Boston area's ethnic press helps varied groups preserve traditions

Editors and publishers of newspapers like El Mundo, the Hellenic Chronicle, the Armenian Weekly, and Sampan met recently in Boston to discuss how their publications serve Americans in this area who wish to maintain ties to the culture, traditions -- and news -- of their homelands. The Hellenic Chronicle, Armenian Weekly, and El Mundo may not stand out on the shelves of the corner newsstand. But for many readers in the Boston area, these and other ethnic newspapers shine like beacons.

In eastern Massachusetts, there are also newspapers for black, Jewish, Chinese, Irish, and Portuguese ethnic groups. Phillip Perlmutter, of the Jewish Community Council, says in fact, ``People don't realize how much ethnic media there is here.''

Publishers and other members of the ethnic press recently met in Boston to discuss their publications, and how they serve their readers. Some participants also spoke of the role their papers play in balancing sometimes poor ethnic reporting in the general media.

Joseph Giordano, director of the Center on Ethnicity, Behavior, and Communication of the American Jewish Committee, says America is not just a melting pot.

``Cultural baggage is not cast off,'' he says. ``There is a strong relationship between having a positive sense of ethnic identity and self-esteem,'' he says. The ethnic media can play an important role in encouraging this positive sense, he adds.

Kim Tan, editor of the biweekly Chinese paper, Sampan, says his paper offers a forum for the Chinese community to express its ``Chineseness.''

Leo Sarkisian, a columnist for the Armenian Weekly, says the ethnic press ``plays a role in maintaining the identity'' of ethnic people. Armenians are a scattered people, he says. ``The paper is one link in the chain to help keep the sense of the nation alive.''

Not surprisingly, what makes ``news'' for one ethnic paper might not get a mention in another.

Peter Agris, publisher and editor of the English language Hellenic Chronicle, says his paper is a link between Greece and Greeks living in this area. The paper has two correspondents in Athens. One covers politics; the other social activities. The paper also receives news from the Athens News Agency.

The Armenian Weekly is sponsored by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation of America. Leo Sarkisian, a columnist for the paper, says ``it has a bias.'' The goal of the paper is a ``free Armenia.''

Mr. Sarkisian says the paper's major story last year followed unsuccessful attempts to have Congress pass a bill to ``commemorate the Armenian genocide.'' He says the paper often publishes an ``interpretation of events from an Armenian point of view, such as the significance of events in Turkey.''

The weekly El Mundo is not really an ethnic paper, says spokeswoman Delia Marcos DeVargas. It is for the thousands of Hispanics in this area united by a common language.

Ms. DeVargas, who is herself from Spain, says ``nationalistically, we are so divided.'' Yet with a constant influx of immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries, there will be an ongoing need for news in Spanish in this area, she says.

The paper's emphasis, she says, is on Latin American news. El Mundo has two correspondents in Miami who monitor radio news broadcasts from Latin America. Some of its news comes from the Voice of America and the Spanish-language service of the Associated Press.

She says her paper has no bias, except that it is stridently anti-Castro. She says the paper's publisher comes from Cuba and had several run-ins with Castro. Now he is an American citizen, she says, and is grateful he can publish an independent newspaper and speak out as he sees fit.

That sentiment is echoed by Peter Agris of the Hellenic Chronicle. ``Thank God we're in America, where we can publish an independent newspaper,'' he says.

Mel Miller, publisher of the black-oriented Bay State Banner, says a major role of the ethnic press is to counter what is poorly reported in the general press. Mr. Miller says the message coming out of the mass media right now is that blacks are either ``athletes, musicians, or criminals.''

Most news reports and television programs which support this view are the result of ignorance, he says, and ``things happen with far less conscious malice than is believed.'' But, Miller says, stereotypes based on ignorance can be hard to change.

Mr. Giordano says there has long been an adversarial role between ethnic groups and the general press. Generally, ethnic groups have ``reacted'' to what they see as unfair reporting or the use of misleading stereotypes. In many cases, the general media overlook or neglect what ethnic groups see as legitimate issues.

To remedy this, Giordano says, ethnic groups must develop more sound relationships with the general media. He says they must work on ``educating people to understand how to portray ethnics.''

The Ethnic Heritage News service in Chicago is an example of how this can work, Giordano says. The service feeds stories to the general media, he says, and has been responsible for getting a lot of ethnic news into the general press.

Giordano says such a model could well work elsewhere -- that ethnic news can produce stories that ``have universal appeal.''

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