In a social context, scholars conceptualize minority groups on the basis of social status. Whether from a domestic or an international perspective, minority status is not predicated on numerical representation within a culture; it has to do with social or cultural difference, based on language, religion, or other cultural practices. When language differences exist, the dominant social group considers the news reports minority groups themselves produce as “foreign-language journalism.” Most scholars discount biological theories of race, which attempt to mark minority groups on the basis of physical characteristics, but some attempt to differentiate between racial or ethnic minorities. Even so, the key relationship between the minority group and the dominant social group is that the former is subordinate to the latter. As a result, members of minority groups frequently do not enjoy the same access to education, economic or political power, or other cultural capital as do members of the dominant social group.
The scholarly research literature on the history of minority journalism reveals an especially rich history in the United States, where nearly all nationalities and language groups have supported their own press (Wittke 1957). Minority journalism, especially when written in a culture’s native tongue, fulfills a vital function for its audiences. At a minimum, the foreign-language press provides news of the homeland and its relationship with the host country. Such media can also keep the language alive, preserve cultural ties with the homeland, bring immigrants together in their new land, and socialize newcomers to the cultural and other traditions of their host countries. The concept of minority journalism seems specific to the United States. Other countries tend to subsume the idea into ethnic, partisan, or political categories of journalism.
The characteristics of minority media include not only a desire to educate and improve the lives of their audiences but also an overtly activist mission. Racial and ethnic minority media often strive to protect the group’s civil rights as well as to monitor the economic, cultural, social, political, religious, and economic development of the community.
The first foreign-language newspaper in the United States was published even before the Declaration of Independence was signed. The first of many successful German-language newspapers, Philadelphia Zeitung, appeared on May 6, 1732. In 1789, the US French-language press was born (with the Courrier de Boston). By the mid to late 1800s, minority media had mushroomed: newspapers appeared in Norwegian, Chinese, Czech, Ukrainian, Polish, Italian, Yiddish, Hebrew, and many other languages. The period of rapid growth included Spanish-language newspapers. The first two such publications, El Misisipí (1808) and El Mensagero Luisianés (1809), served the New Orleans Spanish-speaking community.
Most historians consider the Cherokee Phoenix the first Native American newspaper. Published by the Cherokee Nation, this bilingual newspaper appeared on February 21, 1828. African-Americans owned and operated Freedom’s Journal, which appeared a year earlier, on March 16, 1827, when editors Samuel Eli Cornish and John Brown Russwurm launched the US black press.
When the new media of radio and television came onto the scene, activist functions and aspirations frequently carried over. Initially, minority broadcasts aired through what were called time-brokering arrangements. Less powerful radio stations often divided their day into discrete segments, which they sold to members of ethnic or racial minority groups to use as they saw fit. Time-brokering yielded a kaleidoscope of programming in Polish, Lithuanian, Greek, Spanish, Italian, and other languages. Many communities were served, but not at any given moment.
The first full-time Spanish-language radio station in the United States (KWKW, Los Angeles) took to the air in 1942. The first radio station fully committed to serving the African-American audience was WDIA, launched on October 25, 1948, in Detroit. Its white owners were desperate, not altruistic. When other formats had failed, the owners put the station on the market. One last-ditch experiment with what they called Negro programming ultimately launched a legend. WDIA became a powerhouse, and though it served the black community, it remained under white ownership. Though less of a powerhouse, WERD (Atlanta, Georgia) was the first black-owned US radio station. It wasn’t until 1977 that the first Native-American-owned commercial radio station (KMDX, serving Parker, Arizona) launched.
Many societies have created a social structure that marks minority groups by their language, religion, or other traditions. Continued research into the historical use of the mass media by minority groups, across many societies and from a domestic and international perspective, can help reveal the social relationships between the minority and dominant social groups. Such research should examine whether the journalistic output of minority groups using new communications technologies continues to reflect the activist goals and mission observed in the earliest minority journalism.
- Barlow, W. (1999). Voice over: The making of black radio. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
- Cantor, L. (1992). Wheelin’ on Beale: How WDIA-Memphis became the nation’s first all-black radio station and created the sound that changed America. New York: Pharos Books.
- Danky, J. P., & Hady, M. E. (eds.) (1998). African-American newspapers and periodicals: A national bibliography. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Gutiérrez, F., & Schement, J. R. (1979). Spanish-language radio in the Southwestern United States. Austin, TX: Center for Mexican American Studies, University of Texas at Austin.
- Kanellos, N., & Martell, H. (2000). Hispanic periodicals in the United States, origins to 1960: A brief history and comprehensive bibliography. Houston, TX: Arte Publico Press.
- Kowalik, J. (1978). The Polish press in America. San Francisco: R & E Research Associates.
- Littlefield, D. F., Jr., & Parins, J. W. (1984). American Indian and Alaska native newspapers and periodicals, 1826 –1924. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
- Lo, K., & Lai, H. M. (1977). Chinese newspapers published in North America, 1854 –1975. Washington, DC: Center for Chinese Research Materials, Association of Research Libraries.
- Pride, A. S., & Wilson, C. C., II (1997). A history of the black press. Washington, DC: Howard University Press.
- Soltes, M. (1969). The Yiddish press: An Americanizing agency. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University. (Original publication 1925).
- Trahant, M. N. (1995). Pictures of our nobler selves: A history of Native American contributions to news media. Nashville, TN: Freedom Forum First Amendment Center.
- Wittke, C. (1957). The German-language press in America. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press.