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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 17 Numbers 1 & 2, 2007


Holley A. Wilkin
Georgia State University

Sandra J. Ball-Rokeach
University of Southern California

Matthew D. Matsaganis
University of Southern California

Pauline Hope Cheong
State University of New York, Buffalo

Abstract: Relying on the theoretical frameworks of media system dependency (MSD) and communication infrastructure theory (CIT), both distinctively ecological approaches, this paper has methodological and applied goals. The first is to highlight and persuade researchers and practitioners of the advantages of studying communication ecologies - the web of interpersonal and media (new and old/mainstream and geo-ethnic) connections that people construct in the course of everyday life. The second aim is to present a comprehensive multiethnic communication map to guide the efforts of all who seek the most effective ways to communicate with ethnically diverse populations. In this paper we provide a comprehensive look at the communication connection patterns of African Americans, Anglos, Armenians, Chinese, Hispanics, and Koreans living in several different Los Angeles communities.

Relying on the theoretical frameworks of media system dependency (MSD; Ball-Rokeach, 1985, 1998) and communication infrastructure (CIT; Ball-Rokeach, Kim and Matei, 2001; Kim and Ball-Rokeach, 2006; Jung, Qiu and Kim, 2001), both distinctively ecological approaches, this paper aims, first of all, to highlight and illustrate the advantages of studying communication ecologies - i.e., the web of interpersonal and media (new and old/mainstream and geo-ethnic) connections that people construct in the course of everyday life. In this regard, we join other researchers who stress the added value of examining media in context, so as to be able to assess their relative importance (Altheide, 1997; Atkin, Bradley and Thomas, 1991; Dorr and Kunkel, 1990; Engelberg, Flora and Nass, 1995; Hermand, Mullet and Rompteaux, 1999; Perse, Ferguson and McLeod, 1994; Sacco, 1995; Snyder and Rouse, 1995; Trumbo, 1998).

Our second goal is to provide a multiethnic communication map to guide the efforts of researchers and practitioners who seek the most effective ways to communicate with a range of ethnically diverse populations. Drawing upon the Metamorphosis Project studies of communication technology and community (Ball-Rokeach, 1998; Ball-Rokeach, Kim and Matei, 2001; Jung, Qiu and Kim, 2001; Kim and Ball-Rokeach, in press; Kim and Ball-Rokeach, 2006; Kim, Jung and Ball-Rokeach, 2002; Loges and Jung, 2001; Matei and Ball-Rokeach, 2001; Matei and Ball-Rokeach, 2002; Matei and Ball-Rokeach, 2003; Matei, Ball-Rokeach and Qiu, 2001; Matei, Ball-Rokeach, Wilson, Gibbs, Gutierrez-Hoyt, 2001), we pull together data from the study of 11 geo-ethnic groups (i.e., an ethnic population that resides within a specific geographic area/community) in the Greater Los Angeles area. We present findings that illustrate how the same ethnic group living in different communication action contexts (i.e., residential communities) constructs different communication ecologies.

Communication Ecology: What Is It and Why Does It Matter?

We conceive of people developing their own communication systems or ecologies whereby they establish connections to other people and to media for purposes of attaining everyday life goals (Ball-Rokeach, 1985). The importance of any particular communication connection is relative to the importance of all other available and appropriate options (e.g., Flanagin and Metzger, 2001). People usually connect to more than one communication option to achieve any particular goal; that is, they operate in context of the best choices available. We view people's communication ecologies as dynamically responsive to the particular goal or goals at issue. For example, we would expect to find different ecologies when the goal is to understand events in one's community from the ecologies generated by the goal of figuring out what to do for relaxation and entertainment (Ball-Rokeach, 1998; Wilkin, 2005).

Media System Dependency Relations: Different Goals, Different Media Ecologies

The link between goal-attainment and media connectedness is elaborated in Ball-Rokeach's media system dependency (MSD) theory (Ball-Rokeach, 1985, 1998). The theory suggests that individuals rely on different media to various degrees in order to accomplish particular goals of understanding, orientation, play, and health (Ball-Rokeach, Rokeach and Grube, 1984; Ball-Rokeach, 1998; Loges, 1994) [1]. Understanding goals, which are the focus of this paper, include making sense of one's internal world (self-understanding) and making sense of what is happening in one's social environment, the external world (social-understanding) (Ball-Rokeach, 1998, p. 20). Analytically, capturing how media connectedness and communication ecologies vary across the three types of goals is critical for researchers and practitioners alike. More specific goals, such as figuring out what options you have for childcare in your neighborhood, mobilizing your neighbors to create a neighborhood watch group, or organizing a neighborhood block party, could be considered understanding, orientation, and play goals respectively. To accomplish these goals, individuals are likely to rely on different media forms more than others, yet rarely on one alone. Moreover, for major communication campaigns (e.g., those launched by the National Institutes of Health or the Centers for Disease Control) to succeed, being able to identify the types of goals sought a priori is crucial. Successfully reaching at-risk populations to provide information about a new and more dangerous strain of HIV, for example, would require knowing what the communication ecology for understanding is for those individuals, while persuading these same people to adopt certain health behaviors would necessitate having a map of the media connections these individuals construct in pursuing action and interaction orientation goals (see Wilkin and Ball-Rokeach, 2006).

Communication Infrastructure Theory: Media Ecologies and Community Context

Communication infrastructure (CIT) theory goes beyond MSD theory in a number of ways, at least two of which are relevant for the current paper. It is, first of all, more inclusive of communication modalities, incorporating new and old media, mainstream, local, and ethnic media, interpersonal communication channels, as well as the communication outreach of community-based organizations. Secondly, CIT articulates and allows for the study of the dynamic relationship between the communication action context (CAC) and the neighborhood storytelling network (STN). The idea of a CAC captures the multi-dimensional community landscape where personal and social environments become integrated and in which communication takes place (Ball-Rokeach, 2003; Jung, 2003; Jung and Ball-Rokeach, 2004; Matsaganis, in press).

The Storytelling Network

The STN is created through a storytelling process in which residents, community organizations, and local/ethnic (i.e., geo-ethnic) media work with each other to construct a vision and a reality of their neighborhoods as places where they belong and engage shared concerns. "The vitality and durability of this network of storytellers can be strengthened or weakened by the nature of the neighborhood's communication environment" (Ball-Rokeach, 2003, p. 1). Neighborhood storytelling is broadly defined as any kind of communicative action that addresses the residents, their communities and that relates to their lives in those communities (Ball-Rokeach et al., 2001). CIT distinguishes between three levels of storytelling agents, from micro, to meso, to macro, differentiated based on their primary storytelling referent and their imagined audience. At the macro level, the mass media tell stories about the city, the nation, and the world at large. Their imagined audience is the population of the city, the state or the region. At the meso level, one finds two key agents: (a) geo-ethnic media and (b) community organizations. Geo-ethnic media refer to those media that either target specific geographical areas and/or specific populations (such as new immigrant minorities) (Kim, Jung and Ball-Rokeach, 2006). Meso-level storytellers are focused on specific residential communities. Finally, micro-level storytellers include residents in their networks of family, friends, and neighbors. CIT focuses primarily on meso- and micro-level storytellers.

Strong ties between storytellers across levels indicate an integrated storytelling network, which in turn is associated with higher levels of civic engagement (collective efficacy, neighborhood belonging, and civic participation) (Kim, 2003; Kim and Ball-Rokeach, 2006). The role of geo-ethnic (i.e., local and ethnically targeted) media, as meso-level storytellers, in this network is critical (e.g., Kim and Jung, 2002; 2003). Their presence alone, however, is not a guarantee for the emergence of a strong community. Lin (2004; see also Lin and Song, 2006) showed that local and ethnically targeted newspapers in communities with lower levels of civic engagement were less likely to tell stories about their community and more apt to print stories about the home country of newer immigrants. That said, the impact of stories told in geo-ethnic media depend upon the relative importance of those media to community members with regard to achieving specific goals. In communities of predominantly new immigrants where the geo-ethnic media are pre-occupied with stories developing thousands of miles away in the home country, it is conceivable, for instance, that these media may serve goals of self-understanding (e.g., negotiating a new identity across borders), while failing to serve social-understanding (e.g., staying on top of what is happening in the newfound country and community).

In addition to our conceptual orientation, the breadth of our coverage of communication connections was influenced by the practical realities of studying many ethnic groups who live in residential communities where geo-ethnic media abound. A theme in the larger Metamorphosis Project's inquiry is whether the geo-ethnic media of today are serving the same roles attributed to the immigrant media of the 1920s (Park, 1922; see also Lin, 2004). These media are also a critical part of a neighborhood storytelling network when they imagine an area as a community and, thereby, contribute to community building (see Ball-Rokeach et al., 2001; Kim et al., 2002).

We also consider the array of interpersonal communication connections - family, friends, service providers, experts - as key components of individual communication ecologies. In recent studies residents indicated that they rely heavily on these connections for certain types of goals. For example, Wilkin (2005) and Wilkin and Ball-Rokeach (2006) report that Latinos in Los Angeles identify interpersonal communication networks and local and ethnically targeted television as their top two channels they go to for health information.

Finally, we investigate Internet connections. Flanigan and Metzger (2001) suggest that the Internet can act as an interpersonal channel - through the use of electronic mail, instant messaging, and chat rooms - or as a mass-mediated channel used for information retrieval and information-giving. The Internet can also act as a meso-level storyteller, for example, in old immigrant areas (Matei and Ball-Rokeach, 2003) where community media are online and community forums available for discussions. As such, the Internet has drawn the attention of many communication researchers and campaign designers for its potential to reach diverse audiences through multiple levels of influence. However, the Internet may not be the best way to reach certain high-risk ethnic groups (Cheong and Wilkin, 2005; Cheong, Wilkin and Ball-Rokeach, 2004; Wilkin, 2005; Wilkin and Ball-Rokeach, 2006). It is important to regard the relative importance of the Internet within the larger communication ecology rather than its technological potential when choosing the best approach to reaching an audience.

The Communication Action Context

The neighborhood storytelling network is situated within a communication action context (CAC) and the construction of communication ecologies is impacted by the particular communication environment individuals live in. In this case, the CAC refers to all of the features of people's residential environments (cultural, social, economic, physical, etc.) that affect the availability of different communication connections and the ease of access to them. For example, having an Internet connection in the home is a privileged environment compared to having Internet access at a community technology center located miles away in an unsafe area where most of the people there do not speak your language (Hayden and Ball-Rokeach, in press; Morino, 2001).

It is in the CAC that geo-ethnicity is most concretely defined as a structural characteristic of communities. Prior research has indicated that there are significant differences between individuals of the same ethnic background that reside in different neighborhoods and between people of different ethnicities living in the same residential community with regard to Internet connectedness (Kim et al., 2006). Similar differences have been reported for civic engagement, collective efficacy, and belonging (see, for instance, Kim, 2003; Kim and Ball-Rokeach, 2006). Our goal in this study is to investigate whether or not and to what extent a similar "geo-ethnic effect" applies to the construction of communication ecologies for particular goals (i.e., social understanding).

Advantages of Employing a Communication Ecologies Approach

The search for communication ecologies has a number of advantages over the more typical examination of the uses of a media form in isolation from other media and from interpersonal connections. Appropriate utilization of the most important communication connection to reach people maximizes the likelihood of effectiveness. For example, if members of a target population have established practices of preferring one media form as the most important way that they get health information, they are more likely to systematically process intervention or campaign information that is obtained via that channel. An additional advantage is that you learn which medium is number two; that is, knowing the relative importance in a communication ecology gives you more information for a cost-benefit analysis of alternatives. For example, if mainstream television is first choice, and ethnically targeted radio is second choice, then one may opt for the less expensive, albeit second option to reach an audience.

In addition to the above-mentioned practical advantages, there are many ways in which knowing a person's, group's, or community's communication ecologies inform social, cultural, and political inquiry. For example, contemporary efforts to understand the cultural positioning of new immigrant groups - assimilation, isolation, hybridization, etc. - have a window into the process by examining the relative importance of mainstream, ethnic, and interpersonal communication in their communication ecologies, especially as observed over time. Similarly, knowledge of communication ecologies informs efforts to understand the communicative dynamics of strong and weak community. At the most simple level, if the predominant media that residents connect to are mainstream media that do not tell stories about "their neighborhoods" or ethnically targeted media that only tell stories about the "home country," then community is not likely to be strong unless residents connect intensely with each other and with community organizations with regard to neighborhood concerns (Ball-Rokeach et al., 2001; Kim, 2003).


A map of our geo-ethnic study areas is presented in Figure 1. As indicated, our research design is consciously geo-ethnic in that we identify major residential areas in Los Angeles County that contain large and/or historically significant representations of the largest ethnic populations in the County (see Matei, Ball-Rokeach, Wilson et al., 2001 for details). In doing so, we assume that ethnicity and the characteristics of the geographic community interact to produce geo-ethnic variations. In other words, different ethnic groups living in the same area are likely to differ and members of the same ethnic group living in different areas are likely to differ in at least some important ways.

While many methods are deployed in the larger Metamorphosis Project - telephone surveys, focus groups, phone interviews with geo-ethnic media producers, on-site interviews with community organizations, socio-spatial mapping, content analysis, and case studies - the findings reported in this paper are drawn solely from the telephone survey. In Table 1, we profile the geo-ethnic groups we study and the number of households studied for each group.

The telephone survey, conducted between 1998 and 2002, was administered to respondents selected by random digit dialing (first adult contacted) by a well-respected commercial survey research organization. Members of the research team closely monitored the process. The 40-47 minute survey was administered in the language preferred by the respondent (Armenian, Cantonese, English, Korean, Mandarin, and Spanish) [2]. It was introduced as a survey of residents' feelings toward their community [3].

Up to eight callbacks were made. Calculated in the most conservative manner the average response rate was 31%, while the average cooperation rate was 63%. Given the nature of our geo-ethnic urban new and old immigrant samples, it is hard to find comparable response rates in the literature, but our rates compare favorably with those of national surveys conducted by major research organizations (Curtin, Presser and Singer, 2005; Groves, Presser and Dipko, 2004; Keeter, Kohut, Groves and Presser, 2000). Area population characteristics compare well with those of their respective samples, the primary differences being modest sample over-representations of females and higher socio-economic status groups (see Metamorphosis Technical Report at

For the purpose of this paper, we are exploring the communication connections made to attain the understanding goal. The question asked to measure the relative importance of communication options to achieve social understanding goals was: Thinking about all the different ways of communicating and getting information - using television, radio, newspapers, books, magazines, movies, the Internet, taking with other people, or any other way, what are the two most important ways for you to stay on top of what's happening in your community? [4] The interviewer classified responses into the following categories:

  • Talking with other people/telephone
  • Internet
  • Movies
  • Books and Magazines
  • Television/Cable TV/Satellite TV
  • Radio
  • Newspapers
  • Organizations
  • Leaflets and Folders
  • Other

When the response included radio, television, or newspapers, the interviewer followed up by asking whether each was "mainstream English language" or "targeted to [their] ethnic group or [their] community." [5]


Our strategy in presenting the research findings is to identify what we regard as the most significant findings from the point of view of how they may inform practitioners and community activists who seek to reach these target groups for campaign or intervention purposes. Multiethnic communication maps observed when the goal is to stay on top of events in the community (understanding) have particular relevance for practitioners seeking to reach target communities with respect to opportunities (e.g., services or mobilization efforts), threats (e.g., closure of medical facilities or environmental hazards), or emerging community issues (e.g., safe streets or playgrounds).

The relative importance of nine communication options as ranked by 11 geo-ethnic groups are presented in Table 2. Rankings are determined by the percentage of group members who selected a communication option as one of the top two ways that they go about understanding their community [6].

We present the full table so that readers can inspect it in as much detail as they wish. To simplify our discussion of the major findings, we generated Table 3 where we examine only the top four ranked communication options for each group. We do not combine groups into larger ethnic/racial categories – Hispanic, Asian, etc. – because in our geo-ethnic approach, the ideal is to treat each community as its own case. Thus, we expected to find variations within customary ethnic/racial categories, variations that matter when it comes to designing a communication strategy.

We discuss the findings presented in Table 3 by first examining variations in the most preferred modes of communication for understanding the community and then by examining variations within customary ethnic/racial categories. Of the 11 groups compared in Table 3, four are what we call old immigrant groups or groups where most of the members are third generation or longer residents of the United States: Anglos in Glendale, the Westside, and South Pasadena and African American residents of Greater Crenshaw. The remaining seven are largely first and second generation or new immigrants.

The Relative Importance of Geo-Ethnic and Mainstream Media

Given the unusually large representation of new immigrant groups, it may not be surprising to find that geo-ethnic media are prominent among the top two communication options selected for staying on top of what is happening in the community. Geo-ethnic media constitute at least two of the top four media options selected by five new immigrant groups (Korean origin/Koreatown, Chinese origin/Greater Monterey Park, Mexican origin/East LA, Mexican origin/Southeast, and Central American origin/Pico Union). The first or most-frequently selected choice among these groups and also among Armenians in Glendale is one or another geo-ethnic media. It is perhaps more surprising to find that geo-ethnic media are among the four most-frequently selected options in all of the old immigrant areas. These vary from television for Westside Anglos to newspapers targeted to Anglo and other residents of South Pasadena and Glendale, and to African Americans in Greater Crenshaw.

A mainstream media form is the most frequently selected communication option in one new immigrant group (31% of Hispanics in Glendale). Mainstream media are also tied for first place with geo-ethnic media among Armenian residents of Glendale (30%). Three of the four old immigrant groups select a mainstream media as their first choice, ranging from 38% for Glendale Anglos to 46% for African Americans in Greater Crenshaw to a substantial 62% for Anglos on the Westside.

Which Geo-Ethnic Media?

In addition to the importance of geo-ethnic media relative to mainstream media, there are substantial differences in which geo-ethnic media are most frequently selected as one of the two most important ways people stay on top of their community. Looking again at Table 3, eight of the 11 groups include geo-ethnic TV as one of the four most-frequently selected options, eight include geo-ethnic newspapers, and three include geo-ethnic radio. Most of the geo-ethnic TV stations are cable stations targeted to new immigrant groups where much or all of the programming is in a native language (Korean, Mandarin, Cantonese, Spanish, Armenian). The one exception concerns the 12% of Westside Anglos who select public or community television as one of the top two ways in which they stay on top of what is happening in their community. Some of these communities have local cable stations that broadcast community events, local sports competitions, and community advertisements. The ethnic media in Los Angeles tend to have local news programs in addition to international news programs, making them a good option for community awareness.

The newspaper is selected as one of the four most-frequently selected communication options for eight populations, three old immigrant groups (33% Anglos in South Pasadena, 29% Anglos in Glendale, and 19% African Americans in Greater Crenshaw) and five new immigrant groups (59% Koreans in Koreatown, 45% in Chinese Greater Monterey Park, 25% Hispanics in Southeast Los Angeles, 23% Hispanics in Pico Union, and 13% Armenians in Glendale). These newspapers vary greatly from "freebies" to tabloids to sophisticated daily publications. From a census we conducted of such newspapers, there are more of them in new than in old immigrant areas (Lin and Song, 2006). Many of the dailies targeted to new immigrant groups are affiliated with corporate publications in the home country. Finally, geo-ethnic radio is one of the four most-frequently selected communication options in three of the 11 areas, all of them new immigrant areas – Koreatown (28%), Greater Monterey Park (21%), and East LA (25%). Again, there are numerous radio stations in the Los Angeles area that are targeted to new immigrant communities and that are frequently in the native language. Indeed, the two highest ranked radio stations in the Los Angeles area are Spanish-language stations (Boyle, 2006).

Which Mainstream Media? [7]

Television is by far and away the most prominent mainstream media form. All 11 groups of new and old immigrants place it as one of the four most important ways that they stay on top of events in their community. There is no general pattern of greater or lesser importance depending on the status of being an old or new immigrant. While pervasive, mainstream television is generally ranked lower than geo-ethnic TV or geo-ethnic newspapers. Mainstream television is ranked number one in only two groups – Hispanics in Glendale and African Americans in Greater Crenshaw; it is tied for first with geo-ethnic television among Armenians in Glendale. In Los Angeles, each of the mainstream television networks includes extensive local news coverage (in some cases accounting for more than 3 hours of coverage a day), which may contribute to the importance of this medium for community understanding.

Mainstream newspapers appear in the top four ranks in 5 of the 11 groups. Four of the five are the old immigrant groups that are joined by Hispanics in Glendale. Only Anglos in Glendale and on the Westside rank the mainstream newspaper number one. The major mainstream newspaper in Los Angeles County is the Los Angeles Times. This newspaper underwent an important change in the fall of 2000 (Los Angeles Times, September 14, 2000) when the decision was made to drop geographic section inserts that addressed specific residential areas. Moreover, the Metro section was renamed as the California section reflecting a general withdrawal from covering "city" and "neighborhood" news. These changes suggest that the mainstream newspaper in Los Angeles has devalued the role of storyteller of the geo-ethnic communities of Los Angeles.

Mainstream radio does not appear in the top four ranks of communication options for understanding the community. Very few Los Angeles radio stations self-identify as "neighborhood" or "local" storytellers (Hardyk, Loges and Ball-Rokeach, 2005). The consolidation of the radio industry ownership most likely has something to do with the fact that only a small percentage of old and new immigrant groups select mainstream radio as a way to understand their communities (ranges from 10% for Westside Anglos to 2% for Koreans in Koreatown and Armenians in Glendale). Relatively speaking, geo-ethnic radio is more prominent than mainstream radio for staying on top of what is happening in the community. Finally, books and magazines are not a big player when it comes to understanding the community. The percent identifying them as one of their top two ways of staying on top of the community is highest among Anglos in South Pasadena, but this amounts to only 8% of these residents.

Enter Interpersonal Communication

It may come as a surprise that even in Los Angeles interpersonal communication remains an important way that residents understand what is happening in their communities. Interpersonal communication is ranked as one of the top two primary resources for community understanding in five of the 11 communities and it is ranked fourth or higher in nine of the 11 communities. Neighbors, family, and friends talking with one another about what is happening in the community - storytelling neighborhood - is not a fleeting vestige of the cultures that immigrants bring to their new urban environments. Rather, interpersonal communication is one of the most frequently selected communication options in all of the old immigrant study areas - it is first among the Anglos of South Pasadena (51%), second among the African Americans of Greater Crenshaw (40%) and Glendale Anglos (32%), and third among Anglos on the Westside (37%).

The Internet in Understanding Community

As shown in Table 3, the Internet does not rank in the top four most important ways to stay on top of what is happening in the community in any area. However, in Table 2, we see that the Internet is the sixth most-frequently selected option in Glendale study samples - 14% of Hispanics, 13% of Anglos, and 11% of Armenians. A major consideration in interpreting the findings with regard to the importance of the Internet is the recency of data collection. Diffusion of both Internet connections and establishment of community content sites has been rapid in our data collection period from 1998 to 2002. Data from the Glendale samples were collected in 2001 and this may account for what appears to be an area effect. On the other hand, only 7% of the Mexican origin residents of the Southeast area and 6% of Pico Union Central Americans selected the Internet as one of the top ways that they stay on top of their communities and these data were collected in 2002. The percent of each study sample that has access to any Internet connection (work, or home, or cafe, etc.) is presented in Figure 2. The geo-ethnic differences in Internet connection rates are reflective of work on the digital divide (Cheong, in press; Cheong and Wilkin, 2005; Jung, Ball-Rokeach, Kim and Matei, in press). Our study areas with lower SES tend to have lower Internet connection rates then the higher SES communities.

At this point in time, even some old immigrant communities with relatively high rates of Internet connection prefer other ways of staying on top of affairs in their communities. As communities become more Internet savvy, we anticipate seeing a rise in its importance as a community storyteller. In a 2005 survey of African Americans in Greater Crenshaw, we saw the percentage of residents identifying Internet for the understanding goal rise to 21% (as compared to only 5% in 1998). This rise in Internet preference did not adversely affect connections to other communication channels – interpersonal, mainstream television, and mainstream television continue to be the most important channels in this area. The Internet takes the #4 ranking with only a marginal percentage over geo-ethnic newspapers, which still maintained almost 20% of the population identifying the medium. In addition, we expect we will see increases in the importance of the Internet as a community storyteller as generations growing up with newer technologies grow older. Anecdotal evidence suggested that Internet sites such as MySpace contributed to high youth turnout at the 2005 immigration rallies in downtown Los Angeles.

The Ideal Is To Customize To Geo-Ethnic Community Profiles

Our conventional ethnic group categories ignore important historical and cultural differences (e.g., between Mexicans and Central Americans, between Mexicans from different States and between Central Americans from different countries, and so on). For these reasons, it is desirable to determine the geo-ethnically specific communication profiles of target communities or, at least, to avoid the assumption that all Hispanics, or Asians, or Anglos, etc. share the same communication profile. With the data presented in Tables 2 and 3, we are able to observe geo-ethnic variations among conventionally defined Hispanic, Asian, and Anglo study samples.

Major Differences and Similarities Between Groups

Among and Between Hispanic Groups

Television is the preferred media form of communication for understanding the community among the four Hispanic groups, but which television? As shown in Table 2, geo-ethnic television is more frequently selected than mainstream television in three of the four groups. For Hispanics in Glendale, however, there is a slight preference for mainstream TV over geo-ethnic TV (31% and 27%, respectively). Indeed, the communication profile of Hispanics in Glendale suggests a larger presence of mainstream media when it comes to staying on top of what is happening in their community – both mainstream TV and newspapers are among the four most-frequently chosen communication options.

A combination of factors may account for the greater importance of mainstream media among Glendale Hispanics compared to Hispanics in the other three study areas (East Los Angeles, Southeast, and Pico Union). These include a higher level of income and education and a higher level of inter-group conflict in the Glendale study area. For example, the public schools are attended largely by Hispanics and Armenians and these two groups have had a recent history of tension in the Glendale area. These factors may increase the perceived importance of connecting to mainstream media to survey or stay on top of events in the community from sources that span ethnic divides.

Geo-ethnic radio appears in the top four ranks of the most-frequently selected communication options for understanding the community among Hispanics in East Los Angeles (25%), but not among Hispanics in Southeast and Pico Union where it is ranked fifth (17% and 15% respectively) or Hispanics in Glendale where it is ranked seventh (5%). As previously noted, there are many radio stations targeted to Hispanics that can be received in the Los Angeles County area. It appears that the Glendale Hispanic sample's stronger connections to mainstream media accounts for the major variation here. Interpersonal communication appears as a frequently selected option in all four Hispanic study samples, and it is selected by as many as one-third of the Central Americans in the Pico Union sample. Finally, the Internet does not appear in the top four ranks of any of the Hispanic study samples.

Among and Between Anglo Groups

There are basic similarities in the communication options that are included in the top four choices of Westside and South Pasadena Anglos, but there are also some notable differences. Both select one type of geo-ethnic media – the Westsiders select public/community television as one of the top ways that they stay on top of community events (12%) while South Pasadenans select newspapers targeted to their community (19%). The greater implication of community-targeted newspapers in South Pasadena may be why they are less likely than Westside Anglos to select mainstream newspapers (27% vs. 62%, respectively). Interpersonal communication is the number one choice of South Pasadena Anglos (51%) while it is third choice among Westside Anglos (37%). The Westside Anglos are more TV inclined - mainstream television is ranked second with 42% selecting it plus the 12% that select public/community TV. South Pasadena Anglos are more newspaper inclined - 33% selecting community newspapers and 32% selecting mainstream newspapers. There are important historical and contemporary differences between the Westside and the South Pasadena study areas and study samples, despite their SES similarities (see Table 1). Of these, we suggest that the presence of a daily community newspaper historically targeted to Anglo residents in the Pasadena/South Pasadena area, and the incorporation of South Pasadena as a city that has a self-identified investment in being a "good community" are among the more important ways of understanding the Westside/South Pasadena differences that we have reported. Specifically, South Pasadena Anglos have, and Westside Anglos at the time of this study did not have, a major daily geo-ethnic newspaper targeted to them and their community. In previous research, we established that South Pasadena Anglos have a higher level of belonging (feelings and behavior) than the Westside Anglos (Ball-Rokeach et al., 2001) and this is consistent with their greater preference for interpersonal communication.

Among and Between Asian Groups

The Korean origin study sample in Koreatown and the Chinese origins study sample (China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong) in Greater Monterey Park/Alhambra are distinctive for their similarities. Of their four most-frequently selected communication options for staying on top of what is happening in their communities, three are geo-ethnic media. Of these, newspapers targeted to their communities are most important - 59% in Koreatown and 45% in Greater Monterey Park - followed by geo-ethnic television - 37% in Koreatown and 42% in Greater Monterey Park - and geo-ethnic radio is the fourth most-frequently selected option (28% in Koreatown and 21% in Greater Monterey Park). Mainstream television is ranked third in both Koreatown (31%) and Greater Monterey Park (24%). Overall, these two study groups share a traditional media-centeredness when it comes to staying on top of their communities. Interpersonal communication is selected by only 16% in both study samples (see Table 2), and the Internet is selected by 5% in Koreatown and 16% in Greater Monterey Park.


There are a number of findings that we cannot explain with the data we have in hand. We would need another study where we ask the different geo-ethnic communities why they prefer one communication modality to another, and we would need a content analysis of the storytelling referents in media programming. For example, we do not know why geo-ethnic radio is a more preferred option among East L.A. Hispanics than it is among Hispanics in the Southeast area and Pico Union. We could speculate that geo-ethnic radio content is directed more to people from Mexico (East L.A. and the Southeast) than people from Central America (Pico Union) which allies with the historical presence of Mexican people in Los Angeles. This might account for the lower priority of geo-ethnic radio in Pico Union, but it does not account for the lower priority in the Southeast. We could also argue that East L.A. is a more visible and older community on the Los Angeles scene than the Southeast area, such that East L.A. receives more coverage than the Southeast. However, we would need a content analysis of geo-ethnic radio and additional data from the respondents in these three communities to go beyond this kind of speculation.

Similarly, we cannot be confident in an interpretation of the similarities between the Korean and ethnic Chinese samples in their top four communication choices for understanding their community. We know that both groups come from literate and print-oriented cultures, which may account for the substantial percents selecting geo-ethnic newspapers. We can surmise that the dominance of geo-ethnic media (newspapers, television, and radio) reflects the desire to stay on top of events in the home country and, perhaps, a linguistic preference. We know from content analyses of Korean and ethnic Chinese newspapers, that the majority of stories concern the home country (Lin and Song, 2006). We also know that all of these geo-ethnic media are widely available in the Los Angeles area and that may not be the case in smaller cities or towns. One aspect of our inability to confidently interpret these findings is that we cannot be sure if these respondents interpreted community to mean their residential community or the community of their country of origin. Thus, we can make informed speculations, but future research would be necessary to make data-based interpretations.

Another limitation is that our data were collected over a four-year period in which communication technology continued to develop and change rapidly. With our current data, it is impossible to determine how much the diffusion of the Internet and digital technologies into these communities may have influenced the communication ecologies. However, we believe that communication ecologies are relatively stable, but also change. The rate of change is a question for future research. The blending of new and old media is an ecological trend that is surely going to affect things, but this will take time to show up. Our point is that we should monitor the ecologies, not a specific medium or interpersonal discussion in isolation. The peculiar roles of geo-ethnic media and interpersonal communication are not likely to change. More likely is for geo-ethnic media and interpersonal communication to become a blended form (e.g., strong Internet and new technology forms of interpersonal communication will increase in presence as younger people move along in the lifecycle).


We find that taking an ecological approach to studying communication connections can provide insight into the best ways to reach a target audience. No "one size fits all" approach can be used to reach the vastly diverse populations in a city like Los Angeles. Our findings can help identify the communication options for Los Angeles communities that should be used to maximize reach and effectiveness when the intervention, education, commercial, or service objective aligns with people's everyday efforts to stay on top of what is happening in their community (e.g., disseminating knowledge of available services, increasing resource utilization, or encouraging patronage of local businesses). Campaigns conducted through the mainstream media can be costly and as with the Internet are likely to miss some target groups. Overall, a combination of media (geo-ethnic and sometimes mainstream) with interpersonal channels is the key to reaching groups living in Los Angeles.

We encourage others to conduct similar research, as it will afford them the same kind of textured guides produced by taking an ecological approach of the kind we have illustrated. The process we demonstrated involves identifying geo-ethnic communities of interest and conducting surveys in the preferred language of the respondents. The survey should include questions designed to have respondents identify the communication connections that are most important for reaching the goal - understanding, orientation, or play - that aligns with the intervention goals. Respondents are allowed to identify any form of communication - ranging from interpersonal to mediated, mainstream to geo-ethnic media, and old to new forms of communication technology. Estimates can then be made about the relative importance of each form of communication in relation to other communication options.

We live in a media-saturated world and understanding the relative importance of communication channels for specific goals can be imperative when trying to increase the cost-effectiveness of messages.

Authors' Note

* This manuscript has been developed within the broader context of the research project, Metamorphosis: Transforming the Ties that Bind, conducted under the auspices of the Communication Technology and Community Program at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. The project is supported and funded by the First Five Los Angeles County Proposition 10 Commission and the Annenberg Center for Communication.


[1] For purposes of flow and considerations of length, we examine only one of the major types of media system dependency relations - understanding - and leave comparisons of how understanding ecologies differ from those constructed to obtain orientation, play, and health goals to a future paper.

[2] Sample selection was a complicated process of overlaying census tracks, zip codes, and prefixes (none of which overlap each other that well) to maximize the theoretical hit rate, that is the likelihood we would reach the desired ethnicity in the desired geographic space.

[3] Despite our efforts to direct people's attention to their geographic communities or neighborhoods in our introduction of the survey and in repeated mentions of such in the various questions asked in the survey, we assume that there were still variations in what the word "community" meant to our diverse study groups. It probably makes a difference when most residents share the same ethnicity compared to cases where multiple ethnic groups share the same geographic space. Our ways of labeling an area had considerable overlap with the respondents' ways of identifying where they live (Metamorphosis Project Technical Report, Nonetheless, we cannot know how often respondents interpreted the question to refer only to their ethnic group in an area, or, even, to their ethnic group, generally.

[4] In the Glendale, Pico Union, and Southeast L.A. surveys the question asked "what are the most important ways" and did not specify that we were looking for the two most important.

[5] The "geo-ethnic media" response option varies across areas so that it reflects the media targeting the ethnic groups in the areas. In ethnic groups that do not generally have English as a first language, the question is asked to reflect the media in the native language (e.g., Spanish, Korean, Mandarin, Cantonese, Armenian) and in the predominantly English-speaking ethnic groups, public access and community media are the response options.

[6] In the areas in which we specified that we were looking for the two most important we tended to get two responses and the mean number of responses are as follows: East L.A. Hispanics (M = 1.8), Westside Anglos (M = 1.9), South Pasadena Anglos (M = 1.8), Greater Koreatown Koreans (M = 1.9), Crenshaw African Americans (M = 1.9), and Chinese in Greater Monterey Park (M = 1.9). When given the opportunity to list as many as they wanted, respondents tended to provide only one response, but due to the range of options some participants provide, the average number of responses for each area are as follows: Pico Union Hispanics (M = 1.6), Southeast Hispanics (M = 1.7), Glendale Hispanics (M = 1.5), Glendale Armenians (M = 1.3), and Glendale Anglos (M = 1.7).

[7] We acknowledge that the term "mainstream" connotes a dominant cultural consensus that has questionable applicability in Los Angeles, where the largest ethnic group is Hispanic. Lacking a better term, we use mainstream media to communicate corporate English language media targeted largely to old immigrant groups.


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