Diverse sources key to richer, more nuanced stories

New America Media (NAM) just posted the 400th article on its Ethnic Elders Newsbeat page since we started it in late 2008. (NAM is a nonprofit news service working with 3,000 ethnic media in the United States.)

The 400th piece, “Caregivers Break the Silence: Japanese Americans at Risk,” is by Ellen Endo. A veteran editor and reporter in the Asian American media, Endo developed the story for her ethnic media organization, Rafu Shimpo in Los Angeles, under the MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellows program, a collaboration between the nonprofit NAM and the Gerontological Society of America (GSA).

But it could just as well have been stories by other MetLife Fellows, perhaps Cristina Fresquez-Pizarro’s piece for the Denver-based El Semanario on the high level of Parkinson’s among Latinos, or the next installment of Peter McDermott’s series on older immigrants aging in America for the Irish Echo in New York.

Not only has developing (and sometimes writing) such articles given me a full editorial spice rack of story angles on aging, but it has deepened my belief that reporters can enliven many stories – often in surprising and meaningful ways – simply by finding at least one ethnically diverse source. Sometimes their input derives from culture, sometimes from systematic flaws leading to social or health care disparities. But more often than not, some demographic digging results in deeper, more nuanced explorations of American society. (The great late editor Bob Maynard said reporters should view every story through the prism of culture, class, gender, geography and generation.)

One of the more striking cultural examples I’ve encountered came from a story I wrote in 2010. As part of a series on mental health challenges for ethnic elders, I interviewed psychologist Terry Gock, who directs Asian Pacific Family Center in Los Angeles.

For “Golden Years Grow Dark for Isolated Elders,” he explained, “Even if you ask about being sad or depressed – and it’s hard to even ask that in Asian languages – they’d probably say no . . . . But practitioners might well get a different answer if, instead of inquiring whether the older person is sad, translating into Chinese the question, ‘Does your heart not feel good?’” He explained, “The symptoms a service provider asks about can create a very different picture of what symptoms [Asian seniors] have.”

Sometimes silence is the best answer. In a recent profile I wrote of Stanford palliative-care expert, V.J. Periyakoil, M.D., who is from India; she described once visiting a younger Chinese cancer patient’s home shortly after her death. The woman’s husband led her wordlessly into the candlelit bedroom. He quietly shook his head at the physician’s attempts to kneel down and take vital signs or even to express condolences in this sacred moment.

Periyakoil told me, “I learned that Chinese Buddhists believe the soul lingers in the body for some time after death. So they do not touch the body or vocally express grief as this might disrupt the passage of the dying person’s soul and prevent them from being reborn into a better life.”

The 400 articles on aging we’ve posted at NAM – many developed through mid-career training projects like our MetLife Journalists in Aging Fellow program – cover both the differences that can give us challenges and the similarities that bind us as human. (Our website is mostly in English, but we work with ethnic media to translate stories they’d like for their in-language audiences.)

As I scan back over the website pages showing hundreds of articles, I find myself hoping that more journalists will find themselves a fascinated, tickled, moved by the global tales within our borders and, frequently, right under our noses for news. AHCJ members might well find a story idea or two by scanning over headlines on a few screens on our Ethnic Elders website.

Now, on to 500.

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