In communities across California, many residents rely on word-of-mouth for much of their information about staying safe during the pandemic. Local efforts to build trusted sources of news are helping to bridge that digital divide.
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On a recent hot Saturday, residents in a small tract of homes west of Fresno huddled under the shade to wait for a distribution of hygiene products and food.
Many of those who waited in lines for toilet paper, canned food and masks learned about the giveaway through organizer Lilia Becerril’s growing social media following.
While such products are essential in the fight against COVID-19, getting them in the hands of the people who need them is challenging, especially in rural areas that lack both a city government structure and a dedicated local news source, according to Becerril, a Fresno resident.
Since the coronavirus pandemic spread to the central San Joaquin Valley in early March, Becerril has picked up efforts on three Facebook pages she runs to get out information about food distributions, coronavirus testing centers, and how residents can get unemployment relief. Similar efforts are playing out across California where the digital divide is greatest in immigrant and low-income communities with limited internet access. Even when people are connected, there’s often a lack of understanding about where to find trusted sources of news.
“Information can get lost,” Becerril said. “Right now, above all else, we are in a crisis, and we have no choice but to get plugged in.”
She estimates helping around 500 families over the last two months, many of whom are farmworkers or recently unemployed and were cut out of government financial aid packages. She said those residents, who often live in areas with poor Internet connectivity, have struggled for many years to get reliable local information.
The coronavirus pandemic worsened the needs, she said.
“If this crisis is affecting me, how is it affecting other people?” Becerril said. “I have been fortunate that the information I share has helped me gain the trust of people.”
She worked with a variety of local organizations to connect with families most in need. Those efforts have helped families keep up with utility bills and groceries and provided protective gear like face masks.
A recent study from the UCLA California Policy Lab noted people of color, the eldery and women and children have born the brunt of the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Those are also many of the same people Becerril and others in the Valley have organized to help in recent years.
Becerril, who speaks limited English, said her community involvement began after seeing school kids near her home a few years ago make paper airplanes out of school fliers. Her neighbors were parents who only spoke Spanish, and she thought the information from the school wasn’t reaching them. Today, her social media bulletins reach thousands.
Health agency response
In one of the hardest-hit counties by COVID-19, Tulare County Health and Human Services Agency officials say they began early to reach out to communities with language needs and those who don’t typically seek public health messages.
Tammie Weyker-Adkins, the spokeswoman for the department, said the agency increased its use of digital outreach and fliers to reach residents in different languages. Like many in the state, the agency has regularly updated its online followers on the county’s coronavirus situation since it began.
“I do feel like we have really used that to our advantage to try to get information out to folks,” Weyker-Adkins said. “Effectively communicating information to the right audience at the right time with the right information, that is vital.”
At the start of May, the Tulare County health office began airing radio messages targeting Latino and Asian residents. The effort is funded through a grant from the government-run Listos California, a statewide disaster preparedness campaign. The county also set out to distribute postcards to seniors and face masks for the homeless with information printed about the virus and how to stay safe, Weyker-Adkins said.
Although she believes the county had time to prepare, Weyker-Adkins said the public health disaster has still left many with questions. She said the county has tried to learn how best to reach out to residents who may not be following state orders aimed at limiting the spread of the virus.
“You don’t really get that experience unless you’re either thrown into a disaster or get some training,” Weyker-Adkins said. “Even with the preparation, when you’re in the midst of it, it’s definitely a different animal.”
Reaching rural residents
In many small Valley cities, many residents work outdoors and rely on word-of-mouth for much of their information, said Juan Carlos Mosqueda, an Orosi resident and student at College of Sequoias in Visalia.
“They talk about it in the workplace,” he said.
Mosqueda said getting fast, reliable information is seen as a luxury for residents where he lives. His parents, who are farmworkers, often tune in to Spanish radio on drives to work at fruit farms and catch TV news segments in the afternoon. But the information doesn’t always apply directly to them.
“In a community where people do really hard labor, they don’t have the energy to connect like other places,” Mosqueda said.
For community advocates, combating the economic and social effects of the virus includes making sure residents aren’t getting the wrong information.
Leslie Martinez, a policy advocate with Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, said word of mouth could often be misleading if residents are not getting the correct information in the first place. She said residents in Lanare, a small unincorporated community in southwest Fresno County, have been left confused in recent weeks on issues like rent and utility shutoffs.
At the same time, Martinez told The Bee she has felt “radio silence” in attempts to reach county supervisors or government offices for information.
‘News deserts’ during COVID
Carolyn Powers, program manager for the Listening Post Collective at InterNews, said government officials like supervisors have “a big role” in informing residents during a crisis.
That’s especially true as many communities go without a local news service or live in areas where information is hard to reach. These communities, known as “news deserts,” have become increasingly concerning during the pandemic since they tend to affect rural areas the most, Power said.
But there have been efforts recently, following a 2019 study of the Valley’s news ecosystem, to increase information in communities that need it. The Listening Post Collective released a study late last year in which the group examined the news consumption habits of Black, Latino and Asian residents in rural areas.
The study found the residents most cared about getting information on health, housing and school — issues that have become increasingly of interest during the pandemic. Following the study, the Post Collective gave grants to different news projects in the Valley aimed at disadvantaged communities.
One of the news projects funded after the study includes The Ivanhoe Sol, a nonprofit newspaper run with the help of volunteers.
The printed newspaper is mailed to every home in Ivanhoe, a community of about 4,500 residents in Tulare County. It provides information about business closures, job openings and available aid resources.
Layoffs at school districts and other businesses have recently affected Ivanhoe residents, Editor in Chief Pedro Hernandez said. In one of its first issues, the newspaper included steps on how to apply for unemployment. Information is often written in Spanish and English.
Hernandez said getting the paper delivered to each home has been an effective way to keep the older residents informed who otherwise would have to rely on their phones or television for local information. That’s a challenge with high-priced and unreliable Internet, he and the newspaper’s volunteers said.
“There is a shift to the digital interface, but in a place like the Valley, it’s not a guarantee,” Hernandez said. “(Mail) is really one of the only ways of reliable communication between you and an entity. I view the postal service as the backstop for all the other forms of communication. It worked before the Internet was created.”
But other efforts also are being made online.
Sergio Cortes, a co-founder of the Fresno-based digital media platform USpark Valley, said reaching younger people to inform them about the pandemic’s effects has also been important since younger groups don’t tend to follow the news closely. USpark Valley also received a Post Collective grant.
Cortes said the platform doesn’t compete with other news sources, instead he and his small team aggregate and cite information already published by others around coronavirus and other issues, then distributes it in digital platforms, like Instagram and Twitter.
“This is really affecting our communities in really deep ways,” Cortes said. “Just because it’s in the news all the time, it doesn’t mean it’s meeting all the demographics.”
Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado is a reporter with the Fresno Bee. This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.