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Beyond mainstream: The state of news in East Palo Alto

Diversifying coverage of East Palo Alto

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Editor’s note: The following article is authored by Claire Thompson ’16 M.A. ’19 for her class, Exploring Computational Journalism. She teamed up with three others — Heidi Chen ’20, Starr Jiang ’20, and Akilah Johnson, a John S. Knight journalism fellow — to tackle the question of diversifying sources in mainstream news coverage.

About three miles from Stanford’s campus, just across the 101, the city of East Palo Alto (EPA) has been called many things. In the 90s, it earned the title “murder capital of the U.S.” and in the late 2010s, it was designated as the last bastion of affordable housing in Silicon Valley. Now with a Four Seasons Hotel and multi-million dollar homes, even affordability is in question.

The prevailing narrative of East Palo Alto in the popular press has been one of crime, unemployment, a failing school system and drugs. Following the tech boom ushered in by Silicon Valley, that list grew to include displacement and gentrification. When a particular place or community seems to wind up repeatedly in the news for less-than-flattering reasons, the question remains: Why do these narratives prevail? Where does that negative image come from, and who’s doing the painting?

We tend to hear from a familiar cast of characters in mainstream news: elected officials, company heads and “influencers.” But if powerful and highly visible people are the only voices we hear, does that become a problem? If journalists only interview a certain subset of sources to represent a community, readers may miss out on the nuance and understanding that other, less visible members of the community might have to offer.  

A scan of the Bay Area’s primary news outlets — The San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News — yields very little coverage of East Palo Alto. Searching for “East Palo Alto” turned up articles several months or even years old, most of which fit into the prevailing narrative: “Year-long probe leads to massive East Palo Alto gang bust,” “East Palo Alto woman arrested in Bay Area bank robberies,” “Breaking promises in East Palo Alto.”

A search for “East Palo Alto” on SF Chronicle’s website yields only 3,396 results (as of March 1, 2019), while “Palo Alto” yields 35,453 results. “Mountain View”: 17,945 results; “Menlo Park”: 14,137.

East Palo Alto does have a local newspaper of its own — East Palo Alto Today — but its reporting is held back by a lack of funding, according to founder, publisher and Editor in Chief Henrietta Burroughs.

In fact, Burroughs said that funding has been an issue for the newspaper since its inception. Burroughs started the East Palo Alto Center for Community Media in 2003, and the newspaper, EPA Today, in 2006. Prior to that, East Palo Alto hadn’t had a regularly published local paper in over two decades.

“This was something that the residents said they really wanted,” Burroughs said.

The paper uses a nonprofit model, so revenue can come in from grants as well as advertising. All the content is freely available without paywalls. However, the grants, advertising dollars and donations that the paper does receive are spread thin. Burroughs recalled that when the center was first getting off the ground, she applied unsuccessfully for several grants to kickstart the newspaper.

“I thought that if we waited for the money we’d never launch the paper,” she said. “So I launched it anyway.”

The paper is currently published about every two months in print and online, but Burroughs said her goal has always been to publish more frequently — biweekly or even weekly. The paper has never had the budget to hire staff, so Burroughs works with a handful of unpaid contributors to report and write stories about East Palo Alto. Thanks to community grants, she is also able to hire summer interns.

Mark Dinan, an East Palo Alto homeowner since 2009, came up with one solution to the problem of the lack of diversity in news coverage for EPA.

“How can they only be interviewing people from one side of the spectrum in EPA?” Dinan said in response to the city’s representation in mainstream news.

In 2017, Dinan started a closed Facebook group where residents and members of the extended EPA community could share updates, request info and connect with one another. The group currently has over 2,500 members and is still growing. One resident we spoke to even went so far as to call this group “life-changing,” and said it was her main source of local news these days.

Dinan and his wife also started East Palo Alto Sun, a Facebook page that aggregates articles relevant to East Palo Alto via Google News alerts pulling stories from various outlets, like Palo Alto Online and the Palo Alto Daily Post. Dinan makes a point of reposting important stories in other community groups as well.

Dinan pointed out that one of the benefits of robust news coverage is the watchdog function it serves. Calling out symptoms of a problem isn’t always helpful, but real change can come from the news when it exposes institutional breakdown, high-level corruption or other hidden issues, he said. He’d like to see more of this type of coverage in EPA.

However, those stories tend to be costly. To serve as watchdogs, news outlets need substantial resources to devote to investigations and original reporting. For some local newspapers, that’s a tall order.

“It’s interesting,” Burroughs said, “while the community really needs a newspaper, and expectations are very high for a newspaper, the funding isn’t there.”

Still, Burroughs noted that news shouldn’t be all negative. According to her, one of EPA Today’s strengths, if not comprehensiveness, is the manner in which it covers local issues. The stories in EPA Today give more focus to all of the positive things going on in the community, Burroughs said, compared to other outlets that may focus on covering the negative characterizations of East Palo Alto.

Perhaps most importantly, Burroughs stressed that EPA Today strives to represent voices from the community as fairly and accurately as possible.

“I’ve had people in the community come to me and complain about how they were treated in other media,” she said. “There were always stories running about negative things in the community that they thought were not fair.”

Regina Wallace-Jones, the recently elected vice mayor of East Palo Alto, echoed this sentiment. According to her, few stories in the mainstream press reflect the nuances of life when told about East Palo Alto. This was one reason why East Palo Alto Today was created, she said. But the shortage of resources there means that stories go untold.  

As our project for the computational journalism class progressed, we wound up creating a crowd-sourced database of local sources who can speak on various issues in East Palo Alto. The database is built from the recommendations of EPA community members, via a survey and “shoe-leather reporting” (an old-fashioned approach, with boots on the ground rather than under a desk) that we conducted. We are hopeful it will continue to grow into an easy-to-use resource that will allow reporters connect with sources outside the usual, most visible suspects.

East Palo Alto is a small, mixed-income, racially diverse city with an interesting history, grappling with many of the same ups and downs that other cities throughout the Bay Area now face. The arrival of tech companies leads to greater economic opportunity for some, and increasing housing prices for all.

Yet, tech also means new ways to connect with one another. Waves of new residents may lead to racial tensions and class conflict, but also opportunities for dialogue and growth. The saying goes that there are two sides to every story — but community members like Burroughs and Dinan are trying to show that there are actually many, many more.

This article has been corrected to reflect Starr Jiang’s correct class year. The Daily regrets this error.


Contact Claire Thompson at clairet ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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