do it differently. I don’t understand why a *local* newspaper would send a reporter far afield of its own coverage area to chase candidates. Our policy is they get coverage only if they step foot in our coverage area, period.” (New Hampshire)

“We know the communities, i.e., the voters, and they know us. I believe the community places more trust in my reporting than what other, larger media outlets say.” (Iowa)

“Small local newspapers are not likely to spend a lot of space on a candidate who doesn’t appear in our community or at least send representatives to our community. Only when we can localize the information do we do that in [our newspaper]. We leave it to larger media outlets to print a candidate’s campaign promises, etc., unless we can relate them to something that directly affects our readers.” (South Carolina)

For candidates who did visit, however, that local emphasis brought with it three important attributes: specificity, accountability, and availability. Coverage was specifically tailored to particular communities, editors and publishers said, rather than the broad-spectrum approach used by the national media. Because community newspapers are already more accountable to local audiences, editors and publishers said, their coverage seemed more genuine to local readers as well.  Representative comments include:

“[The Iowa Caucus is] very important. Candidates tend to speak more specifically to small-town audiences, and must answer questions that address smaller portions of Americans. When speaking to a national audience, candidates must speak more broadly. Both specific and broad answers help us get a better picture of each candidate.” (Iowa)

“Local newspapers are in a better position to show how a candidate’s stances affect that community.” (South Carolina)

“I truly enjoy grassroots campaigning, so I enjoy the caucus. Our readership pays attention and appreciates the unbiased, complete and honest reports we provide regarding visits by the candidates.” (Iowa)

“Local newspapers play a critical role in educating voters in New Hampshire. As a small (7,000 circ bi-weekly), we are not able to cover candidates to the extent dailies can, but we cover all visits to the region and look for local angles of national campaigns.” (New Hampshire)

That local focus and accountability was particularly important for rural readers. Many editors and publishers acknowledged the authority national media and metropolitan newspapers carried when covering the caucus and primaries, but in isolated communities, local media adopted increased importance.

“Large dailies…. [the Iowa Caucus] is vital. Rural weeklies like ours, not much. They look to us for local unbiased coverage.” (Iowa)

“With the electronic media leaning to the left or right, the importance of local newspapers ranks very high.” (South Carolina)

“In rural towns, where the local newspaper is people’s first source of information, very important. But the cities have the numbers so that may be a non-factor.” (New Hampshire)

Most community newspaper editors and publishers also felt their coverage of the early caucus and primaries was generally well done. There was a small undercurrent of cynicism, and an acknowledgement that national politics are not the forte of community newspapers, but confidence was generally standard.

“[Community newspaper coverage is important] somewhat. The papers are still the best delivery system to let voters know about appearances by candidates. However, I think this time around most voters were already leaning to Gingrich since he was the lone Southerner in the race.” (South Carolina)

“Studies should be done of the work candidates do to become acquainted with the voters of small towns. Other than the local fans of individual candidates, there is a deep skepticism of the process.” (Iowa)

“Local newspapers give way too much credit to the caucus and the candidates. It’s a giant advertising campaign for both the candidates and the state, with very little substance to it.” (Iowa)

RQ5: Does community newspaper coverage of the Iowa caucus, New Hampshire primary and South Carolina primary reflect Shoemaker and Vos’ (2009) concepts of normative, labeling, or conscious deviance?

This question was also assessed qualitatively. It considered editors’ philosophies and choices concerning three types of news deviance common in gatekeeping literature: normative deviance, labeling deviance and conscious deviance. Each is based on the notion that news effectively serves as a sociological alarm bell for potential threats, and that news is based on events which are out of the ordinary of day-to-day life – and thus, potentially threatening (Breen, 1997; Shoemaker, 1984; Shoemaker & Danielian, 1991; Shoemaker & Vos, 2009; Shoemaker, 1996).

Results consistently rebuked all three forms of deviance.

Normative Deviance: In most communities, particularly small towns, a visit by the American presidential candidate would unequivocally qualify as normative deviance. In Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, however, such visits are routine and commonplace – so much so that community newspaper editors expect them, and deny coverage to candidates who do not visit the local community. These visits do not break social norms; instead, they clearly are the norm.

Labeling Deviance: Similarly, in most communities, the coverage of an unusual or rare visit by a presidential candidate would be openly acknowledged as unusual or rare, and thus deviant; literature indicates this is true of sitting presidents as well (Eshbaugh-Soha, 2008; Eshbaugh-Soha & Peake, 2008; Peake, 2007). This is not the case in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, however, where newspaper editors and their readers are both accustomed to being visited early and often by aspiring presidents. No labeling deviance is present because community newspaper editors do not consider the visits unusual or out of the ordinary; in fact, quite the opposite is true.

Conscious Deviance: Qualitative analysis also indicates that conscious deviance is not present in community newspaper coverage of the Iowa caucus, New Hampshire primary and South Carolina primary. Editors are aware of the importance of their coverage, and the early primaries as a whole, and generally take the elections seriously; however, there is no sense that these states’ privilege, or the primary system in general, is in some sense wrong or disapproved. Conscious deviance does not apply.


Practical Implications

Community newspapers in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina serve an important function in American politics. They cover among the most critical national elections, the nation’s first Republican and Democratic primaries, and arguably have considerable emphasis over who will, and will not, be president of the United States.

It is intriguing, then, that community newspapers do not give these key elections special weight or unique coverage. Editors and publishers take the caucus and primaries seriously, but only as they impact their local audience and communities. In a sense, community newspapers cover these important elections in the same way they would cover any important election – with an exclusive emphasis on local ideas, audiences and individuals.

It’s almost as if these newspapers provide a window, or an intermediary of some sort, between a local community and a national election. National figures step up to that window to speak with the local community, but only in this one-on-one context does the nation writ large exist. For audience or political science research, this is oversimplified; community newspaper readers have ample access to state, national and international media, and it’s safe to say that voters in these states fully appreciate the national implications of their ballots. However, for the particular study of community journalism, it is interesting to note that the predominant emphasis on local communities trumps the paramount non-local importance of the Iowa caucus, New Hampshire primary and South Carolina primary.

Community newspaper editors and publishers were unswayed by state or national polls, a candidate’s character of values, or their issues or policies. Front-runners and also-rans, as well as mavericks and partisan whips, were given equal consideration provided they were present and available in the community newspaper’s local coverage area. This places community newspaper coverage in stark contrast with national media, which tend to focus on “horse race” campaign coverage; it also speaks to the well-documented local focus of community journalism, and adds scholarship to the study of gatekeeping theory. Indeed, at least in these instances, media do allow some objective forces (local availability) to influence their coverage while ignoring others (character, values, issues and policies). This is entirely consistent with the notion of gatekeeping.

This study speaks, too, to political science and the American electorate. Community newspapers in these states cover the early caucus and primaries much as any community newspaper might cover a statewide election; this is worth noting given that legislatures in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina invest a great deal of effort to remain at the front of the national primary schedule. These three states occupy a privileged position in American politics; their community newspapers, however, do not treat these elections any differently than any other non-local election. What might that say about the importance and function of the Iowa Caucus, New Hampshire Primary and South Carolina Primary? Further research specifically aimed at political science would be required to explore these questions, but they are certainly intriguing.

Theoretical Implications

As an academic theory, gatekeeping is relatively shallow and perhaps lacking in theoretical development (Shoemaker & Vos, 2009). This study argues that its shallow focus is a highly tangible boon – by retaining a practical focus on editorial decisions, the theory empowers practical discussion of extant news coverage and clear editorial decisions. This paper is one such example. Gatekeeping theory allows a salient, practical discussion of the logic and motivations behind community newspaper coverage of the three most critical elections in the American political cycle.

However, there is certainly room for theoretical development and consideration. One of gatekeeping theory’s most intriguing theoretical concepts is the notion of deviance, which has evolved out of classic studies of social control (Lauderdale & Estep, 1980; Miliband, 1969) and stems from a sociological need for humans to recognize and address potential threats of all shapes and sizes (Shoemaker, 1984; Shoemaker & Danielian, 1991; Shoemaker, 1996). News media accomplish that threat watching efficiently and expediently (Arpan & Tuzunkan, 2011; Boyle & Armstrong, 2009; Breen, 1997; Jong Hyuk, 2008). Concerning community newspaper coverage of these crucial elections, however, the concept simply fails to apply.

Three prominent perspectives on deviance – normative deviance, labeling deviance and conscious deviance – are plainly inconsistent with community newspaper editors’ reported perspectives and policies. News in this case is not about threats, or unusual events; instead, editorial decisions reflect an important but highly routine ritual of candidate visits, speeches, and politicking. In Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, such visits are highly commonplace, and get covered as routine events – even despite the power and authority that one candidate will ultimately assume.

This complicates the notion of gatekeeping as deviance. Perhaps deviance is not as essential to the newsmaking process as previous literature has argued (Shoemaker, 1984; Shoemaker & Danielian, 1991; Shoemaker, 1996); or, perhaps it is inconsistent with the “relentlessly local” (Lauterer, 2006) orientation of community journalism (Pollock, 2007; Reader, 2006; Shaker, 2011; Smethers, Bressers, Willard, Harvey, & Freeland, 2007). Further research will be required to explore the relationship between deviance and community newspapers.


This study investigates a curious intersection in American media and politics. At the start of the presidential election process lie the Iowa caucus, the New Hampshire primary and the South Carolina primary; these elections are generally treated as important but highly routine events by community newspaper editors in those states. These editors have the unusual privilege of meeting and covering presidential contenders and, through their coverage, potentially exerting heavy influence over who will, and will not, ultimately become president of the United States.

As these findings indicate, these editors consider these critical elections with national consequences purely within a hyperlocal lens. The news is not about the nation as a whole; it is about a visit to a particular local community, and indeed a routine and expected visit. It is not curious that local newspapers focus exhaustively on local news – that is highly consistent with their editorial mission, and with a range of academic literature (Brewer & McCombs, 1996; Hume, 2005; Lauterer, 2006; Shaker, 2011; Smethers, et al., 2007). However, if ever there were an opportunity for a community newspaper to depart from its “relentlessly local” (Lauterer, 2006) focus, it would be for news coverage of a critical and prominent election like the Iowa caucus. That local newspaper editors stay true to their business model, even here, is highly noteworthy.

Findings presented here overlap also into a number of other theoretical avenues. Although not explicitly explored here, there is clear utility for Benedict Anderson’s notion of imagined community (2006); how community newspaper editors and their coverage imagine their hyper-local readership within the context of major elections with national consequences deserves more direct consideration. Similarly, community newspaper coverage of these early primaries deserves explicit consideration concerning media sociology and the hierarchy of influences model (Shoemaker & Reese, 1996), classic analyses of newsmaking (Gans, 1979; Tuchman, 1978), and the structural pluralism model (McCombs & Funk, 2011; Pollock, 2007; Tichenor, Donohue, & Olien, 1973, 1980). Given the significance of these editors’ coverage of these elections, it would be highly fruitful to consider them from a variety of deeper theoretical perspectives.


  • Anderson, B. (2006). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Revised Edition ed.). London: Verso.
  • Anderson, L., & DeVault, A. (2009). Connecting with readers: How newspapers in Kansas are using Web 2.0. [Article]. Grassroots Editor, 50(4), 7-11.
  • Arpan, L. M., & Tuzunkan, F. (2011). Photographic Depiction of Normative Deviance and Informational Utility as Predictors of Protest News Exposure, Related Perceptions, and Story Comprehension. [Article]. Mass Communication & Society, 14(2), 178-195. doi: 10.1080/15205431003650486
  • Benoit, W. L., Hemmer, K., & Stein, K. (2010). New York Times’ Coverage of American Presidential Primary Campaigns, 1952-2004. [Article]. Human Communication, 13(4), 259-280.
  • Bligh, M., Merolla, J., Schroedel, J. R., & Gonzalez, R. (2010). Finding Her Voice: Hillary Clinton’s Rhetoric in the 2008 Presidential Campaign. [Case Study]. Women’s Studies, 39, 823-850. doi: 10.1080/00497878.2010.513316
  • Boyle, M. P., & Armstrong, C. L. (2009). Measuring Level of Deviance: Considering the Distinct Influence of Goals and Tactics on News Treatment of Abortion Protests. [Article]. Atlantic Journal of Communication, 17(4), 166-183. doi: 10.1080/15456870903156134
  • Breen, M. J. (1997). A cook, a cardinal, his priests, and the press: Deviance as a trigger for intermedia agenda setting. [Article]. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 74(2), 348-356.
  • Brewer, M., & McCombs, M. (1996). Setting the Community Agenda. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 73(1), 7-16. doi: 10.1177/107769909607300102
  • Brubaker, J. (2011). It doesn’t affect my vote: Third-person effects of Celebrity Endorsements on College Voters in the 2004 and 2008 Presidential Elections. [Article]. American Communication Journal, 13(2), 4-22.
  • Burmester, B. (2011). Free and full publication of obituaries: The essence of a reputable local newspaper. [Article]. Grassroots Editor, 52(1), 7-8.
  • Cassidy, W. P. (2006). Gatekeeping Similar For Online, Print Journalists. [Article]. Newspaper Research Journal, 27(2), 6-23.
  • Cheesman, T., & Nohl, A.-M. (2011). Many voices, one BBC World Service? The 2008 US elections, gatekeeping and trans-editing. [Article]. Journalism, 12(2), 217-233. doi: 10.1177/1464884910388589
  • Cuillier, D. (2012). Subconscious Gatekeeping: The Effect of Death Thoughts on Bias Toward Outgroups in News Writing. [Article]. Mass Communication & Society, 15(1), 4-24. doi: 10.1080/15205436.2011.568317
  • Davisson, A. (2011). Beyond the Borders of Red and Blue States: Google Maps as a Site of Rhetorical Invention in the 2008 Presidential Election (Vol. 14, pp. 101-123): Michigan State University Press.
  • Delavande, A., & Manski, C. F. (2010). Probabilistic Polling And Voting In The 2008 Presidential Election. [Article]. Public Opinion Quarterly, 74(3), 433-459.
  • Devlin, L. P. (1994). Television Advertising in the 1992 New Hampshire Presidential Primary Election. [Article]. Political Communication, 11(1), 81-99.
  • Devlin, L. P. (2005). Analysis of Presidential Primary Campaign Commercials of 2004. [Article]. Communication Quarterly, 53(4), 451-471. doi: 10.1080/01463370500102103
  • Eshbaugh-Soha, M. (2008). Local Newspaper Coverage of the Presidency. The International Journal of Press/Politics, 13(2), 103-119. doi: 10.1177/1940161208315141
  • Eshbaugh-Soha, M. (2010). The Tone of Local Presidential News Coverage. Political Communication, 27(2), 121-140. doi: 10.1080/10584600903502623
  • Eshbaugh-Soha, M., & Peake, J. S. (2008). The Presidency and Local Media: Local Newspaper Coverage of President George W. Bush. Presidential Studies Quarterly, 38(4), 609-630. doi: 10.1111/j.1741-5705.2008.02667.x
  • Falk, E. (2009). Press, Passion, and Portsmouth: Narratives About “Crying” on the Campaign Trail. [Article]. Argumentation & Advocacy, 46(1), 51-63.
  • Farnsworth, S. J., & Lichter, S. R. (2006). The 2004 New Hampshire Democratic Primary and Network News. [Article]. Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, 11(1), 53-63. doi: 10.1177/1081180×05283551
  • Freitag, A. R. (2000). An analysis: New Hampshire primary coverage. [Article]. Newspaper Research Journal, 21(3), 94.
  • Funk, M. (2010). The 30-50-60 curve: Locally generated news content in small and medium-sized American dailies. [Article]. Grassroots Editor, 51(4), 12-15.
  • Gans, H. J. (1979). Deciding what’s news. New York, NY: Pantheon.
  • Gilligan, E. (2011). Online Publication Expands Reach of Community Journalism. [Article]. Newspaper Research Journal, 32(1), 63-70.
  • Golan, G., & Wanta, W. (2001). Second-Level Agenda Setting in the New Hampshire Primary: A Comparison of Coverage in Three Newspapers and Public Perceptions of Candidates. [Article]. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 78(2), 247-259.
  • Greer, J. D., & Yan, Y. (2010). New ways of connecting with readers: How community newspapers are using Facebook, Twitter and other tools to deliver the news. [Article]. Grassroots Editor, 51(4), 1-7.
  • Haiqing, Y. (2011). Beyond gatekeeping: J-blogging in China. [Article]. Journalism, 12(4), 379-393. doi: 10.1177/1464884910388229
  • Hardin, M. (2005). Stopped at the Gate: Women’s Sports, “Reader Interest,” and Decision Making by Editors. [Article]. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 82(1), 62-77.
  • Hardy, B. W., & Jamieson, K. H. (2011). Clicking to Learn During the 2008 Presidential Election: Why Capturing Channel Switching Matters. [Article]. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 55(4), 470-489. doi: 10.1080/08838151.2011.620669
  • Heim, K. (2013). Framing the 2008 Iowa Democratic Caucuses: Political Blogs and Second-Level Intermedia Agenda Setting. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly. doi: 10.1177/1077699013493785
  • Hill, M., Pitts, M. J., Smith, M., & Smith, B. P. (2010). The Obama Agenda versus a Meandering Maverick: A Descriptive Analysis of Online Press Releases in the 2008 General Election Presidential Campaign. [Article]. Southwestern Mass Communication Journal, 26(1), 43-56.
  • Hume, J. (2005). Life and Death in a Small Town: Cultural Values and Memory in Community Newspaper Obituaries. Grassroots Editor, 46(4), 24-29.
  • Hun Shik, K. (2010). Forces of Gatekeeping and Journalists’ Perceptions of Physical Danger in Post-Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. [Article]. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 87(3/4), 484-500.
  • Ivie, R. L., & Giner, O. (2009). More Good, Less Evil: Contesting the Mythos of National Insecurity in the 2008 Presidential Primaries. [Article]. Rhetoric & Public Affairs, 12(2), 279-301.
  • Johnson, T., & Perlmutter, D. (2009). “The Facebook Election: New Media and the 2008 Election Campaign” Special Symposium. [Article]. Mass Communication & Society, 12(3), 375-376. doi: 10.1080/15205430903021525
  • Jong Hyuk, L. (2008). EFFECTS OF NEWS DEVIANCE AND PERSONAL INVOLVEMENT ON AUDIENCE STORY SELECTION: A WEB-TRACKING ANALYSIS. [Article]. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 85(1), 41-60.
  • Kendall, K. E. (2005). Constructing the Primary Story: Embedded With the Media in New Hampshire. [Article]. American Behavioral Scientist, 49, 157-172.
  • Lauderdale, P., & Estep, R. E. (1980). The bicentennial protest: An examination of hegemony in the definition of deviant political activity. In P. Lauderdale (Ed.), A Political Analysis of Deviance. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Lauterer, J. (2006). Community Journalism: Relentlessly Local. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press.
  • Len-Rios, M. E. (2002). The Bush and Gore Presidential Campaign Web Sites: Identifying with Hispanic Voters during the 2000 Iowa Caucuses and New Hampshire Primary. [Article]. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 79(4), 887-904.
  • Lewin, K. (1947). Frontiers in Group Dynamics II. Channels of group life: Social Planning and Action Research. Human Relations, 1, 143-145.
  • Lewis, S. C., & Reese, S. D. (2009). What is the War on Terror? Framing Through the Eyes of Journalists. [Article]. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 86(1), 85-102.
  • McCombs, M., & Funk, M. (2011). Shaping the Agenda of Local Daily Newspapers: A Methodology Merging the Agenda Setting and Community Structure Perspectives. [Article]. Mass Communication & Society, 14(6), 905-919. doi: 10.1080/15205436.2011.615447
  • Mersey, R. D. (2009). Sense of Community Differs For Print, Online Readers. [Article]. Newspaper Research Journal, 30(3), 105-119.
  • Miliband, R. (1969). The State in Capitalist Society. London: Wiedenfeld & Nicholson.
  • Minic, D. (2008). What Makes An Issue A Woman’s Hour Issue? [Article]. Feminist Media Studies, 8(3), 301-315. doi: 10.1080/14680770802217345
  • Palser, B. (2004). The Web’s Campaign Contributions. [Article]. American Journalism Review, 26(4), 78-78.
  • Patterson, T. E. (1980). The mass media election: How Americans choose their president. New York: Praeger.
  • Peake, J. S. (2007). Presidents and Front-page News: How America’s Newspapers Cover the Bush Administration. The Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, 12(4), 52-70. doi: 10.1177/1081180×07307378
  • Pollock, J. C. (2007). Tilted Mirrors: Media Alignment with Political and Social Change – A Community Structure Approach. Cresskill, N.J.: Hampton Press, Inc.
  • Ragas, M. W., & Kiousis, S. (2010). Intermedia Agenda-Setting and Political Activism: and the 2008 Presidential Election. [Article]. Mass Communication & Society, 13(5), 560-583. doi: 10.1080/15205436.2010.515372
  • Reader, B. (2006). Distinctions that Matter: Ethical Differences at Large and Small Newspapers. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, 83(4), 860.
  • Schaffner, B. F., & Sellers, P. J. (2003). The Structural Determinants of Local Congressional News Coverage. Political Communication, 20(1), 41-57. doi: 10.1080/105846003901365
  • Schreurs, M. R. (1996). How Media Relations in Iowa Turned Politics Into Economic Development. [Article]. Public Relations Quarterly, 41(3), 35-38.
  • Shaker, L. (2011). Community Newspapers Play Significant Role in Election. [Article]. Newspaper Research Journal, 32(1), 6-18.
  • Shepard, R. (2009). Confronting Gender Bias, Finding a Voice: Hillary Clinton and the New Hampshire Crying Incident. [Article]. Argumentation & Advocacy, 46(1), 64-77.
  • Shoemaker, P. (1984). Media Treatment of Deviant Political Groups. [Article]. Journalism Quarterly, 61(1), 66-82.
  • Shoemaker, P. (1996). Hardwired for News: Using Biological and Cultural Evolution to Explain the Surveillance Function. Journal of Communication, 46(3), 32-47. doi: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.1996.tb01487.x
  • Shoemaker, P., & Danielian, L. (1991). Deviant Acts, Risky Business and U.S. Interests: The Newsworthiness of World Events. [Article]. Journalism Quarterly, 68(4), 781-795.
  • Shoemaker, P., & Reese, S. (1996). Mediatianng the Message: Theories of Influence on Media Content (2 ed.). White Plains, N.Y.: Longman.
  • Shoemaker, P., & Vos, T. (2009). Gatekeeping Theory: Routledge.
  • Shoemaker, P., & Vos, T. (2009). Gatekeeping Theory: Routledge.
  • Smethers, S., Bressers, B., Willard, A., Harvey, L., & Freeland, G. (2007). Kansas Readers Feel Loss When Town’s Paper Closes. Newspaper Research Journal, 28(4), 6-21.
  • Tewksbury, D. (2006). Exposure to the Newer Media in a Presidential Primary Campaign. [Article]. Political Communication, 23(3), 313-332. doi: 10.1080/10584600600808877
  • Tichenor, P. J., Donohue, G. A., & Olien, C. N. (1973). Mass communication research: Evolution of a structural model. Journalism Quarterly, 50, 419-425.
  • Tuchman, G. (1978). Making News. New York: Free Press.
  • Vinson, C. D., & Moore, W. V. (2007). The Campaign Disconnect: Media Coverage of the 2000 South Carolina Presidential Primary. [Article]. Political Communication, 24(4), 393-413. doi: 10.1080/10584600701641540
  • White, D. M. (1950). The ‘Gate Keeper’: A Case Study in the Selection of News. Journalism Quarterly, 27(3).
  • Wilson, K. G., & Dufrene, T. (2010). things might go terribly, horribly wrong: a guide to life liberated from anxiety. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
  • Woolley, J. K., Limperos, A. M., & Oliver, M. B. (2010). The 2008 Presidential Election, 2.0: A Content Analysis of User-Generated Political Facebook Groups. [Article]. Mass Communication & Society, 13(5), 631-652. doi: 10.1080/15205436.2010.516864


[1] Tubbs made this comment in his survey response. The mention of Tubbs and The North Scott Press in the introduction was included only after Mr. Tubbs previewed and approved the segment.

[2] See Appendix 1 for full version of the survey as it appeared on the Qualtrics web site.

About the Author

Marcus Funk is a doctoral candidate in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin.



Community Journalism Journal Issue 1 Volume 2

Undocumented Workers and Immigration Reform: Thematic vs. Episodic Coverage in a Rural Kansas Community Daily

Michael Fuhlhage

This qualitative historical case study examines how the Garden City Telegram, a small community daily newspaper, diverged from an episodic, conflict-driven frame for the debate over federal immigration reform in the 1980s and 1990s by promoting immigrants as potential citizens rather than outsiders. Qualitative content assessment of locally originated articles, opinion pieces, and wire stories in the Telegram found it promoted community dialogue by including Latino leaders in the conversation. It emphasized thematic coverage that explored the reasons for immigrants’ presence and contributions to life in southwest Kansas.

A bellicose scenario has become familiar in American discourse about immigration reform. Advocates for English as the government’s official language bellow that printing ballots and legal documents in Spanish kowtows to foreigners and wastes millions of tax dollars (U.S. English, 1983). Meanwhile, blue-collar nativists rage that “illegal aliens” take jobs away from Americans (Borjas, 1996). And conservative elites argue that accommodating foreign newcomers would undermine American culture (Buchanan, 2002). The scene is not Montgomery, Ala., where Gov. Robert Bentley enacted House Bill 56, which prohibited citizens from doing business with undocumented immigrants and required migrants and those who look like they might be migrants to prove their legal presence in the United States on demand. The year is not 2011, when that law took effect. The debate has nothing to do with the current mania for “securing our borders.”  Instead, this scenario occurred in the early 1990s. The place was Garden City, Kan.

Latino immigration has been commonly associated with urban areas and the states along the U.S.-Mexico border (Chávez, 2009). Because of this geographical assumption, it might have been easy for scholars of community journalism and diversity to ignore this small meatpacking town in a remote corner of the High Plains. But if journalists in the rest of the country had paid more attention, they might have recognized that neither Alabama nor Arizona, whose S.B. 1070 provided a model for H.B. 56, has had a monopoly on debates between nativists and those who advocate for Latino immigrants’ rights. They might have recognized the growing pains experienced by journalists caught in the demographic upheaval of immigration. Further, news media might have resisted the urge to frame the story in ways that promote conflict and threat perception and the incivility that has marked nativist responses to media discourse about immigration (Chavez, 2008). The Garden City Telegram, a newspaper with a daily circulation of 9,000 at its peak in the late 1990s (11,700 including its 2,700-circulation weekly Spanish-language supplement), struggled to make sense of the stream of Latino newcomers who came to town after IBP built the world’s largest beef packing plant outside town. Once it recognized these were foreigners, the newspaper attempted to help the immigrants find a place in the community, earn U.S. citizenship, and learn to follow local laws while preserving their cultural identity. The purpose of this article is to examine one rural community newspaper’s response to demographic change. Using the methods of the qualitative historical case study, this research shows that the Telegram served as a cultural mediator for Spanish-speaking newcomers and longtime residents by providing a locally generated alternative to the conflict frame prevalent in typical coverage of immigration. The paper’s editors and reporters promoted understanding among disparate ethnic groups, provided a voice for immigrants, and cultivated readership among Spanish-speaking immigrants who needed information to orient themselves to their new home. This research is important because it reveals in the Telegram a model for similarly situated news organizations facing similar demographic changes today as Latino immigrants take up residence in rural communities that have long been mostly white and black.


Hispanics — this article uses the term interchangeably with “Latinos” in reference to people with heritage in the Spanish-speaking countries of Spain and Latin America — have been virtually invisible to mainstream news media unless they were portrayed as troublemakers and victims of crimes committed by other Hispanics. American journalism has neglected Hispanics with the exception of sensational coverage of violent outbursts, such as the Zoot Suit Riot of 1943 (Salwen & Soruco, 1997). At the macro level, that is, at the level of the narrative frame, 1970s news coverage of illegal immigration on the U.S.-Mexico border was biased by its reliance on Border Patrol spokespeople and other institutional sources who had an interest in portraying illegal immigration as a growing problem and portrayed immigration in a negative way (Fernández & Pedroza, 1981). That study found that news organizations relied mainly on non-Hispanic reporters and that a reporters’ Hispanic ethnicity had a positive correlation with their likelihood of getting their information from non-institutional sources such as illegal immigrants. Several late-twentieth-century studies found the news disproportionately represented Latino naturalized citizens and immigrants as criminals and as drains on government social services (Fernández & Pedroza, 1982; Greenberg, Heeter, Burgoon, Burgoon & Korzenny, 1983; Ramírez-Berg, 1997; Rodríguez, 1999). Patterns have included an emphasis on sensationalism, exaggerations of the extent of illegal immigration, harsh tones in reporting on the subject, and lack of critical inquiry into assertions that illegal immigration heavily burdens taxpayers (Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism, 1994). Speakers and participants at the National Association of Hispanic Journalists conference in 1993 noted mainstream media cover Hispanics without a grasp of their historical context, resulting in superficial coverage, while business coverage has focused on strikes and portrayed peaceful labor actions as violent, further promoting the conflict frame (Gersh, 1993). News reports have represented Hispanics and African-Americans as lawbreakers and underrepresented as law enforcers relative to their representation in criminal and police populations (Dixon & Linz, 2000).

At the micro level of analysis — the level of linguistic choices involving phrasing and preferred terminology — news media have depicted Hispanics as foreign to America; used dehumanizing nouns such as “aliens” and “illegals” to characterize undocumented immigrants; and included Hispanics only in the context of crime, entertainment and civil rights (Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism, 1994). Los Angeles Times articles about the debate over the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 found that metaphors reflected anti-immigrant sentiment (Santa Ana, 1999). The following metaphors were used in Proposition 187 discourse: immigrants as animals, as debased people, as weeds, and as commodities.

Research on the news media’s role in the portrayal of immigration in rural areas beyond the Borderlands states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas is sparse. Most scholars have focused on the zone along the U.S.-Mexico border and cities where Mexican immigrants have tended to settle since the 1900s. More recent research has delved into media representation of Latinos in communities where their presence is relatively new. Lauterer (2006) examined how seven North Carolina newspapers accommodated Hispanic immigrant populations. The independent English/Spanish bilingual newspaper Idaho Unido subverted the dominant media paradigm in rural Idaho (Beachboard, 2007). Vargas’ content and textual analysis (2000) found news reports in the Raleigh, N.C., News & Observer newspaper gendered Latino news as feminine and reproduced a stereotype of Latinos as underclass peons. Paulin (2004) found in a broader study of five Southern mainstream newspapers that most did not portray immigration negatively, attempted to portray Latinos positively, and promoted social understanding. Still, Latinos were portrayed as victims who lacked control over their circumstances. A mixed-methods study (Stewart, Pitts & Osbourne, 2011) of the Virginian Pilot found that the newspaper attached negative stereotypes to Latino illegal immigrants and stigmatized them as members of an out-group.

Framing theory has played a prominent role in studies of media-constructed difference among ethnic groups. Framing involves selecting aspects of perceived reality and making them more salient in a way that promotes a particular definition of a problem, interpretation of cause, evaluation of morality or recommendation for treatment of whatever the text describes (Entman, 1991). Micro-level indicators of framing include the selection of sources and details (Entman, 1991; Fernández  & Pedroza, 1981). Macro-level indicators include organization, storytelling, and narrative emphasis (Iyengar, 1993; Domke, McCoy & Torres, 1999; Kellstedt, 2003). Frames are persistent (Reese, 2001), but can shift, change and be replaced (Hertog & McLeod, 2001). Framing’s focus on the connection between changes in social conditions and the construction of reality make it an appropriate theory to apply in the present study.


This historical case study examines the Telegram’s negotiation of the tension between American demand for undocumented Latino immigrant labor and nativists’ urge to push immigrants back to countries of origin during debate over and implementation of immigration reforms from 1986 through the mid-1990s. Construction and meatpacking jobs in the Midwest and Southeast have given those regions the fastest-growing Hispanic immigrant populations in the United States (Durand, Massey & Charvet, 2000). By focusing on coverage in a community beyond the Borderlands, this study addresses a neglected area of research. The following research question guided a qualitative textual analysis of 47 locally originated articles, editorials, columns, and wire service stories in the Telegram:

RQ: How did framing of Latino immigration change during federal immigration reform in the 1980s-90s?

This project, which also employed interviews with four Telegram journalists and two community service providers, sprang from a larger cultural historical case study that used guided in-depth interviews with journalists and community leaders, archive research, and qualitative textual analysis of 461 articles, editorials, columns, and letters to the editor, to examine how the Garden City (Kan.) Telegram covered public debate surrounding changes in public policy and culture concerning Latino immigration in southwest Kansas.

Historical case studies aim to understand a situation from multiple perspectives. Sources may include published communication artifacts, such as books, periodicals, and government documents; and private communication artifacts, such as company reports and personal correspondence. The method of “content assessment” has been used by media historians who are interested in the cultural context of journalistic products and practices (Kitch, 1997; Marzolf, 1978). This method relies on “reading, sifting, weighing, comparing and analyzing the evidence in order to tell the story” (Marzolf, 1978, p. 16). This approach has three prongs: assessment of content for the ways media convey values, attitudes, and social norms and embrace or exclude groups; examination of the backgrounds and social systems of the producers of media content; and the significance of journalism’s presentation of information, values, and opinions. Sources in the present study include Telegram articles, interviews with newspaper staff and community stakeholders, and documents concerning the Garden City’s changing population. Content assessment is appropriate because this study set out to examine the way media content changed as demographics shifted.


The present study found the Telegram promoted community dialogue by making Latino leaders part of the conversation and emphasized thematic coverage of public debate that explored the reasons for the presence of undocumented immigrants in southwest Kansas. The Associated Press and Harris News Service, on which the Telegram depended for statewide, national and international news, emphasized episodic coverage that relied on the news value of conflict. This was not wholly unexpected since conflict, not understanding, is prominent in the criteria detailed in Tuchman’s pioneering 1973 study of news work routines. Conflict is also prominent among indicators of news value values in two of the most commonly used college reporting textbooks (Mencher, 2011; Brooks, Kennedy, Moen & Ranly, 2008). Nonetheless, understanding was a vital element in the Telegram’s local articles.

Garden City’s history of Hispanic immigration is so long and complex that the journalists of the Telegram had difficulty recognizing the change taking place around them in the early 1980s. In 1986, The Telegram was just beginning to grasp the extent of a demographic shift triggered in 1980, when IBP Inc. built the world’s largest packinghouse in Garden City (Broadway, 2000). From 1980 to 1990, the southwest Kansas town’s population rose to 24,318 from 18,246, a gain of 33 percent, and with the population increase came increased demand for police and firefighting services (Donelson, 1997). By 2000, 43.9 percent of Garden City’s 28,451 people were Hispanic, a startlingly high proportion given that Hispanics constitute just 7 percent of the population statewide (Census, 2011). Most of the growth came from Spanish-speaking immigrants drawn by low-skill jobs at the packing plants, where as much as 80 percent of the work force was Hispanic (Leiker, 2002).

For the most part, the Telegram showed little awareness of immigration issues relating to Hispanics through the late 1980s. It took wire service reports about pending immigration reform in Congress and Hispanic community leaders’ agitation about police harassment of Mexican-Americans and Latino immigrants for the paper to realize the nature of the demographic change in their midst. The Telegram’s small reporting staff devoted itself to covering the local community. Because the newspaper’s reporters failed to acknowledge the presence of recent immigrants in and around Garden City, the Telegram relied heavily on AP articles for immigration news through 1989. This is not to say that Hispanics were left out of the newspaper; rather, the Telegram did not recognize that the newcomers were any different from the town’s assimilated Hispanic population. Mexican-Americans had been part of the community since migrant workers came to southwest Kansas as sugar beet and wheat farmworkers and Santa Fe Railroad maintenance workers around the turn of the twentieth century (Oppenheimer, 2003).

In the late 1980s, both the Kansas government and the journalists at the Telegram became increasingly aware that native-born Mexican-Americans were not the only kind of Hispanics in the state. Nominal and structural changes in Kansas’ bureaucracy provide evidence of this. In 1986, the Senate Committee on Governmental Organization endorsed a bill changing the name of the Kansas Advisory Committee on Mexican-American Affairs to the Kansas Advisory Committee on Hispanic affairs (Associated Press, March 16, 1986, p. 7). As of 1986, 21 percent of Kansas’ nearly 62,000 Hispanics were of Cuban, Central American, Puerto Rican or other descent, and the state changed the name of the committee to acknowledge a growing percentage of the state’s Hispanics were of non-Mexican lineage.

The Telegram relied on Harris News Service, owned by the paper’s parent company Harris Enterprises, for reports on the beginnings of immigration reform in 1983. Harris reported U.S. Rep. Dan Glickman of Kansas voted with the majority when the House Judiciary Committee approved a bill to overhaul immigration regulations in an effort at “curbing the flow of illegal aliens into this country by creating a system of civil and criminal penalties against employees who knowingly hire such aliens” (Harris News Service, 1983, p. 1). The legislation stalled for three years but ultimately became the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (Newton, 2008). Congressional debate and talks leading to passage of the IRCA nearly went unnoticed by the Telegram until the bill reached a conference committee to reconcile the House and Senate versions of immigration reform, when it became front-page news (Associated Press, October 10, 1986, p. 1).

Covering the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986

If there were any doubts whether there were foreign-born Hispanics in Garden City, they were erased in the late 1980s, but the Telegram was slow in picking up on radical changes to immigration laws that were in the works in Congress. Buried on page 8 on June 26, 1986, the paper carried an Associated Press article that reported the House Judiciary Committee approved a measure designed to reduce the flow of illegal immigrants —AP wrote “illegal aliens” — and improve conditions for those already in the United States (Associated Press, June 26, 1986, p. 8). Assuming the editors were aware of illegal immigrants in the community, the article would have had two main audiences: Residents with acquaintances or relatives who were illegal immigrants, or employers with workers who were in the country illegally. Then the story disappeared for three and a half months when, out of nowhere, news of possible immigration legislation popped up on the front page. The lead front-page headline blared, “Immigration bill revived” (Associated Press, October 10, 1986, p. 1). The bill was referred to as “the immigration bill” or “immigration reform legislation” throughout the legislative process. Not until the following spring did articles in the Telegram refer to the Immigration Reform and Control Act by its proper name  (May 1, 1987, p. 2). The banner headline October 15 announced, “Immigration bill nears compromise” (October 15, 1986, p. 1). The lead emphasized the reason for the flow of immigrants:

After years of failure, Congress is within a whisker of approving a bill designed to shut down the stream of illegal aliens crossing the border for new job opportunities in the United States [emphasis added]. Compromise legislation was approved Tuesday by House-Senate conferees, who took a cue from successful tax bill writers earlier in the session: They locked out the lobbyists and negotiated in secret (p. 1).

The phrase “for new job opportunities” fits a macro-level narrative frame of illegal immigrants as participants in the American dream — that is, people seeking opportunity they could not find in their home countries. The article detailed the bill’s provisions: “an amnesty program for long-term illegal aliens and a system of fines against employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers. The amnesty would apply to those who came to this country before 1982.”

The complications that amnesty might pose — chief among them was fake documentation — were noted in a local sidebar, the first Telegram staff reporting on the topic since immigration reform reappeared in 1986 (Zubeck, 1986, p. 1). The sidebar reported an estimated 5,000 to 8,000 undocumented immigrants were in southwest Kansas, with 35,000 in the state. Although Garden City had an INS field office, its officers referred questions to an INS deputy district director. The director said that during the previous year, the INS concentrated on identifying and deporting illegal immigrants who were criminals or who were holding jobs that could be held by U.S. citizens or foreigners who were in the country legally. Only 1,750 had been taken into custody in Kansas and Missouri, the two states administered by the regional office in Kansas City, Mo., combined. That such a small number were deported suggests the rest were not entirely unwelcome. Story framing can be defined as much by what is left out as by what is included. In this case, the only sources represented federal agencies, whereas the reporter could have sought comment from local immigrant or minority advocacy groups such as United Methodist Mexican American Ministries, the G.I. Forum, or the Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Society, all of which were active in the Garden City area. Instead, the Telegram let a bureaucracy story remain a bureaucracy story rather than humanizing it with the voices of immigrants or their advocates. The paper also ignored businesses that might have been affected by the new rules for employing immigrants.

Although the Telegram carried a story on House approval (Associated Press, October 16, 1986, p. 1) and how the bill awaited final approval in the Senate with the endorsement of President Ronald Reagan (Associated Press, October 17, 1986, p. 1), the newspaper ran nothing about Reagan signing the bill into law. Instead, the story went dormant until just before the IRCA was to be implemented. Members of the community, however, did not keep quiet about it. A letter to the editor from Roman Catholic Bishop Stanley Schlarman of the Diocese of Dodge City (Dec. 20, 1986) during Christmas week read:

Over the past few years, thousands have left their homelands for political, religious and economic reasons and have migrated to our area of Southwest Kansas in search of a better life. These newly arriving immigrants, representing many nationalities, whose religious and cultural backgrounds are very different, form an impressive mosaic of people. They help form our one nation under God. They bring special gifts that enrich our communities and our lives, and should be seen as blessings from God. … Let us take to our heart the words of the Divine Immigrant, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” (Matthew 25:35) (p. 4).

Letters on controversies have the potential to trigger a series of letters in response. Yet this one did not. Between the bishop’s letter and implementation of immigration reform in May, the topic came up four more times. Telegram columnist Dolores Hope (March 4, 1987) wrote:

Garden City now embraces a diverse population. While many who have roots here are still around, many others have moved in … some of them, perhaps, to live here for a long time and others very briefly. The experiences of the newcomers must vary greatly, depending on both their circumstances and their personalities. Some may prefer anonymity while others seek inclusion in the life of the community. You may not know them personally, but maybe that won’t matter if you need help … or if they do (p. 4).

In an interview conducted for this study, Hope seemed unaware of how much she had written about Latinos and immigration and did not perceive her own writing as unusually empathetic or sensitive about them when asked about her connection to those topics. Her treatment of these subjects may be explained by her family’s membership in the Roman Catholic Church. Hope’s columns reflected church teachings on social justice, including the ideas that it should not be illegal to cross a border to escape poverty and that all human life is sacred (H. Hope, 1988; Blume, 1996). The Catholic and United Methodist churches took the most active role in helping immigrants relocate in southwest Kansas. The Telegram also pointed amnesty-seekers to the Catholic Agency for Migration and Refugee Service in Elkhart, southwest of Garden City and just north of the Oklahoma state line (Garden City Telegram, March 11, 1987, p. 3). The Telegram also publicized a public meeting about the new immigration law where an immigration lawyer was available to explain the law. Employers were encouraged to attend, and information was to be provided in both English and Spanish (Garden City Telegram, April 1, 1987, p. 3).

Not all in Garden City were so welcoming. A letter to the editor (Todd, 1987) complained that illegal immigrants were keeping the writer from getting work:

I have lived here for two years and have 100 job applications out to which no one has had the courtesy to answer. But I keep seeing their help wanted ads in The Telegram. IBP, The Hilton, K-Bobs Steakhouse, Val Agri and the list goes on. The joke about it all is that they claim to be Equal Opportunity Employers. The only way I have been able to survive in Garden City is that a man and his wife asked me to take care of their rentals, and in return my family and I get our rent and utilities. But a man can’t support a family this way. I want to take care of my family and have pride in doing so. Why won’t anyone give me a chance? If more personnel managers were in my place they might understand how I feel. People that are citizens of the United States are not being given a chance because employers would rather hire non-citizens with no experience just because they will work for a cheaper rate or because they feel sorry for them. Well it’s time that you take a look at our community and feel sorry for the citizens of the U.S. We need work too! (p. 4)

“Both sides of the story” vs. “all sides of the story”

While the Telegram showed its awareness of immigration issues, federal officials responsible for putting the law into effect acted as if implementation took them by surprise in the spring of 1987. So did employers. A wire story (Associated Press, May 1, 1987) explained:

Even before historic immigration reforms take effect next week, critics are saying the government has botched the law so badly that extensions may be necessary to accommodate a flood of illegal aliens applying for amnesty. The Immigration and Naturalization Service’s final rules governing the immigration were published today in the Federal Register, just two business days before the opening of the amnesty program and a month before the start of employer sanctions. (p. 2)

U.S. Rep. Charles Schumer, one of the bill’s principal writers, suggested the deadline for amnesty applications should be extended because of disarray at INS offices (Associated Press, May 1, 1987a, p. 2). A wire sidebar warned that employers were unprepared, noting, “Many employers, ranging from farmers to restaurateurs, are not ready for the new immigration law a little more than a month before it bars the hiring of illegal aliens, business and worker representatives say” (Associated Press, May 1, 1987b, p. 2). The sidebar cited the concerns of business and labor leaders such as Frederick Krebs of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who lamented, “You’ve got a lot of employers out there who, despite all the publicity, don’t know. Others are aware and want to do something, but they’re not sure what they want to do.”  The sidebar quoted leaders with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union and the National Council of La Raza who bemoaned employers’ pre-emptive efforts to fire or lay off workers suspected of being in the country illegally.

A comparison of Associated Press and Telegram coverage yielded a notable contrast. The Associated Press portrayed stories with a frame of conflict, a natural byproduct of the journalistic admonition to “always tell both sides of the story.” This approach can preclude moderate viewpoints from being represented. With this approach, reporting becomes a game of opposites without middle ground in which a reporter quotes one Democrat for every Republican or one labor source for every employer source. The Telegram, in contrast, framed its coverage in terms of stakeholders, not opponents, thus providing a continuum of points of view rather than opposites (Neufeld, May 5, 1987, p. 1). The sources were Mike Heston of the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s amnesty office in Garden City; Jim Bennett, an INS enforcement agent in Garden City; Luisa Galeano, manager of Harvest America, a social service nonprofit that aided rural migrant and seasonal farmworkers and poor Hispanics; and the Rev. Penney Schwab, director of United Methodist Mexican American Ministries, which provided health care and translation services for poor Hispanics. The accent was not on showing conflict, but on telling about the procedures and potential difficulties in applying for amnesty. Adding to this pragmatic approach was a sidebar telling amnesty applicants and employers about their rights and responsibilities under the new law, including a list of things one must do to apply. At the end of the article was a paragraph in shaky Spanish that told Latino immigrants whom to call for help with applying for citizenship: INS, St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, and the United Methodist Care Center.

The Telegram’s terminology was also significantly different from AP’s. The lead of the Telegram’s first local story on the new amnesty avoided the label “illegal aliens” in favor of a more descriptive phrase: “Thousands of people [emphasis added]— perhaps millions — who have lived and worked illegally in the United States now have the chance to live legally and openly” (Neufeld, May 5, 1987, p. 1). The offensive term “illegal aliens,” however, did not entirely disappear from the Telegramuntil the early 1990s after the arrival of reporter Sarah Kessinger, who became the first editor of La Semana. An example typical of her approach appeared in a September 1991 report that under a new federal law, annual immigration would be increased by 100,000 a year. The terms she used were “local immigrants,” “people,” “immigrants,” “residents who had been in the United States since before 1982,” “foreigners” and “personnel from a Canadian or Mexican branch” (Kessinger, Sept. 28, 1991, p. A1).

The first wave of applicants was a mere trickle. The Telegram devoted a quarter of the front page May 6 to a photo of one INS staffer sitting alone at a table next to rows of empty chairs in the Garden City immigration legalization office, another photo of two INS officials examining an immigration legalization form, and a story on the first day of the amnesty. Again, the lead avoided using “illegal aliens” as its subject. Rather, it read, “Sixteen people showed up Tuesday on the first day of business at Garden City’s immigration legalization office, but an official expects activity to pick up as people gain confidence in the amnesty process” (Garden City Telegram, May 6, 1987, p. 1). An AP article told a similar story nationwide at legalization offices in Connecticut, New Jersey, Boston and Los Angeles, but unlike all of the AP’s previous articles, its lead used “illegal immigrants” instead of “illegal aliens” (Associated Press, May 6, 1987, p. 1).

A month later, and with 11 months remaining, a Telegram reporter wrote that applications were still slow, with a misleading headline that read, “Chances are running out for amnesty” (Neufeld, June 11, 1987, p. 1). The headline took its cue from INS district director Ron Sanders, who said, “We can’t overemphasize that the clock’s running and time’s running out on the program.” The article provided some reasons for the lack of applicants, including office hours of 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Such hours would be difficult for working people to fit into their schedules, given that many worked at the IBP meatpacking plant, where strict work rules made it tough to get time off for any reason (Stull, 2003). One reason there were few applicants, the Telegram found, was that although the Garden City office had a phone, INS officials set it up with an unlisted number to “protect confidentiality.” The Telegram listed the toll-free number to give amnesty-seekers a chance to apply (Neufeld, June 11, 1987, p. 1). Schwab, of United Methodist Mexican American Ministries of Garden City, wasn’t puzzled by the initial lack of applicants and argued that the number was unlisted because the INS did not want to be inundated with phone calls. Interviewed for the present study in 2007, Schwab said:

We were processing paperwork during the amnesty, and Immigration set up this office.  They had an unlisted phone number — they wouldn’t run it in the phone book, and they never had anybody come to the office and they had to close the office because of it.

Regardless of the reasons, the article noted the most pragmatic and common reason in favor of the amnesty — immigrant labor was needed, regardless of nativist opposition:

Recent news reports have said cherry, strawberry and other perishable crops are rotting in California and Oregon because there aren’t enough immigrant workers — legal or illegal — to pick them (Neufeld, June 11, 1987, p. 1).

The scenario represented an interesting turnabout in the framing of immigration. Whereas “illegal alien as troublemaker” or “illegal alien as drag on society” have been the most common frames for immigrants in the news, it was the INS that got labeled as a burden in the Telegram. The headline on Telegram Managing Editor Fred Brooks’ June 16, 1987, editorial read, “INS red tape.” It noted:

Red tape is killing the federal government’s illegal alien amnesty program. Much of the red tape is needless. Most of it is wasteful. All of it is frustrating. … Frustrating are the bureaucratic explanations and the excuses for problems. That’s to be expected with any new government program, but the illegal alien amnesty program has been particularly blessed with a good number of bureaucratic gremlins. There’s still time for the INS to salvage things, if it’s willing to cut the red tape (Brooks, June 16, 1987, p. 4).

Two years later, after the INS closed the Garden City enforcement office, Telegram editor and publisher Jim Bloom wrote:

Closing the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service’s Garden City office is a foolish decision. But foolish decisions are the norm from the knucklehead higher-ups in the INS. … It is difficult to believe the INS, by retreating to Wichita, will do a better job of enforcing immigration laws on the frontlines in southwestern Kansas (Bloom,  November 29, 1989, p. 4).

The Telegram also blamed companies that hire illegal immigrants. A June 26, 1987, article noted the paperwork employers were required to check to verify workers’ identity and work eligibility (Neufeld, June 26, 1987, p. 1). In news articles through that date, it was frequently workers who were labeled “illegal,” not their scofflaw employers. That was not the case in that day’s house editorial, which called the required I-9 employment eligibility form “the backbone of the Immigration Control and Reform Act of 1986” (Brooks, June 26, 1987, p. 4). The editorial at long last provided acknowledgment of the companies that hire illegal workers as lawbreakers, comparing them to speed-limit scofflaws:

There will, of course, be a few “speed traps” set by the INS every so often. Fines will be stiff, from $100 to $1,000 for each ineligible employee. That threat should catch the attention of most employers. We hope it does, because the only way for the U.S. to regain control of its borders is to eliminate the economic incentive for companies to hire, and thus implicitly recruit, illegal aliens. (p. 4).

The frame of “scofflaw employers” resurfaced in an editorial that Bloom wrote in response to a New York Times report headlined “Vast fraud by migrants found in amnesty plan.” Bloom wrote:

Alas, in the face of considerable lobbying by fruit and vegetable growers in Texas and California, Congress created a loophole. The growers wanted to protect their cheap labor force. So instead of having to prove nearly five years of continuous residence, most agricultural worker applicants had to show only that they had done 90 days of farm work between May 1, 1985, and May 1, 1986. … Now the Immigration and Naturalization Service has identified 398,000 possible fraud cases among the farm program applications. … To sum up, the amnesty program and the stiffer immigration laws outlined in the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 are as open today as they were when the act was passed.” (Nov. 22, 1989, p. 4)

Not all of the Telegram’s attention to immigration matters went to undocumented workers. The newspaper also celebrated members of the community who successfully completed the path to U.S. citizenship. “New citizens: Doctor and Mrs. Arroyo make it official,” read the headline on December 10, 1987. Zefarino and Violeta Arroyo, immigrants from the Philippines who came to Garden City in 1968, became legal residents in 1972 and were sworn in as naturalized citizens with about 140 others from western Kansas, mostly Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians (Post, Dec. 10, 1987, p. 2). “We’ve been paying our fair share [of taxes],” Violeta Arroyo noted, reinforcing the story’s immigrant-as-exemplar frame.

The amnesty program then went unmentioned in the Telegram until April 1988, when only a week remained for people to apply. The front-page article reminded prospective applicants which documents were necessary and informed readers that the INS would accept incomplete applications and file supporting documents later (Neufeld, April 27, 1988, p. 1). The article also noted the INS closed the Garden City legalization office because it wasn’t processing many applications, although social service agencies continued to assist with them. A total of 2,200 people applied during the general amnesty period in Kansas City, 1,975 in Wichita, 967 in Garden City and 490 in St. Louis (Harris News Service, May 5, 1988, p. 3). In southwest Kansas, about 500 applied under the special agriculture worker amnesty at the United Methodist Mexican American Ministries office in Garden City and the Harvest America office in Leoti (Neufeld, Dec. 2, 1988, p. 1). In national wire coverage, an Associated Press story quoted INS spokesman Greg Leo on the eve of the May 5, 1988, general amnesty deadline: “At this time, it appears we will break 2 million” for the combined programs (Associated Press, May 5, 1988, p. 9). The AP story used the term “illegal immigrants” in the lead, although “illegal aliens” and “aliens” appeared further down in the story, an indicator that the wire service was making strides toward more inclusive language but was inconsistent.

Immigration reform in the 1990s

As the Telegram became more aware of Hispanic immigrants in Garden City, its use of stories about immigration legislation from the wire services increased. An October 1990 Telegram article reported that the U.S. House was prepared to approve a measure designed to reunite families kept apart by previous immigration law and end 25-year-old barriers against would-be immigrants from northern European nations and others that had sent immigrants to the United States (Associated Press, Oct. 3, 1990, p. 1). The measure also was intended to increase the number of “highly skilled and otherwise needed foreign workers who would be allowed into the U.S.”

Immigration legislation received no further mention until the Telegram covered Proposition 187, a California ballot that would deny illegal immigrants access to health care, public education and other social services, on its op-ed page in October 1994. Telegram editors deemed interest in 187 to be high enough that they included a brief on the front page about 70,000 protesters marching on Los Angeles City Hall to protest the proposition (Associated Press, Oct. 17, 1994, p. 1). The lead on an in-depth explanation of it took a narrative approach:

SAN DIEGO (AP) — Mary Sanchez is fed up with illegal immigrants soliciting work from street corners in her suburb, then getting paid under the table and paying no income taxes. On Nov. 8 she will vote for Proposition 187, one of the most incendiary ballot measures to hit California since the English-only initiative passed in 1986 (Associated Press, Oct. 26, 1994, p. 8).

The article noted that Sanchez was “not Hispanic but is married to a man of Mexican descent.” When the proposition passed on Election Day with 59 percent of the vote, the Telegram carried an AP story that framed the story as anti-crime, not anti-minority.  The Telegram localized few national stories, but immigration was an exception. Given the transnational nature of Garden City’s Latino immigrants and their habit of maintaining social networks over vast distances, the California vote was played much like a local issue. A local sidebar by Telegram reporter Itzel Stewart quoted Garden Citians who opposed the measure. Her sources said that children should not be deprived of an education and that it is cruel to deny medical and educational services (Stewart, Nov. 10, 1994, p. 1). One source pointed out that contrary to Sanchez’s assertion, income tax is deducted from undocumented workers’ paychecks and that illegal immigrants pay sales tax every time they make a purchase, like everybody else. A federal judge blocked enforcement of 187 because it was unconstitutional (Associated Press, Nov. 17, 1994, p. 5). Stewart, a naturalized citizen born in Panama, was the only Hispanic on the Telegram staff. Her byline appeared as “Itzel Rodriguez” after she remarried in the late 1990s.

Given that story selection and placement are among the elements of framing, the decision to give front-page, above-the-fold play to Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari’s November 1994 invitation for Mexicans in the United States to come home indicates that editors perceived it as important and highly interesting to their readers. The article carries the frame of “immigrant as hard worker,” and its position suggests the editors believed it was important to promote this frame:

Salinas said Mexicans go to the United States in search of jobs — not the public services that California would deny to illegal immigrants under the state’s newly passed Proposition 187 (Associated Press, Nov. 14, 1994, p. 1).

The article’s selection contested the nativist frame of “immigrant as parasite” promoted a few days before by Telegram reader Rob Andrews, whose letter to the editor blamed immigration for crowding in Garden City’s public schools and contended Kansas should follow other states’ lead and discourage immigrants from coming for “freebies”:

An elementary school teacher told me a story about six girls in her third grade class talking about impending births in their families. Becoming curious, she asked how many of them were expecting another baby in their families soon. Five out of six. I asked her how many were Hispanic? “Oh — all of them.” … California and Texas have both passed initiatives restricting the freebies provided by the state and community to illegal aliens. The fate of these laws is still in question, but with the recent election reflecting a strong shift to the right in American thinking, proposition such as 187 are raising a lot of eyebrows. If you were an illegal alien in California or Texas, what would you be thinking? Colorado? Kansas? Garden City? … If we had enacted something like Proposition 187 four years ago, we might not need new schools now” (Andrews, Nov. 11, 1994, p. 4).

Bloom, who remained Telegram editor and publisher until 1997, didn’t miss the opportunity to respond by selecting a syndicated editorial cartoon labeled “California: The Nation’s Trendsetter.” The Golden State is depicted on a map of the Western United States with a huge “Yes on 187” yard sign sticking out of the San Joaquin Valley and a voice balloon stating, “I say we blame our problems on poor kids” (Pett, Nov. 21, 1994, p. 4). Latino community leader Norma DeLaO (1994, p. 4) wrote in a letter to the editor the next day, “We should be addressing this problem with education instead of trying to find someone to blame.” Her response evoked the “immigrant seeking opportunity” frame:

The United States is seen as a land of opportunity. People come here for a better life. We are so lucky to live in a democratic society where life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are so much valued. The immigrants who come here are fleeing persecution, poverty or war. … We should be proud of the way Garden City has embraced immigrants. The community has grown both in size and in cultural diversity that has gained nationwide recognition. Our immigrants have worked hard and have made their home here. We have many businesses that are owned by Third World immigrants. I am proud to be a member of this group (DeLaO, 1994, p. 4).

Bloom selected an editorial (Statesman-Journal, 1994) from a paper in Salem, Ore., to run in place of the house editorial that asked, “Are Americans so callous that we would take from the lowest economic rung of our population just to give the rest of us a few more pennies?” Congress turned out to be “that callous” in 1996, when it passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, creating harsher penalties for illegal immigration, restricting welfare benefits to recent immigrants, and making the deportation process easier for U.S. administrators. The Telegramdetailed the impact: “Gloomy notices will be arriving in hundreds of thousands of mailboxes in the next few weeks: The government is cutting off disability benefits for up to half a million elderly and disabled legal immigrants (Associated Press, Feb. 15, 1997, p. A7). The story quoted advocate Muriel Heiberger of the Massachusetts Immigration and Refugee Advocacy Coalition in Boston, who said, “People are going to be in absolutely desperate straits. This is the money they have to pay rent, to buy prescription medication to buy the basics for survival.” Other advocates pointed to hardship cases that included Cuban and Vietnamese refugees with no family to care for them. U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw, representing the Republicans who created the legislation, was quoted as saying, “It shows how the immigrants are really coming here and using the U.S. as a retirement program.” The story employed a sympathetic frame that juxtaposed pitiably helpless people against heartless bureaucrats. Examples likely to evoke sympathy got three times the space of the explanation of why the bill was deemed necessary.


A Chinese proverb states, “To know the road ahead, ask those coming back.” The Telegram’s reporters and editors have seen the road ahead when it comes to Hispanic immigration into the nation’s interior. Community journalists, particularly in rural areas of the Midwest and Southeast that are seeing the most rapid growth in Latino immigrant population, would do well to heed the example of the Garden City Telegram and learn from its experience. By 2050, Hispanics are projected to be 24.4 percent of the American population, up from 12.6 percent in 2000 (Census, 2006). If reporters, editors and executives want a taste of what is coming their way, they need to look at how Garden City and its newspaper evolved in their coverage and inclusion of Hispanics. They also must acknowledge what scholar Arlene Dávila argued in 2008: Contrary to nativist portrayals of Latino immigrants as social liabilities, a growing consensus argues these newcomers contribute to the economies of the communities that receive them, they are moving up, and they are in some ways more “American” in their values than the native-born (Dávila, 2008). News media must embrace this change if they hope to remain socially relevant, but they also must pay attention to Hispanics to remain economically viable. Wilson, Gutierréz & Chao (2003) elaborate on this point:

More than population growth and technological advances, however, it is the economic mechanisms of support that control the development of media in the United States. Corporate advertisers largely support print and broadcast media. When advertising is increased for a particular segment of the population, the media that reach and influence that segment gain increased advertising dollars. These dollars also make it more economically profitable for managers of existing media to consider changes to formats and content to try to attract that segment and the advertising dollars that will follow (Wilson et. al, 2003, p. 297).

Community journalists should feel compelled to fulfill two needs that are quite different from the concerns of large market news organizations. The first is immigrants’ need for information to help them acculturate to the United States, a role that Latino-oriented publications have long fulfilled in places with long histories as immigration gateways (Rodríguez, 1999). The second is publishers’ need to profit. Immigrants are an engine of small-business creation and population growth in rural areas, which have suffered declining populations for decades (Farmer & Moon, 2011). These entrepreneurial immigrants have begun to create cultural, sports, and business ventures that serve receiving communities’ native and immigrant populations alike (Hernández-León and Zúñiga, 2002). Latino immigrants represent a potential new market for community publishers to sell advertising and build circulations through the introduction of bilingual and immigrant-oriented niche advertisements, features, sections, and publications.

Asked in an interview for this project what lessons the Telegram held for newspapers in markets experiencing an influx of immigrants, Bloom said, “Be aware that change is occurring in the community, and know that attitude means a lot. You can say, ‘This place is changing, and that’s bad,’ or you can make the most of things and try to make it a better place.”

The stance of the Telegram seems clear after a review of its editorials: While the paper assumed illegal entry into the United States was not praiseworthy, it saw that the local, state and national economies needed it. This pragmatism reflected the business realities of the Garden City region. Although the newspaper respected the traditional firewall between the opinion pages and the news pages as demanded by the journalistic orthodoxy of objectivity, its approaches to covering immigration were subtly tilted in favor of immigrants. Its shift to more inclusive language and away from dehumanizing terms such as “illegal alien” provides evidence of this at the micro level of word usage. But at the macro level of narrative, pragmatism was evidenced by Telegram articles’ inclusion of the defense of immigrants. Pragmatism was evidenced by journalists’ source selection, which included stakeholders such as social service providers and the immigrants themselves and thus provided points of view beyond those of INS bureaucrats and law enforcement officials.

Further, when the 1986 immigration reforms were implemented, the Telegram sought to reveal problems in INS bureaucracy and offer solutions. And last, by including information on how an illegal immigrant could apply for amnesty, the Telegram did not speak about immigrants in the third person, but directly to them. These aspects of reporting and editorializing might not reflect just sympathy so much as pragmatism: There was hard, low-paying work to do, and there were not enough people in southwest Kansas to do it, so what was the matter with bringing in help from south of the border? All of these factors combined in a strain of journalism that sought to be inclusive of foreign newcomers. In doing so, the Telegram provided a model for how community news organizations in similar situations can promote a positive context of reception for immigrants.

This is significant because, as a study of immigration discourse in the Virginian Pilot newspaper revealed, media discourse can shape the perception of real and imagined intergroup threats, leading to negative in-group perceptions and behaviors that discriminate against members of the marginalized Latino immigrant out-group (Stewart et. al, 2011). Stewart et. al explained such behavior with Tajfel & Turner’s social identity theory (1986). Social identity theory proposes that members of a dominant in-group, such as whites in a majority-white community, maintain their power and gain competitive advantage over members of marginalized out-groups, such as immigrants, by promoting and maintaining a positive image of the in-group while doing the same with negative images of out-groups. The result can be spiraling social and economic inequality and the assignment of out-group members to status as members of a permanent inferior class. In contrast to the Virginia study’s demonstration of the consequences of the symbolic construction of Latino newcomers as illegal immigrants, the present case study provides an example of an alternative construction of Latino immigrant newcomers as potential citizens and contributors to society rather than threats to the communities receiving them. The present study points to a key difference between community journalism and metro journalism. In the journalism of smaller communities in which people share an identity of place, the urge to accept may be stronger than the urge to divide. By this logic, community and in-group membership are the same.


  • Alba, R. & Nee, V. (1997). Rethinking assimilation theory for a new era of immigration. International Migration Review 31 (4):826-874.
  • Andrews, R. (Nov. 11, 1994). Immigration, birthrate fuels enrollment growth. Garden City Telegram, p. 4.
  • Associated Press (March 18, 1986). Name changed to ‘Hispanic.’ Garden City Telegram, p. 7.
  • Associated Press. (Oct. 10, 1986). Immigration bill revived. Garden City Telegram, p. 1.
  • Associated Press. (June 26, 1986). Immigration policy faces major changes. Garden City Telegram, p. 8.
  • Associated Press. (Oct. 10, 1986). Immigration bill revived. Garden City Telegram, p. 1.
  • Associated Press. (Oct. 15, 1986). Immigration bill nears compromise. Garden City Telegram, p. 1.
  • Associated Press. (Oct. 15, 1986). Major provisions of immigration bill. Garden City Telegram, p. 1.
  • Associated Press. (Oct. 16, 1986). Immigration bill approved: On to Senate. Garden City Telegram, p. 1.
  • Associated Press. (Oct. 17, 1986). Immigration bill awaits budget debate. Garden City Telegram, p. 1.
  • Associated Press. (May 1, 1987). Rush for amnesty as new immigration rules Begin. Garden City Telegram, p. 2.
  • Associated Press. (May 1, 1987). Many employers unprepared. Garden City Telegram, p. 2.
  • Associated Press. (May 6, 1987). “Low Turnout for Amnesty,” Garden City Telegram, p. 10.
  • Associated Press. (May 5, 1988). Thousands jam INS centers as amnesty deadline expires. Garden City Telegram, p. 9.
  • Associated Press. (Oct. 3, 1990). House appears set to pass immigration bill. Garden City Telegram, p. 1.
  • Associated Press. (Oct. 17, 1994). 70,000 protest immigration bill. Garden City Telegram, p. 1.
  • Associated Press. (Oct. 26, 1994). Illegal immigrants on ballot. Garden City Telegram, p. 8.
  • Associated Press. (Nov. 17, 1994). U.S. judge temporarily blocks immigration law. Garden City Telegram, p. 5.
  • Associated Press. (Nov. 14, 1994). Mexico: ‘Come home.’ Garden City Telegram, p. 1.
  • Associated Press. (Feb. 15, 1997). Elderly, disabled immigrants get news of aid cutoff. Garden City Telegram, p. A7.
  • Bloom, J. (Nov. 29, 1989). INS knuckleheads. Garden City Telegram, p. 4.
  • Bloom, J. (Nov. 22, 1989). Open borders. Garden City Telegram, p. 4.
  • Blume, M.A. (1996). Catholic Church teachings and documents regarding immigration: Theological reflection on immigration. In Catholic Church — National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Office of Pastoral Care of Migrants, Who are my sisters and brothers? Reflections on understanding and welcoming immigrants and refugees (pp. 29-34). Washington: U.S. Catholic Conference.
  • Borjas, G. J. The new economics of immigration: Affluent Americans gain; poor Americans lose. The Atlantic(November 1996): 72-80.
  • Broadway, M. (2000). Planning for change in small towns, or trying to avoid the slaughterhouse blues. Journal of Rural Studies 16 (2000): 37-46.
  • Brooks, B.S., Kennedy, G., Moen, D. R. & Ranly, D. (2008). News reporting and writing. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s.
  • Brooks, F. (June 16, 1987). INS red tape. Garden City Telegram, p. 4.
  • Brooks, F. (June 26, 1987). I-9: A little form. Garden City Telegram, p. 4.
  • Buchanan, P. J. (2002). The death of the West: How dying populations and immigrant invasions imperil our country and civilization. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.
  • Census Bureau (2006). “Kansas Quick Facts: Garden City: Table of Population and Demographic Characteristics.” Retrieved from
  • Census Bureau. (2006). U.S. interim projections by age, sex, race, and Hispanic origin. Retrieved from
  • Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism. (1994). News watch: A critical look at coverage of people of color. San Francisco, CA: San Francisco State University.
  • Chávez, K. R. (April 2009). Remapping Latinidad: A performance cartography of Latina/o identity in rural Nebraska. Text and Performance Quarterly 29 (2) (April 2009), 165-182.
  • Chavez, L. R. (2008). The Latino threat narrative: Constructing immigrants, citizens, and the nation. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Dávila, A. (2008). Latino spin: Public image and the whitewashing of race. New York, NY: New York University Press.
  • DeLaO, N. (Nov. 22, 1994). Don’t blame immigrants for every local problem. Garden City Telegram, p. 4.
  • Dixon, T.L. & Linz, D. (Spring 2000). Overrepresentation and underrepresentation of African Americans and Latinos as lawbreakers on television news. Journal of Communication 50 (2): 131-154.
  • Domke, D., McCoy, K. & Torres, M. (1999). News media, racial perception and political cognition. Communication Research 26 (5), 570-607.
  • Donelson, A. (1997). Planning economic revitalization: Leadership patterns and impacts of growth in Garden City, Kansas. Proceedings of the American Planning Association Conference. Retrieved from
  • Durand, J., Massey, D. & Charvet, F. S. (March 2000). The changing geography of Mexican immigration to the United States: 1910-1996. Social Science Quarterly 81 (1): 1-12.
  • Entman, R. (1993). Framing: toward clarification of a fractured paradigm. Journal of Communication 43 (4): 51-8.
  • Farmer, F. L., & Moon, Z. K. (2011). Mexican migrant entrepreneurial readiness in rural areas of the United States. Journal of Rural and Community Development 6 (2): 85-103.
  • Fernández, C. & Pedroza, L. R. (1981). The Border Patrol and news media coverage of undocumented Mexican immigration during the 1970s: A quantitative content analysis in the sociology of knowledge — Working paper no. 2. Tucson, AZ: Mexican American Studies & Research Center, The University of Arizona.
  • Fernández, C. & Pedroza,  L.R. (Summer 1982). The Border Patrol and news media coverage of undocumented Mexican immigration during the 1970s: A quantitative content analysis in the sociology of knowledge. California Sociologist 5 (2): 1-26.
  • Gersh, D. (1993). Portrayals of Latinos in and by the media. Editor & Publisher 126 (31): 12-14.
  • Gordon, M. Assimilation in American life: the role of race, religion, and national origins. New York, Oxford University Press, 1964.
  • Greenberg, B., Heeter, C., Burgoon, J.K., Burgoon, M. & Korzenny, F. (Winter 1983). Local newspaper coverage of Mexican Americans. Journalism Quarterly 60 (4): 671-76.
  • Harris News Service (Sept. 4, 1983). Illegal aliens found working for Glickmans. Garden City Telegram, p. 1.
  • Harris News Service. (May 5, 1988). Hugoton woman among last to gain amnesty,” Garden City Telegram,  p. 3.
  • Hernández-León & Zúñiga. (2002). Mexican immigrant communities in the South and social capital: The case of Dalton, Georgia. Working Papers, No. 64. San Diego: University of California, Center for Comparative Immigration Studies.
  • Hertog, J. K., & McLeod, D. M. 2001. A multiperspective approach to framing analysis: A field guide. In Reese, S., Gandy, O. & Grant, A. (eds.), Framing public life: Perspectives on media and our understanding of the social world (pp. 139-161). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  • Hope, D. (March 4, 1987). Distaff side. Garden City Telegram, p. 4.
  • Hope, H. (1988). Garden City: Dreams in a Kansas town. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
  • Iyengar, S. (1991). Is anyone responsible? How television frames political issues. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  • Kellstedt, P. (2003). The mass media and the dynamics of American racial attitudes. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Kessinger, S. (Sept. 28, 1991). Immigrants may have second chance. Garden City Telegram, p. A1.
  • Kitch, C. (Autumn 1997). Changing theoretical perspectives on women’s media images: The emergence of patterns in a new area of historical scholarship. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly 74 (3): 477-489.
  • Lauterer, J. (2006). ¿Hablamos Español? (Do we speak Spanish? In Jock Lauterer (ed.), Community Journalism: Relentlessly Local (pp. 316-331). Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
  • Leiker, J. (Autumn 2002). Race relations in the Sunflower State. Kansas History 24 (3): 214-236.
  • Marzolf, M. (Spring 1978). American studies – ideas for media historians? Journalism History 5 (1): 13-16.
  • Mencher, M. News reporting and writing. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
  • Neufeld, J. (June 11, 1987). Chances are running out for amnesty. Garden City Telegram, p. 1.
  • Neufeld, J. (April 27, 1988). Late rush is on for amnesty. Garden City Telegram, p. 1.
  • Neufeld, J. (Dec. 2, 1988). Amnesty plan offered home for hundreds. Garden City Telegram, p. 1.
  • Neufeld, J. (June 26, 1987). Immigration piles on paper. Garden City Telegram, p. 1.
  • Neufeld, J. (May 5, 1987). Amnesty: Chance of a lifetime begins today. Garden City Telegram, p. 1.
  • Oppenheimer, R. (2003). Acculturation or assimilation: Mexican immigrants in Kansas, 1900 to World War II. In R. Napier (ed.), Kansas and the West: New Perspectives (pp. 276-298). Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.
  • Paulin, L.M. (2004). Newspaper coverage of Hispanics in emerging immigrant communities. Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference papers. Retrieved from
  • Pett, J. (Nov. 21, 1994). California: The nation’s trendsetter. Garden City Telegram, p. 4.
  • Post, R. J. (Dec.10, 1987). New citizens: Doctor and Mrs. Arroyo make it official. Garden City Telegram, p. 2.
  • Ramírez-Berg,  C.  (1997). Media. In Clara Rodriguez (Ed.), Latin looks: Images of Latinas and Latinos in American media (pp. 225-237). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  • Reese, S. (2001). Prologue — Framing public life: a bridging model for media research. In Reese, S., Gandy, O. & Grant, A. (eds.), Framing public life: Perspectives on media and our understanding of the social world (pp. 7-31). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  • Robinson Beachboard, M. (2007). Uniting Idaho: A small newspaper serves Hispanic populations in distributed rural areas. Issues in Informing Science and Technology 4: 365-379.
  • Rodríguez, A. (1999). Making Latino news: Race, language, class. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
  • Salwen, M.B. & Soruco, G. R. (1997). The Hispanic Americans. In A.D. Keever, C. Martindale & M.A. Weston (Eds.), U.S. News Coverage of Racial Minorities: A Sourcebook, 1934-1996 (pp. 147-190). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
  • Salem Statesman-Journal. (Dec. 1, 1994). Anti-immigrant fever. Garden City Telegram, p. 4.
  • Santa Ana, O. (1999). ‘Like an animal I was treated’: Anti-immigrant metaphors in U.S. public discourse. Discourse and Society 10 (2): 191-224.
  • Schlarman, S. (Dec. 20, 1986). Immigrants have brought special gifts, talents. Garden City Telegram, p. 4.
  • Stewart, C.O., Pitts, M.J. & Osbourne, H. (March 2011). Mediated intergroup conflict: The discursive construction of ‘illegal immigrants’ in a regional U.S. newspaper. Journal of Language and Social Psychology 30 (1): 8-27.
  • Stewart, I. (Nov.10, 1994). California vote brings disappointment here. Garden City Telegram, p. 1.
  • Stull, D. & Broadway, M.J. 2003. Slaughterhouse Blues: The Meat and Poultry Industry in North America. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.
  • Telegram staff. (May 1, 1987). Rush for amnesty as new immigration rules begin. Garden City Telegram, p. 2.
  • Telegram staff. (March 11, 1987). Service for aliens available. Garden City Telegram, p. 3.
  • Telegram staff. (April 1, 1987). Immigration law meeting Friday. Garden City Telegram, p. 3.
  • Telegram staff. (May 6, 1987). Sixteen seek Amnesty. Garden City Telegram, p. 1.
  • Todd, R. (March 23, 1987). Local businesses don’t hire fairly. Garden City Telegram, p. 4.
  • Tuchman, G. (July 1973). Making news by doing work: Routinizing the unexpected. The American Journal of Sociology 79 (1)): 110-131.
  • U.S. English Inc. (2012).  Official English fact sheets: Costs of multilingualism. Retrieved from 
  • Vargas, L. (September 2000). Genderizing Latino news: An analysis of a local newspaper’s coverage of Latino current affairs. Critical Studies in Media Communication 17 (3): 261-293.
  • Wilson, C., Gutierrez, F. & Chao, L. (2003).  Racism, sexism, and the media: The rise of class communication in multicultural America. Thousand Oaks: Sage.
  • Zubeck, P. (October 15, 1986). Amnesty may bring a new black market. Garden City Telegram, p. 1.01

About the Author

Michael Fuhlhage, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the School of Communication and Journalism at Auburn University.



Community Journalism Journal Issue 1 Volume 2

Journalism in a Complicated Place: The Role of Community Journalism in South Africa

John A. Hatcher

A challenge for media in a culturally complex world is building a sense of community between groups with strong cultural cleavages. In South Africa, a fledgling democratic republic is making concerted efforts to foster media that will help to overcome a history of oppression based on difference. A qualitative analysis of interviews with 62 respondents found that the community journalists see themselves as community educators whose role transcends reporting the news. The community journalists interviewed are experimenting with new partnerships and new ways of reporting the news. However, the respondents disagree on the way news should be reported, with some opting for a more solution-oriented approach. The findings underscore that the greatest obstacle to these efforts is finding a way to foster sustainable media that serve historically marginalized communities.

In an increasingly multicultural world, media studies have begun to ponder the role journalists play in informing, bonding and bridging communities that may be composed of an array of cultural groups (Deuze, 2004; Putnam, 1995; Young, 1990). Does a culturally complex world change how community journalists perceive themselves? South Africa’s rich cultural landscape provides a microcosm in which to explore this dynamic. This fledgling democratic republic strives to recognize every cultural group, represented through individual media channels with special emphasis – and government support – for media that give a voice to historically marginalized groups (Jacobs, 2004). Through a qualitative analysis of in-depth interviews and site visits with journalists across South Africa, this study explores how community journalists define their role and how that perception may vary based on differences in community connection, media type and the backgrounds of individual journalists.


This study uses the term community journalism to define a broad array of media types. There are countless ways to define and categorize media oriented toward communities: community journalism, community media, grassroots journalism, community radio, alternative media, independent media, resistance media, citizen journalism, and NGO media, to name a few (Lerner, Roberts & Matlala, 2009). Community journalism research has expanded well beyond the early studies by media scholars in the United States of advertiser-driven, print newspapers — either weekly or small daily papers — that served a geographically defined community (Lauterer, 2000; Byerly, 1961). Community media, in comparison, has defined media that are not commercially driven and that typically draw on citizens to produce content that gives communities a voice and identity (Fuller, 2007). Nicholas Jankowski defines community media as “a diverse range of mediated forms of communication: print media such as newspapers and magazines, electronic media such as radio and television, and electronic network initiatives that embrace characteristics of both traditional print and electronic media” (2002, p. 6). The concept of community itself also has many sub-categories: Increased globalization and technology have stretched the definitions of community to include groups that share geographic proximity, ideologies or simply a common interest in something as specific as a favorite rugby or football club (Christensen & Levinson, 2003).

The goal of this study is to advance existing research by comparing the perceptions of journalists who work across this spectrum and to build on the ideas of scholars who see crossover within these categories (Reader & Hatcher, 2011; Milne, Rau, Asta, Du Toit, & Mdlongwa, 2006). This study compares journalists who fit under this broad umbrella of community-focused media. Community journalism is not defined based on the type of media channel, nor the structure of the organization, nor any other categorization of this type. Instead, it uses Reader’s (2011) definition of a community journalist as anyone who shares a strong “connectedness” to his or her audience. Defining community journalism based on the orientation of the journalist allows the research to bypass roadblocks that occur when limits are placed based on community type (communities of interest versus geographic communities), media channel (radio versus print) or media structure (commercial, government-subsidized, or community supported).

At the heart of this project are questions as old as democracy itself: How do individuals form into communities, and how do different groups within these communities interact in a way that ensures the fulfillment of democratic ideals for all (Tocqueville, 1835)? Some scholars have argued that a democracy can only work in a homogenous society where all citizens enjoy the same status and common ideals (Dahl, 1989). Political philosopher Iris Marion Young (1990) uses the concept of cultural imperialism to describe how oppressed groups are left out of the political discourse of a government if it assumes all groups have equal rights. She asserts that additional steps must be taken to ensure representation for marginalized groups.

For media, the challenge is how to foster a community discourse that involves all groups. Building community is a term that has gained traction through the writings of Robert Putnam, who chronicled the decline of civic involvement in public life in the United States (2000). Putnam distinguishes between two ways of building community: bonding capital and bridging capital. Bonding capital, as the name suggests, are the activities that join together like-minded people into a stronger association; associations of people need media to help champion their voice and join them together into a unified voice (Tocqueville, 1835). For example, the community newspapers that Janowitz observed in urban Chicago in the 1950s and ‘60s helped a community define its common values, define itself in opposition to the larger city and mark the social rituals of a community (Janowitz, 1967).

But in South Africa, the challenge for journalists is to create a bridging capital that links disparate groups. Scholar Mark Granovetter describes this as “the strength of weak ties”: A community becomes stronger when everyone is involved in the political discourse (1973).

How can a community journalist communicate with both groups that enjoy great privilege and groups that are marginalized? South African scholars say this may be the most important challenge facing community journalists (Mtimde, 2007; Milne, Rau, Asta, Du Toit & Mdlongwa, 2006). The country has 11 official languages. The country’s government was created with the explicit mandate of having all groups represented. There is government-subsidized support for media that serve historically marginalized groups. As a developing nation, the country has great disparity in wealth, education and economic prosperity. The country also faces daunting challenges with social issues such as the HIV/AIDs epidemic, crime and unemployment (Sparks, 2003; Kupe, 2004).

The Media Development and Diversity Agency Act was created to foster the creation of news media to serve historically marginalized communities (Presidency, 2002). This partnership between government, private sector and civil society groups faces a daunting challenge (Media Development and Diversity Agency, 2009). In a study of South African media, one team of scholars found, “There are significant gaps in the representation of under-served groups in the South African media, both in terms of their own participation, and/or the coverage they receive” (Bosch, Davidson, Jacobs & Wasserman, 2006, p. 4). The media landscape has been dominated by white-owned media. Racial and class disparities were found to have been reinforced; there remained a great need for the inclusion of marginalized groups in the production of their own media.

Media have faced other challenges in the post-apartheid era regarding ethical standards, contentious relationships with the government and a demand for greater quality overall (Garman, 2005). In the early post-apartheid years, it was suggested that the capitalistic model of press would continue to serve mainly those enjoying greater affluence, ignoring many of the most important issues facing oppressed groups (Tomaselli, 1997).

Small, independent press in South Africa face overwhelming competition from four large media groups – Media 24, Times Media Group, Caxton and The Independent –  which dominate the newspaper landscape (Media Development and Diversity Agency, 2009). In 2009, when these interviews were conducted, the top three publishing companies owned 47.1 percent of the newspaper titles in the country (Media Development and Diversity Agency, 2009). In their comprehensive case study of six independent community newspapers, Milne et al. highlighted how small, independent publishers are motivated to better the lives of those in their community but add that few of them, “… have the time and expertise to represent the voice of small community publications in the battle against unfair competition, inequitable practices and marginalization” (2006, p. 113).

It is estimated that 94.1 percent of the adult population in the country has access to radios, the highest of all media channels (Media Development and Diversity Agency, 2009). Community radio is a small part of this radio spectrum, serving about 4 percent of the population (Media Development and Diversity Agency, 2009). However, South Africa has more than 100 community radio stations that provide airtime for local news presented in all 11 of South Africa’s official languages (International Marketing Council). One study of 10 rural community radio stations found that while they are popular sources of community information, many of these news organizations have limited ability to produce their own local content and rely on news produced by newspapers and other media sources (Megwa, 2007). Still, their effect can be powerful. Bosch described how radio builds community in a rhizomatic fashion, where horizontal community networks crisscross and strengthen a community through the sharing of information and ideas (2005).


The research questions guiding this inquiry explore factors that may shape the perception of the South African community journalist.

RQ1: How do South African community journalists define themselves? What relationship do community journalists see between themselves and the community they serve; between themselves and government?

RQ2: How does community journalism function in a country with a complex cultural structure?

RQ3: How do institutional rules designed to recognize and even subsidize media that serve the marginalized voices in a society influence the way community journalists define their role?


This study employs a qualitative case study approach to draw on data from a variety of sources (Yin, 1994). Data collection focused primarily on in-depth interviews with journalists along with on-site observations that yielded field notes and observations (Bogdan & Taylor, 1998). Following a procedure that replicated the design of previous studies, primarily the work of Milne et al. (2006), journalists were located with the assistance of numerous media associations in South Africa. The goal was to find journalists who represented a variation in their cultural identity, their backgrounds, the community type, the type of news organization and the region of the country.

Interviews with journalists, which took place during a two-month visit to South Africa in May and June of 2009, followed an interview guide, but were also kept open-ended to allow respondents to have a say in the direction of the discussion. Interviews included one-on-one discussions with journalists as well as group discussions involving journalists from news organizations from around a particular region. All interviews were recorded and transcribed. Dialogue with respondents continued through email and other means. As a final member check of findings in this study, two of the South African editors who participated were brought to the United States, where they visited with journalists to discuss the similarities and differences in their perceptions of the community-journalism relationship and to review initial findings with the researcher.

The project received university institutional review board approval, and every effort was taken to design this study with thought to the impact the work would have on the participants in the study. Information sheets were given to each respondent and oral consent was obtained from all respondents. Analysis occurred in waves over the life of the project with the goal being to allow findings to emanate from the data through ongoing analysis, reflection and challenging of findings (Taylor & Bogdan, 1998).


The 62 respondents in this study came from 11 newspapers and 5 radio stations as well as universities and journalism education programs in South Africa. As Table 1 shows, the news organizations represent the diversity of community media situations in this country: The impoverished townships of Johannesburg, the rural agricultural lands of the northeastern Limpopo Province, the game preserves near Kruger National Park, the diverse international city of Cape Town, the university-influenced community of Grahamstown and the remote and dramatic landscape of the Eastern Cape. Structurally, they include newspapers and radio stations alike. Their business models include community-supported media, commercial media, independent media, group-owned media, media that partner with higher education as well as government-subsidized media. In spite of these differences, common themes emerged.

RQ1: Community shapes journalists’ roles, desire for innovation

RQ1 asks how the journalists in this study define themselves and how their relationships within the community influence their work. Two key findings emerge in this area. First, community membership is a strong ethical compass for most respondents. Second, journalists who define themselves as having a strong community attachment strive to be active participants in community activities, eschewing the role of the passive information gatherers.

The power of community membership

Nearly all the journalists interviewed in this study express a strong attachment to the communities they serve. Many of the respondents are not only members of their communities, but also have lived their whole lives in those communities. Chances are that their parents and their parents’ parents also called those communities home. At the Afrikaans-language newspaper, Zoutpansbergerin Louis Trichardt; at the Khosa-language radio station Vukani FM in Cala and at Bush Radio in Cape Town, journalists spoke of a personal connection to the news events they cover. The respondents see this relationship as both a challenge and an asset.



Name Type, structure Languages Location
Kathorus Mail Independent, monthly, free, commercial newspaper E English, isi-Zulu, se-Setho Katlehong,Thokoza and Vosloorus
Zoutnet Publishers Independent, commercial newspaper group. Publishes two weekly newspapers Afrikaans and English (Zoutpansberger); English (Limpopo Mirror) Louis Trichardt
Kruger2Canyon News Independent, commercial weekly newspaper English Hoedspruit
Bush Radio Community radio station supported by advertising, donation and sponsorship English, Afrikaans and Khosa Cape Town
Radio Tygerberg Commercial, Christian radio station Afrikaans Parow (Cape Town)
Grocott’s Mail Independent weekly newspaper owned by Rhodes University English Grahamstown
Vukani FM Independent community radio station Khosa Cala

The challenge of community membership for journalists was vivid on a visit to Grocott’s Mail in Grahamstown, where a reporter was working on a story about a popular school principal who had lost his job. School officials refused to talk publicly about the issue, but the reporter had lived in the region his whole life and had attended the school. To get more information on deadline he went to the school itself, where people talked with him but refused to say anything publicly. In the end, the reporter knew the people involved, knew what the news in the story was, but ultimately had very little information beyond the hearsay of the community (K. Butana, personal communication, June 9, 2009). Scholars of community journalism have long observed the challenge that being a community member poses for journalists. On the one hand it offers intimate knowledge of what is happening; however, it also means that these interpersonal connections and the realization that the journalist will face public accountability for what they write may hold powerful sway over their news decisions (Lauterer, 2000; Tichenor et al., 1973).

Many of the black South African journalists who participated in this study live in townships that have known great oppression and still grapple with poverty, crime and AIDS. All of these journalists spoke of wanting their journalism to make a difference. In Cape Town, the host of one of Bush Radio’s public affairs radio talk shows said she wants to empower people from her own community to discover solutions to the issues facing them. One of the editors working at the youth-oriented newspaper, Makoya Zone, owned by Zoutnet Publishers, said his mission is to inspire his fellow community members by telling them the stories of people who have succeeded:

We try to motivate people to realize what is possible. You can dream big… if he’s doing it, you can do it as well. The more we do these kinds of stories, the more people can relate (N. Gabara, personal communication, May 27, 2009).

A citizen-focused view of news was described by a group of journalists from Vukani FM, a community radio station in the remote Eastern Cape. The goal in every broadcast – if not the mandate – is to include the voices and comments of fellow community members. One reporter described how she would find stories by going back to “my community” and talk with people she had known her entire life:

You need to listen to the community, what they are saying about anything around them. Then you take that information from your community and do a plan or identify a relevant [government] department to answer this crisis and then you take it from there…

In all, you see, our strategy of coming to the community. The way we are doing our research is not about taking the [notebook] or the recorder and start asking questions. It’s just to mingle with them. You go to the communities and talk with the people and get issues. Then we follow them up (T. Mbobosi, personal communication, June 10, 2009).

Community membership leads to innovative approaches

In both formal and informal ways, a number of the journalists interviewed have taken active roles in the community, a finding first observed by Milne et al. (2006). They use terms like “building community” and “cross pollination” as they talk about trying to build a unified community out of disparate groups.

Some news organizations, like Bush Radio and Grocott’s Mail, have done so through formal partnerships with local universities and colleges. In these places, education is a core principle and the news organization is where students and community members go to learn to become journalists. At Grocott’s, this relationship allows the news organization to experiment with reaching audiences through a citizen journalism newsroom, partnerships with community radio stations, and a cell phone text-messaging project where citizens report the news. In these situations, members of the local community work side by side with students who can come from universities both in South Africa and abroad.

Even in the smallest news organization, active community involvement is at the forefront. The publisher of the Kruger2Canyon newspaper led volunteer efforts to build a new school in the community of Hoedspruit and spoke with great pride of “our school”  (personal communication, June 1, 2009). Zoutnet Publishers won the World Young Reader Prize from the World Association of Newspapers in 2004 for a series of educational supplements that were distributed through the newspaper and directly to schools throughout the region (van Zyl, 2005). Since then, the newspaper has coupled newspaper readership endeavors with work done to help build and improve local schools.

RQ2: Journalists navigate a complex cultural landscape

RQ2 asks how the complexity of South Africa’s cultural makeup might influence journalistic routines. This is a quandary facing all the South African community journalists who participated in this study. The question is how to deliver a news product that meets the needs of the entire community. The Afrikaner journalists at Zoutnet Publishers in Louis Trichardt live in a region where their cultural group is the white minority and where the local government is primarily black. In this situation, the culture of the local black population, primarily the Venda tribe, is built on unquestioning respect for those in charge:

That causes a serious dilemma. How do you handle that? As a white journalist I can write and say look, it is wrong… and my white readers will say yes. The black readers will say, what is wrong with that? They are in power. They know what is right. You actually jeopardize your credibility as a journalist to do such a thing. (F. van der Merwe, Frans, personal communication, May 28, 2009)

Language is one area where journalists at most news organizations say readers are especially sensitive. Bush Radio, in an attempt to represent all groups, produces programs in English, Afrikaans, and Khosa. Zoutpansberger, in Louis Trichardt, publishes in Afrikaans and English. Zaidi Khumalo of the Kathorus Mail said he publishes primarily in English because his readers in the townships outside Johannesburg include an array of ethnic groups including many immigrants who come to the townships from other countries (Z. Khumalo, personal communication, May 26, 2009). This is not an issue in all of South Africa. At Vukani FM in the Eastern Cape, which is more than 95 percent Xhosa speaking, questions about cross-pollination and about serving all residents of the region were met with confusion by respondents. In fact, the questions regarding issues of multiculturalism didn’t really seem to make sense to the respondents in this homogenous community.

Coupled with this challenge of language is considering how to disseminate news to a diverse community. Zoutnet Publishers decided that multiple news channels, delivering different news content to different cultural groups is the only way to reconcile the differences within the readership area (Andres van Zyl, personal communication, May 28, 2009). Zoutpansberger serves the primarily white, Afrikaner community. It is published with articles in both English and Afrikaans, though the journalists say that they hear criticism from Afrkaners if there are too many English stories (Andres van Zyl, personal communication, May 28, 2009). To serve the readers who live in the outlying area – mostly members of the Venda community – this news organization has the English-language Limpopo Mirror as well as a youth-oriented publication, Makoya Zone.

Most respondents felt news organizations should provide one media channel to serve all communities. They said this approach helps community members understand that despite cultural and language differences, the issues facing the community are ones that everyone shares. The most famous example of this may be Bush Radio in Cape Town:

It all links to our mission. That people can see that humans are humans and that we all share, we all hopefully share, a common humanity. And yes that’s all glorified terms and we try to steer clear of using them. We try to do this practically (A. Louw, personal communication, June 4, 2009).

At the Paarl Post near Cape Town, editor Anne Kruger said she knows that she probably does not have too many black readers of her paper, but she still believes it is crucial that her newspaper makes every attempt to “teach” readers to see their entire community in the newspaper (personal communication, June 3, 2009). She said this happens in large and small ways – like having a reporter cover all the schools in the region and take pictures of students that reflect the diversity of the region.

RQ3: Media subsidies and government support for marginalized groups

RQ3 asked how media subsidization and other government-supported efforts have affected community journalism in South Africa. Respondents agreed that the greatest challenge for community journalism in South Africa lies in encouraging and sustaining media that can serve historically marginalized groups. Journalists identified numerous challenges facing these news organizations. First, the communities themselves do not have a local economy that can support advertiser-driven news publications; and the businesses that do exist in these communities see little financial incentive to advertise to a market audience with little spending power. Second, local government not only does not support these independent news organizations, it also often competes with them by publishing its own newspaper that is subsidized by tax money. Third, residents of townships interested in starting their own news organizations often lack the business and journalistic training to survive (van Zyl & Khumalo, 2010).

The mission of South Africa Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA) is to support specifically these kinds of endeavors (Presidency, 2002). Many of the participants at a June 11, 2009, East London journalism workshop were people who had received MDDA funding to launch their newspapers and radio stations. The challenge, they said, is the publications cannot survive on their own once that initial financing has been depleted. One editor said he’d soon be going out of business because of this.

News organizations that have succeeded have done so, it appears, because they used the MDDA money initially, but knew it would require a mix of funding if they were to survive. Vukani FM’sstation manager Xola Nozewu (personal communication, June 10, 2009) said his station nearly failed because it attempted to operate as a volunteer organization using some MDDA money. Instead, the station reorganized and created a community radio station funded by support from programs sponsored by NGOs, local government, listener contributions and some advertising. Vukani FM journalist Xolani Femela, who produces a sponsored show sponsored by NGOs, said the support does not necessarily mean that the shows carry the agenda of the sponsors (personal communication, June 10, 2009). Local government shows include lots of questions from citizens about public services and the station has had great success ensuring that local government officials appear regularly to address concerns in what they said were candid, frank discussions.

A few years ago, when Zaidi Khumalo was thinking of shutting down or selling his township newspaper, the Kathorus Mail, he met fellow newspaper publisher Anton van Zyl, who worked out a partnership with Khumalo. Once a month, Khumalo sends all his stories, photos and additional content for his paper to van Zyl’s offices, 300 miles to the northeast. There, designers lay out pages and do the final production work. The Kathorus Mail is printed and shipped backed to Khumalo’s community in the townships outside of Johannesburg. Van Zyl described this relationship using the word Ubuntu, a concept that is developed more in the discussion section of this manuscript:

In our private lives, we depend on family structures. We try and look after our parents and grandparents. We try and assist when little ones need money for education, even if it’s not our own children. In the business world it is also fitting to look at our “family members” and see how we can assist (Van Zyl & Khumalo, 2010).

Different perceptions of how to report news

One unexpected theme that emerged from this research involves differing perceptions on how to frame news in a country that has experienced divisions based on race and culture. There was a perception from some respondents that different cultural groups had different news preferences. Some news organizations, like the Kathorus Mail and the Limpopo Mirror, routinely fill their front pages with the most graphic images and ghastly news stories. They are coupled with one and two-word headlines that scream out the atrocities. The editor of the Mirror said that newspapers targeting black African audiences, like the large national daily The Sowetan, have traditionally used a tabloid format with large headlines and often shocking news stories (W. Lee, personal communication, May 29, 2009). Many of these daily papers grew out of the resistance movement of the early 1980s, which may influence their approach. Some of the front pages of the Kathorus Mailincluded an image a severed hand, an abandoned fetus found in a field, a badly burned body. Editor and publisher Zaidi Khumalo, whose training as a journalist came from his work in the resistance media at Drum magazine, said it is his obligation to tell readers about the bad things that are happening in his community and not to shy away from a story even if it is shocking.

If he looks at his community as merely a community of happy faces who are going to be happy to see themselves in their newspaper, to me that’s journalism that’s not credible, it’s not. You must be able to live within the community that you write for. So that if there are issues, those issues affect you as well and you will be able to look at those issues on behalf of the community and this is what’s troubling us, not them. You don’t separate yourself from the community, that’s very important (Z. Khumalo, personal communication, May 26, 2009).

Other journalists spoke of being motivated toward news that took on larger public issues. Grocott’s Mail, for example, is now owned by the journalism program at Rhodes University and has a staff that includes professionally trained journalists as well as student interns from Rhodes and other journalism schools in the country. When asked in a group discussion to discuss the stories they were most proud of, the journalists pointed to examples in which the news organization had championed a particular cause or issue. One of those stories involved an elderly woman named Mrs. George who was in danger of losing her home, but thanks in part to ongoing coverage from the paper, the public rallied to find her a new place to live. The paper carried a front-page picture of her in front of her new home, which she moved into on Freedom Day in 2007 (van Winsen, 2007). They were also proud of a front-page photo of students at Rhodes University learning how to properly put a condom on a model of a penis with the headline, “People! This is how it’s done” (Meadows, 2008). Grocott’s general manager in 2009, Louise Vale (now executive director of the Association of Independent Publishers), said there are definitely issues in the community where the paper knows it will be criticized but where they feel it is important to take a stand (personal communication, June 9, 2009).

At other news organizations, the mission and the news values are more oriented toward community building. Heidi Lee Smith, editor and publisher of the newspaper Kruger2Canyon News, said she uses her newspaper to promote important local events and to champion issues she feels focus on the positive aspects of her community. Smith, who has no journalism training, also said she will write positive stories about local businesses as a way of promoting those places – a decision she said also ties in with building new advertising clients (personal communication, June 1, 2009). At Bush Radio in Cape Town, program integrator Adrian Louw (personal communication, June 4, 2009) said the station’s mission is to get beyond news driven by crime and violence.

At a June 11, 2009, journalism workshop in East London, journalists from small newspapers and community radio stations debated the merits of both the traditional objective, conflict-oriented approach to news reporting with what one of the workshop participants referred to as “peace journalism,” a solution-oriented style of journalism first championed by Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung (2000) and that is espoused by NGO-sponsored media groups such as Internews(Fairbairn, 2009). Some pointed out that news organizations that simply seek out the positive run the risk of not being seen as credible if they overlook issues that require criticism. However, others countered that “bad news” – especially in historically marginalized communities – must be tempered with information that offers hope. These comments were echoed by one of Bush Radio’sprogram hosts about what she strives for in her programming.

You know, most people in communities know that next door, there is a drug dealer there. They have been knowing that for the past 20 years so they do know that crime happens every week. They know all these things, but what they don’t know is that there are alternatives to their life. You know, you don’t have to stay there and a lot of people are afraid of tackling drug dealers because they feel like… but people don’t know that there are alternatives. (D. Adams, personal communication, June 4, 2009)


It is hard to make generalizations about anything in South Africa. It is a country comprised of a collection of cultures and a strong sense of regional pride. This study intentionally chose to interview journalists from across the spectrum of South Africa’s community journalism landscape. There was variation in community structure, media channel, funding structure and the backgrounds of the individuals themselves. The most intriguing finding of this research suggests that, in spite of these differences, if this group of 62 respondents sat down to discuss the future of community journalism in South Africa, they’d likely find much to agree on. Community journalists want to create media that has an impact on their communities; that inspires communities to see the multicultural nature of where they live; that invites everyone to participate in making communities better; and combats inequities that exist because of a history of marginalization and oppression. The following seem important to consider.

Membership is the strength, and the challenge

As noted in response to RQ1, in an age of increased mobility, South African community journalists have an asset that cannot be replicated: They are community members first and journalists second. These community connections go back generations. The respondents describe themselves as active stakeholders in their communities. They are stewards of their news organizations, serving on behalf of their community members. They are boosters of these communities, willing to take on issues both in their editorial content and through leading efforts to improve community life.

Surveys of U.S. journalists have routinely found that community journalists differ from their large-media counterparts in seeing themselves more as populist moblizers, oriented toward community building through championing the voices of the ordinary citizen (Weaver & Wilhoit, 1996). Community journalism scholar Jock Lauterer (2000) says such intimate connections mean journalists consider the community impact of their news decisions.

Bridging communities remains the most daunting challenge

Analysis of RQ2 found that South Africa’s desire to become a more inclusive society poses intriguing challenges for community journalists. “Communities” in South Africa are often composed of collections of sub-communities that have historically shared a geographic region but not a sense of being one place. Efforts by media to bridge communities and overcome longstanding stereotypes face daunting obstacles. Community journalists in South Africa are experimenting with many ways of doing this. They offer information through multiple media channels, including newspaper, radio and, increasingly, through new media technologies such as cell phone-delivered text messages. They encourage citizens to join in the production and creation of news. Further, they consider the community as a whole as they make decisions about what to report and how to frame it.

But there is not agreement on the right approach. Some media organizations believe that different cultural groups within a community are best satisfied with separate media channels. Others vehemently oppose this approach, saying one community requires one media channel. Future research should explore whether one media channel satisfy all groups in a multicultural society. If, for example, a media organization is owned by someone from a cultural group that has historically held a position of privilege, is it realistic to expect a true understanding of the situation of marginalized groups within that community (Hofmeyr, 2003; Jacobs, 2004; Kupe, 2004)?

Partnerships open the door to innovation and sustainability

RQ3 asked how government support and subsidies have encouraged South African community journalism organizations. While much more research is needed in this area, the findings suggest that those who rely only on this support struggle in the long run. Those that have succeeded have done so by constructing their own hybrid models of media. They invite and teach citizens to tell the stories of their community. They use community and industry resources to train both journalists and citizens to do this work. They actively seek funding through a variety of sources including government support, partnerships with NGOs, donations, advertising, partnerships with other media and through collaborating with colleges and universities. It’s worth noting that many of the challenges recounted by these South African journalists in 2009 are ones echoed by respondents to a Pew Research Center survey of journalists in the United States, which found that non-profit news organizations that receive seed money often lack the resources and training necessary to sustain themselves (Mitchell, Jurkowitz, Holcomb, Enda & Anderson, 2013).

Traditional definitions of news are being scrutinized

An unexpected finding of this research involved differing perceptions among respondents regarding news values. A number of the respondents in this study prefer a style of news that is more solution oriented and may have connections to Galtung’s concept of peace journalism (2000). Other organizations – many of them news organizations that serve primarily black African readers – follow a more traditional approach to news, relying on coverage of crime and scandal in what might be called a tabloid-style format. Journalists at these news organizations say they do so because they want to mobilize their community and that they have to compete with some of the national daily newspapers that follow a similar news style.

In many cases, the news choices seem connected to the background and training of the journalists. Many of the younger journalists had studied journalism either in urban technical colleges or universities. Others had been taught in their own journalism organization. A number of journalists said they had benefited from the small, government-sponsored training programs that do regional workshops. Another group of respondents had come to journalism via involvement in NGOs and as community activists. This last group spoke of producing news content that explored solutions to problems in their communities. Journalists with more formal training and experience seemed to have a slightly different perception of their role, in part motivated toward the watchdog function of media, covering government leaders and institutions.

More research in this area could include ethnographic research with residents in marginalized communities, exploring what type of information they are seeking from news media and what format would be most useful to their lives. One possibility is that research could focus on mapping the storytelling networks South Africa’s township communities, replicating approaches employed at the University of Southern California’s Metamorphosis Project, which found that residents in the multicultural neighborhoods of Los Angeles have the same desires for their community and are eager for the same information about their community (Chen, Ball-Rokeach, Parks, & Huang 2011). Merrill (2004) notes that this is a crucial question in the exploration of what he calls “community-based ethics” (p. 337). Previous surveys of the public have found that, despite strong criticisms of the press from government officials, the media enjoy a strong public trust in South Africa (Hofmeyr, 2003).

Is there a cultural ethic driving all South African community journalists?

A final question to consider is whether one can generalize about the style of community journalism practiced in South Africa. Two of the respondents in this study used the term Ubuntu to talk about their role as journalists. Perhaps this sense of community obligation is one inherent in South African culture, as author Allister Sparks suggested when he explored South Africa’s transition toward a democratic republic:

The tradition of communal loyalty and social obligation survives, mutated but still recognizable, in the pullulating townships and squatter camps around the industrial cities…There is still a collectivist style of decision making in the political movements and trade unions and the hundreds of civic associations that exist in the township” (1991, p. 21).

Scholar Clifford Christians (2004) compares the concept of communitarianism with the African concept of Ubuntu. He argues that practicing a style of journalism that embraces community membership may eschew the norms of a professionalized style of journalism, favoring a viewpoint that sees the journalist firmly situated in the network of a community. The findings of this study suggest a combination of factors shape the ethic of community journalists including community membership, mission of the news organization and the training and background of the journalist.

This study should be seen as an exploratory project that points to a number of directions for future research. Future research could include content analysis comparing different media types and looking for differences both in what gets to count as news and also how that news is framed (conflict versus solution-oriented). Audience research is also crucial. Journalists may clearly see their role in the community, but the ultimate judge of their effectiveness is whether those ideals are being felt within the community. Survey research and focus group research may help to answer some of these questions. What’s more, the findings did not do enough to explore the question asked in RQ1 regarding the relationship between journalists and government in South Africa. More research should be done to help explore the true impact of government subsidies and institutional support for journalism serving historically marginalized groups.

In 2007, Lumko Mtimde, the chief executive officer of the Media Development and Diversity Agency, summarized what scholars and experts said were the keys to creating a sustainable media to serve all of the cultural groups that comprise South Africa. He concluded that journalism will need to innovate and be creative; that media is the key to encouraging citizens to participate in the democratic process and that media must become diverse in its content. His remarks echo those of U.S. media scholars Leonard Downie and Michael Schudson, who concluded that in this age of great transition, media organizations must create hybrid models of media that partner with non-profit agencies, universities and other groups to both create a new kind of journalism and build a new way of funding media that abandons the traditional model of an independent, powerful media supported solely by advertising dollars (2009). It’s a global challenge: How can communities that need media the most create and sustain it? To South Africa’s credit, it is a question that is being explored with great passion.


  • Bosch, T. (2009). Radio as confession: Religious community radio in South Africa. Journal of Theology for Southern Africa, 3(131), 84-99.
  • Bosch, T. (2005).  Community radio in post-apartheid South Africa: The case of Bush Radio in Cape Town. Transformations, 10(February), Retrieved September 23, 2011, from
  • Byerly, K.R. (1961). Community journalism. Philadelphia: Chilton.
  • Chen, N. N.-T., Ball-Rokeach, S., Parks, M., & Huang, J. (2011). The Alhambra Project: A theory-based strategy for the construction of a citizen journalism website. In Hutchison, D. & O’Donnell, H. (Eds.). Centres and peripheries: Metropolitan and non-metropolitan journalism in the twenty first century. Pp 255-270. Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
  • Christensen, K. & Levinson, D. (Eds.)(2003). Encyclopedia of community: From the village to the virtual world. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications.
  • Christians, C. (2004). Ubuntu and communitarianism in media ethics. Ecquid Novi: African Journalism Studies, 25(2), 235-256.
  • Dahl, R.A. (1989). Democracy and its critics. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Deuze, M. (2004). Journalism studies beyond media: On ideology and identity. Ecquid Novi: African Journalism Studies 25(2), 275-293.
  • Downey, L. & Schudson, M. (2009). The reconstruction of American journalism. Columbia Journalism Review, Retrieved October 19 from….
  • Fairbairn, J. (2009).  Community media sustainability guide: The business of changing lives.  Arcata, CA:  Internews Network, Retrieved September 23, 2011, from
  • Fuller, L. (Ed.)(2003). Community media: International perspectives. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Galtung, J. (2000). The task of peace journalism. Ethical Perspectives, 7(2,3), 162-167.
  • Garman, A. (2005). Teaching journalism to produce “interpretive communities” rather than just “professionals.” Ecquid Novi: African Journalism Studies, 26(2), 199-211.
  • Granovetter, M. (1973). The strength of weak ties. American Journal of Sociology, 78(6), 1360-1380.
  • Hatcher, J. A. (2011). A view from the outside: What other social science disciplines can teach us about community journalism. In Reader, B. & J.A. Hatcher (Eds.)  Foundations of community journalism (129-149). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
  • Hofmeyr, J. (2003). Trusting the messenger: Public and elite confidence in the SA print media. Ecquid Novi: African Journalism Studies, 24(1), 3-19.
  • International Marketing Council (n.d.). Community radio in South Africa. A gateway to a nation. Retrieved September 1, 2011 from
  • International Marketing Council (n.d.). Radio in South Africa. Brand South Africa Media Service. Retrieved September 11, 2011 from….
  • Jacobs, S. (2004). Media during South Africa’s first decade of liberal democracy: Some short impressions. Ecquid Novi: African Journalism Studies, 25 (2), 346-350.
  • Jankowski, N.W. & Prehn, O. (2002). Community media in the information age: Perspectives and prospects. Cresskill, N.J.: Hampton Press, Inc..
  • Janowitz, M. (1967). The community press in an urban setting:  The social elements of urbanism.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Kupe, T. (2004). An agenda for researching African media and communication contexts. Ecquid Novi: African Journalism Studies, 25(2), 353-359.
  • Lauterer, J. (2000). Community journalism: The personal approach. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press.
  • Lerner, A., Roberts, S. & Matlala, C. (2009). Race and migration in the community media: Local stories, common stereotypes. Media Monitoring Africa. Retrieved October 3, 2011, from
  • Meadows, M. (2008, February 1). People! This is how it’s done. Grocott’s Mail, p. 1.
  • Media Development and Diversity Agency. (2009). Trends of ownership and control of media in South Africa. Retrieved, September 28, 2011, from
  • Megwa, E. (2007).  Bridging the digital divide: Community radio’s potential for extending information and communication technology benefits to rural poor communities in South Africa.  The Howard Journal of Communications, 18(4), 335-352.
  • Merrill, J. (2004). Going, going, coming: Ephemeral media ethics. Ecquid Novi: African Journalism Studies, 25(2), 336-338.
  • Milne, C., Rau, A., du Toit, P. & Mdlongwa, F. (2006). Key editorial and business strategies: A case study of six independent community newspapers.  Cape Town, South Africa: Media Digital.
  • Mitchell, A., Jurkowitz, M., Holcomb, J,  Enda, J. & Anderson M. (2013). Nonprofit journalism — A growing but fragile part of the U.S. news system. Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. Retrieved August 1, 2013 from
  • Mtimde, L. (2007). Reflections on media sustainability. Retrieved September 28, 2011 from
  • Neuman, W. R., Just, M. & Crigler, A.N. (1992). Common knowledge: News and the construction of political meaning. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Pillay, D. (2003).  The challenge of partnerships between the state, capital and civil society: The case of the Media Development and Diversity Agency in South Africa. Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 14(4), 401-420.
  • Presidency, Republic of South Africa (2002). Media Development and Diversity Agency Act. 2002. Government Gazette, 24, retrieved September 28, 2011, from….
  • Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  • Putnam, R. D. (1995). Bowling alone: America’s declining social capital. Journal of Democracy, 6(1), 65-78.
  • Reader, B. & Hatcher, J.A. (2011). Foundations of community journalism. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
  • Reader, B. (2011). Community journalism: A concept of connectedness. In Reader, B. & J.A. Hatcher (Eds.)  Foundations of community journalism (3-19). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
  • Sparks, A. (1991). The mind of South Africa. New York: Ballantine Books.
  • Sparks, A. (2003). Beyond the miracle.  Jeppestown, South Africa:  Jonathan Ball Publishers Ltd.
  • Taylor, S.J. & Bogdan, R. (1998). Introduction to qualitative research: A guidebook and resource.  New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., R..
  • Tichenor, P.J., Donohue, G.A. & Olien, C. (1973). Mass communication research: Evolution of a structural model. Journalism Quarterly, 50(3), 159-170.
  • Tocqueville, A. de. (2004). Democracy in America (A. Goldhammer, Trans.). New York: Penguin. (Original work published 1835)
  • Tomaselli, K. (1997). Ownership and control in the South African print media: Black empowerment after apartheid, 1990-1997. Ecquid Novi: African Journalism Studies, 18(1), 21-68.
  • Van Winsen, R. (2007, April 26). A house for Mrs. George. Grocott’s Mail, p. 1.
  • van Zyl, A. (2005). Limpopo Mirror wins world young reader prize. Zoutnet. Retrieved September 23, 2011 from
  • van Zyl, A. & Khumalo, Z. (2010, January).  Ubuntu: I am because you are: The challenges of being a small, independent publisher in South Africa.  Speech presented at the Minnesota Newspaper Association convention, Minneapolis, MN.
  • Wasserman, H., Bosch, T., Davidson, B. & Jacobs, S. (2006). Equal in the eyes of the media: Research into visibility and access to the media by underserved groups. Media Development & Diversity Agency. Retrieved September 1, 2010 from:
  • Weaver, D.H., & Wilhoit, G.C. (1996). The American journalist in the 1990s: U.S. News people at the end of an era.  Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers.
  • Yin, R.K. (1994). Case study research: Design and methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.
  • Young, I.M. (1990). Justice and the politics of difference. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

[1] This table includes only news organizations where an actual site visit occurred. Interviews were also conducted with journalists attending a June 11, 2009, workshop on covering municipal government held in East London, comprised primarily of small MDDA-funded newspapers. Interviews were also conducted with journalists in the Cape Town region who worked for the Paarl Post and the Tyberberger, which are owned by one of the larger media groups, Media24. 

About the Author

John A. Hatcher is an associate professor at the University of Minnesota at Duluth.