Information accessibility is vital for the more than 10 million deaf and hard of hearing people in the U.S. But in emergency situations, they are often the last to know. As COVID-19 hit, hospitals and government briefings have failed at times to provide sign language interpreters or accurate captions. News updates in written English aren’t necessarily accessible either, since English is a second language for many deaf Americans, who primarily use American Sign Language (ASL).
For the hundreds of thousands of ASL users nationwide, the biggest source of signed news during COVID-19 comes from a small home studio near Detroit, with just one full-time staffer.
Every weekday, Alex Abenchuchan uses ASL to deliver briefings of top news in the U.S. and beyond. His 5-year-old online channel, The Daily Moth, has more than 200,000 followers on Facebook. Mr. Abenchuchan also regularly covers issues within the deaf and hard of hearing community. This year, he has told stories of deaf essential workers, deaf COVID-19 patients, as well as deaf victims of police violence.
The Daily Moth is one of only a handful of professional ASL news platforms, many of which face funding struggles, according to Howard Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf.
From closed captions on his videos to the color of his backdrop and his shirt, Mr. Abenchuchan's news is designed to be accessible for deaf, DeafBlind, as well as hearing and sighted people. But his work is also about telling a good story – and striving for credibility – like any other journalist.
“There has never been anything like The Daily Moth before,” says Stacy Nowak, professor of communication at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., a leading university for deaf and hard of hearing people. ”And in some instances, it really saves [deaf people’s] lives, because they have access to news they can finally understand,” she says in ASL.
This story is meant to be watched in video format, but we understand that is not an option for everybody. For those who are unable to watch or listen, we have provided a transcript of the video below.
The video opens with close-ups of a person’s hands switching on professional studio lights and a camera. Then we see Alex, framed in the camera’s monitor, wearing a dark-colored shirt, and sitting against a dark-colored wall. The soundtrack is energetic, conveying a sense of expectation and excitement. Alex gazes into the lens, and starts to sign in ASL.
Alex Abenchuchan: Hello! Welcome to The Daily Moth. It’s Thursday, July 9th. Here are today’s top news briefs.
Female narrator: This is Alex Abenchuchan, a pioneer in American Sign Language journalism.
The video cuts to Alex’s published July 9, 2020 news broadcast on his Facebook channel. The report plays on a laptop, which is placed on a desk against a window. This setup is created by the video producer to show Alex’s published work. On the left side of the laptop are pens and some newspapers, on the right side is a lamp. The published July 9th report shows Alex on the right side of the screen. The screen’s upper left area shows images of George Floyd and the ex-police officers involved in his killing. Text beneath the images reads: “George Floyd said ‘I can’t breathe’ almost thirty times.” Alex signs.
Alex: Floyd’s last three words were: “Please, please, please.”
Narrator: Alex started The Daily Moth, an online daily news show, in 2015, and has since become a household name among deaf and hard of hearing Americans.
In the same setup with the laptop on the desk, we see a close-up of The Daily Moth’s logo on the channel’s Facebook page. The logo shows a moth covering part of the bottom of a light bulb. Then we see a hand scroll through The Daily Moth’s Facebook page, showing the icons of previous video reports, many of them featuring Alex. A close-up of the Facebook page shows the text: 210.2K followers.
The video then cuts to an interview with Alex, sitting in his studio by his desk. Text near the bottom of the screen indicates Alex’s name and his job as the host of The Daily Moth.
Alex: I’m covering the big news in the hearing community, but also the deaf person’s perspective. That’s what I like to do, get that deaf perspective.
The video cuts to a scene of Alex interviewing a man via video call. Alex sits at his computer in his studio, and the two chat in ASL. Alex asks the guest, “How does it work with online classes? What does it look like?”
Narrator: As COVID-19 and racial unrest swept the US, The Daily Moth has covered issues facing deaf patients, deaf first responders, as well as deaf victims of police violence.
During the narration, the video cuts back to the earlier setup with the laptop on the desk. As the narrator lists the topics covered by The Daily Moth, the laptop shows clips from the corresponding reports. In the first clip, a man describes his symptoms. In the second clip, a police officer talks about wearing masks. And in the third clip, a Black deaf man points to a boy in a black and white photo.
The video cuts to a close-up of a cell phone, placed on the desk near the laptop. The phone plays two video messages to Alex from his fans. In the first message, a man signs slowly and emphatically: “The Daily Moth is champ! Clear in a visual language.” He then makes a heart shape with his hands. In the second message, a man and a woman both hold out a hand to form a heart shape together for Alex.
The video cuts to an interview with Stacy Nowak, Professor of communication at Gallaudet University. Text near the bottom of the screen indicates her name and job title. She wears a black shirt with Gallaudet University’s logo on the chest. She signs in ASL.
Stacy Nowak: There has never been anything like The Daily Moth before. With the visual aspect of it, deaf people are more motivated to watch the news. And in some instances, it really saves their lives, because they have access to news they can finally understand.
As Stacy explains how The Daily Moth can save lives, the video cuts to slow-motion shots of Alex signing his news report in his studio. In one shot, he signs the phrase “wave of COVID-19.” In the next, he signs “coronavirus.”
The video cuts to an interview with Alex. In the background, we see his professional light equipment, his teleprompter, and a computer monitor showing The Daily Moth’s logo.
Alex: I love reading and watching the news, movies and documentaries. The storytelling is within me. I need to know what’s happening and I feel like I can’t miss out on knowing.
The soundtrack changes to a soft, thoughtful tune. The video cuts to Alex in his studio. He bends down and places a computer keyboard on the ground, on a spot marked by blue tape just in front of his right foot. He straightens up, facing his camera, teleprompter, and lights. He straightens his shirt, and signs his news report as text rolls through his teleprompter. He plays and pauses the rolling text by tapping the keyboard’s spacebar with his toes. The narrator’s voice fades in during the scene.
Narrator: Alex is the only full time staffer at The Daily Moth. He works from his home studio near Detroit, and he designed the space with an eye toward accessibility.
The video cuts to Alex pointing at the studio walls and his shirt as he explains the design.
Alex: The reason why this is dark is for a DeafBlind audience to be able to clearly see the contrast between the dark colors and my hands. Deaf people who can see also tend to prefer a good contrast color.
The video cuts to Alex inserting the memory card from his camera into his computer. In his editing software, he plays an animated version of The Daily Moth’s logo, in which the moth flutters away from the light bulb and disappears off screen. He looks at footage of a black man signing. Narration fades in.
Narrator: Information accessibility is vital for the more than 10 million deaf and hard of hearing Americans nationwide. But as COVID-19 hit, many have encountered significant barriers, as hospitals and official briefings have failed at times to provide interpreters or accurate captions.
The video cuts to the earlier setup with the laptop on the desk. The laptop shows two news headlines. The first one, from The Los Angeles Times, reads: “Coronavirus poses added challenges for hospital patients who are deaf and hard of hearing.” The second one, from CNN, reads: “Deaf Americans are urging the White House to use sign language interpreters at coronavirus briefings.”
The video then cuts to an interview with Howard Rosenblum, chief executive of the National Association of the Deaf. Text near the bottom of the screen indicates his name and job title. He stands in front of a poster showing a person’s hands making a sign that means “together.” Text in all caps next to the hands says, “NOTHING ABOUT US, WITHOUT US!”
Howard Rosenblum: COVID-19 has impacted us in every way and has turned our lives upside down. But deaf and hard of hearing people are usually the last to know, and often don’t realize their rights during times like these.
The video cuts to the setup with the laptop on the desk. The screen shows The Daily Moth’s report from May 13, 2020. Alex occupies the right half of the screen and signs. The screen’s upper left area shows an image of New York governor Andrew Cuomo. Text under the image reads: “N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo provides in-frame interpreter after judge’s order.” Alex says, "U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni ordered Governor Cuomo that he was to immediately provide in-frame interpreting."
Alex’s video report suddenly pauses at the sound of the spacebar. The soundtrack also stops, creating a sense of suspense.
Narrator: But you might wonder, why do we need ASL when information is also available in written English? That’s partly because English is a second language for many deaf people.
During the narration, the video cuts to Alex signing the news in his studio. The soundtrack changes to an energetic, intriguing melody. A close-up of Alex’s teleprompter shows his English script rolling through its screen. A second close-up shows in Alex’s hands in slow-motion, moving across the frame as he signs.
The video cuts to an interview with Stacy Nowak, the professor at Gallaudet University.
Stacy: Deaf people are visual. Often hearing people perceive ASL as being easier, and a simplified, summarized, “good enough” version of English. Really, it’s the opposite. With non-verbal language, we see things differently, and more.
The video cuts to a slow-motion shot of Alex explaining Dr. Anthony Fauci’s idea that the US is still in the middle of the first wave of COVID-19 infections. Alex’s right hand traces a curve in the air to represent the first wave. He then signs the word “still” and points at a spot on the imaginary curve. The video then cuts back to the interview with Alex.
Alex: I try to present the information in 3D and create more of a picture than the English allows for. For instance, news regarding Black Lives Matter street paintings. I use space to show how it’s written on the street in front of Trump Tower.
The video cuts to a slow-motion shot, where Alex raises his right arm in a vertical motion to draw Trump Tower, and then moves his left hand in a horizontal motion, to indicate the large street painting at the foot of the building.
Narrator: But news isn’t just about vivid narratives.
The video cuts back to the interview with Stacy Nowak. The soundtrack changes to a gentle, thoughtful melody.
Stacy: Deaf people can trust him because he cites his sources. If he makes mistakes, he will admit them, or he will correct himself.
The video cuts to Alex typing the script of his broadcast. An extreme close-up shows the reflection of the computer screen in his eyes. Behind him, a logo of The Daily Moth, about a foot tall, is propped up on a desk.
Narration: And to remove his own opinion from the news, Alex has developed a particular body language.
The video cuts to an interview with Alex.
Alex: With ASL, I use my facial expressions to express tone. With my news briefs, I aim for a more monotonous delivery to remain neutral and unbiased. That means I have to tone down my facial expressions. However, I still emphasize information as needed. There’s a little bit of an art to it.
As Alex explains his use of body language, the video cuts to various shots of Alex recording his show, to illustrate the neutral facial expression that Alex refers to. In one clip, Alex signs: “Michael Cohen is now back in federal prison.”
The soundtrack changes to a percussion piece that evokes a sense of wonder. The video cuts back to the setup with the laptop on the desk. The laptop shows a painting featured on The Daily Moth’s Facebook page. The painting depicts a large, colorful moth and a light bulb against a blue background. Alex’s smiling face is drawn across the moth’s back and wings, blending together with patterns on the moth’s back. The video cuts to an interview with Alex.
Alex: Why did I name it The Daily Moth? Deaf people tend to flock towards light, especially bright light. If there’s a deaf event in someone’s house, deaf people tend to gather in the kitchen, because that’s where the light’s the brightest. The bright light gives us the energy to socialize with others. And ASL is a visual language.
The video cuts back to the earlier scene of Alex interviewing a man over video chat. Alex is lit up by large, bright studio lights, positioned behind the computer screen. He signs his question to the man, and nods as the man replies.
Narrator: The Daily Moth is one of only a handful of professional ASL news platforms.
The video cuts back to an interview with Howard Rosenblum from the National Association of the Deaf.
Howard: The Daily Moth and other similar groups have funding struggles.
The video cuts back to an interview with Alex.
Alex: Deaf people go through so many struggles on a daily basis. We face discrimination. Sometimes we need laws passed that support and improve our quality of life. Without deaf journalism, those discussions can only occur in small pockets on social media.
The video cuts to the setup of the laptop on the desk. We see a close-up of a cell phone, placed on the desk near the laptop. The phone plays two messages to Alex from audience members. In the first message, a woman signs: “Thank you for your hard work. It helps keep me calm and stay at home and stay safe.” Then she makes a heart shape with her hands. The second video shows two men standing side by side. The one on the left signs emphatically: “We watch it every day! Thank you.”
The video then cuts to the laptop on the desk. The laptop plays the last few seconds of Alex’s published July 9th news report. Alex signs.
Alex: That’s all the news for today. See you tomorrow, and stay with the light.
The video ends. The logo of The Christian Science Monitor appears, followed by the end credits. End credits: produced by Jingnan Peng; cinematography and additional reporting by Adrean Mangiardi; additional cinematography by Jingnan Peng; English translations by Deaf Professional News Network; color correction by Vincent Lomascolo; voiceover by Jingnan Peng, Noelle Swan, Mark Sappenfield, Clay Collins, and Samantha Laine Perfas; production supervised by Samantha Laine Perfas.