By: Tsitsi D. Wakhisi
Nearly three years after a devastating earthquake left Haiti in shambles, news from the country continues to grab sporadic headlines in the mainstream media. They highlight Haiti’s many challenges, including continuing tragedies related to weather, the economy, politics, and disease.
Quietly, and mostly on shoestring budgets, Haitian media in greater Miami are covering news of Haiti beyond its catastrophes. Catering to America’s largest concentration of Haitian immigrants and their offspring, emergent ethnic media are reaching out to a South Florida audience longing to connect to their homeland — and the new land.
The Haitian media’s efforts are documented in a University of Miami study released earlier this year. The study looks at the uses and practices of Haitian media in Greater Miami — from newspapers and radio to TV shows and websites.
The study, funded by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, also looks at how news producers are coping with huge economic challenges and their efforts to compete for shrinking advertising dollars and, for newspapers, a shrinking readership.
“The study is about the dos and don’ts, successes and failures that we found in studying the Haitian media market in south Florida,” said Yves Colon, a professional journalist and lecturer at UM who worked on the study, titled “Haitian Community Media in Miami: Transnational Audiences, Journalists, and Radio Programmers.”
Colon, along with Lilia Santiague, an instructor at Indiana State University, conducted nearly 100 interviews in Miami from August 2008 through June 2009, and for 10 days following Haiti’s 2010 earthquake. Sixteen Miami- based journalists and other media producers also were interviewed before and after the earthquake.
According to the report, Creole and French-language media play a dual role in helping Haitian residents in their transition to south Florida and the United States while keeping them informed about what is happening in Haiti.
Ethnic media also contribute to an individual’s greater emotional well-being, said Sallie Hughes, the study’s lead author and an associate professor in UM’s journalism and media management department.
“There are emotional and psychological benefits of this media for a linguistic audience for some segments who feel marginalized,” Hughes said. “Economically successful Haitians will integrate, but there are others who will draw upon the media for emotional support during transition.”
Haitian media offerings have grown over the past three decades to keep pace with the burgeoning Haitian population in south Florida, which hovers at about 400,000 in Miami- Dade and Broward counties. They include Creole-language AM radio programming available any time of the day, two Creole-language television companies, the local NBC affiliate broadcast news, and other daily programming on three cable channels. Two locally based newspapers produced primarily in French also are available, and a website that offers news, entertainment, and cultural happenings gives a young Haitian audience a way to stay connected and informed online.
But young adult Haitians interviewed for the study say they rarely rely on the local Haitian media for their news. When former President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton inaugurated a new $300 million industrial park in Haiti in October, UM student Steve Pierre followed the developments via a Miami Herald reporter’s Twitter feed.
A junior majoring in electronic journalism and sports administration, Pierre said he did not have time to read the print or online version of Jacqueline Charles’ story about the Caracol Industrial Park, a partly U.S.-financed initiative that promises to provide 65,000 jobs.
“In college, we are on Twitter and Facebook. It’s a quick way to get updated on what’s going on,” said Pierre, 22. “It’s not a full grasp, but you get the main idea.”
Pierre represents thousands of typical young Haitian adults who have grown up speaking Haitian Creole at home but English elsewhere. Unlike most of their parents or grandparents — first-generation immigrants — younger Haitians don’t listen to the Creole-language programming on radio talk shows and cable TV; they don’t read the news available in Creole or French.
Pierre said he could not pinpoint why he does not read Haiti en Marche or Le Floridien, the area’s two locally produced newspapers. Neither does he listen to popular radio host Nelson “Piman Bouk” Voltaire, who fills the airwaves with his own fiery brand of political commentary. And Sorbonne-educated journalist Alex St. Surin, whose show on Radio Mega offers the largest Creole-language news operation in Miami, is not on Pierre’s radio preset. “
It’s kind of weird,” Pierre said. “If anything major happens in the region, I will read about it in The Herald,” he said, “or find out from my parents.”
In the study, UM researchers found that language ability plays a decisive role in whether Haitian Americans go to Creole-language news sources or rely on mainstream news, which, in Miami, includes English- and Spanish-language publications and programming.
Creole speakers depend on Creole-language media, while bilinguals use Creole-language media primarily to help maintain a Haitian ethnic identity. They use a mix of media to stay informed about the new land, homeland, and ethnic community. They also incorporate elements of a pan-racial black American worldview and identity.
Marie Alexis, 47, is a single parent who works two custodial jobs. Originally from Haiti, she has raised three children in Miami, all of whom have attended college. Alexis is a frequent listener of HOT 105 (WHQT-FM), a predominantly music-based radio station that offers national black entertainment and information programming.
When she first moved to Miami 30 years ago, Alexis kept her radio tuned to the Haitian radio talk shows. Now she is a convert to black radio programming, her primary source of news and music entertainment. Alexis said she had not heard of the new industrial plant that opened in Haiti. And when she wants to be in the know about events in her homeland, she said she does not turn to mainstream or Haitian media.
“My friends tell me; my sister tells me; people I work with tell me; and sometimes my son goes online and gives me the news,” Alexis said.
Within one household, each member may have a different way of consuming news. Haitians cannot be seen as a monolithic group of news consumers, study respondents said.
“My parents listen to the Creole radio stations,” Pierre said. Both in their 50s, the couple moved to Miami in the early 1980s. “My older sister pays more attention to the Haitian media than either my brother or I,” he added.
Many of the Haitians interviewed for the study faulted mainstream media for not providing consistent coverage. “Who talks about the progress, the successes?” they asked.
Pierre, who assisted UM researchers on the study after the earthquake, said respondents were disappointed with mainstream coverage of Haiti and Haitian Americans.
“They were dissatisfied that the media were not covering every angle of a story. When that happened, they went back to Haitian media,” Pierre said.
“Where CNN would report for two minutes, Island TV would offer 20,” said Tamara Philippeaux, who has run the cable program Island TV with her husband, Robert Philippeaux, since 1996. The couple buys six hours of airtime daily from Comcast and offers news, entertainment, and news features mostly in Creole.
What media producers need are resources, the couple said. “We have the audience glued to the TV for the station’s comprehensive coverage; then we go off the air at midnight,” Tamara Philippeaux said.
Lack of financial resources is one of three broad areas that plague Haitian media, study respondents said. The others are quality of content, including veracity, variety, and standards of technical production, and a commitment to transparency, autonomy, and public service.
For their part, Haitian media producers complain that they cannot provide the kind of quality and coverage they would like, because advertising dollars are tight.
Robert Philippeaux bristles over the lack of advertising from non-Haitian businesses.
“It’s important for any business to understand that in south Florida we are a trilingual community. Anyone who is smart would target this community,” he told UM researchers, a sentiment echoed by other Haitian media producers in south Florida.
The study summarizes the frustrations of news consumers and producers, and makes recommendations for improvement, Colon said.
“The study is a way for people who are interested to set up better guidelines for Haitian journalists and producers,” Colon said.
The study suggests the creation of a nonprofit Haitian Media Association made up of journalists and representatives of Haitian non-government organizations that focus on community service and local educational enterprise.
The association could organize a common news-gathering and dissemination plan, promote and offer sector-wide advertising to large clients and advertising agencies that feature a range of Haitian media, create joint marketing research and marketing campaigns, and identify and run joint training and education programs.
To read the full report, go to haitiancommunitymedia.org.
Tsitsi D. Wakhisi is a co-author of the report Haitian Community Media in Miami and associate professor of journalism at the University of Miami. She can be reached at email@example.com.