Commentary: 520 tolling campaign overlooks ethnic media

Dr. Julie Pham

By Dr. Julie Pham
For Northwest Asian Weekly

Recent information from the Seattle Times’ analysis of 2010 Census data indicates that the number of minorities has quickly risen on the Eastside over the past decade. Since 2000, in Bellevue alone, the minority population climbed 62 percent, and the non-whites now make up 41 percent of the general population.

The rise should not surprise anyone. Racially white Eastern European minority communities are also on the rise. Natasha Savage, president of the Eastern European American Chamber of Commerce, estimates that 13–15 percent of those on the Eastside include recent Easter European immigrants.
Despite the steady increase, many ethnic communities still lie outside the purview of communication campaigns that they help fund with their tax dollars. The campaign for 520 tolling, the Good to Go! program, exemplifies such an oversight.

Certainly, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) tolling communications department means well. In the “Good to Go! Outreach and Marketing Elements,” there is a section on grassroots outreach, which states that the WSDOT should perform “outreach to minority and low-income organizations to use their communications channels to inform their constituents.”

The WSDOT communications office notes these efforts include sending informational material to community organizations, such as ethnic-based student groups at the University of Washington, religious institutions, cultural associations, and social service providers.

Volunteers or small staffs, however, run most of these organizations. Their priorities are unlikely to include informing their constituents about 520 tolling when many of them face more pressing concerns such as health care and social service cuts.

Asian Indians comprise one of two of the dominant Asian groups on the Eastside. Debadutta Dash, co-chair of Washington State India Trade Relations Action Committee, said “the lack of outreach [for creating an awareness] is certainly an issue for the Asian Indian community in the case of upcoming 520 tolling,” and cited 10 prominent Asian Indian organizations not contacted.

Interestingly, the 520 tolling campaign includes almost none of the dozens of ethnic media outlets whose mission is to serve as ‘communications channels’ to their communities.

WSDOT has budgeted for media buys. According to the “SR 520 Good to Go! Advertising Plan,” WSDOT plans to purchase $1,108,784 in ad campaigns in newspapers, TV, radio, and online resources.

Only $11,982 went to ethnic media — only one percent of the campaign.

WSDOT also made an interesting choice in deciding which ethnic communities to focus on, too. Good to Go! media buys only went to a single Spanish-language radio and a Spanish-language newspaper.

Surprisingly, the other dominant ethnic minority, the Chinese, in Bellevue (9 percent) and Redmond (6.5 percent) was not addressed. Twenty percent of Northwest Asian Weekly papers are distributed on the Eastside. Statewide, more than 70 percent of Chinese speak Chinese at home; 38 percent report they speak English less than very well. Nearly a dozen Chinese language newspapers are distributed locally to serve the community’s strong need for in-language news.

The major locally-based Chinese language news outlets, Seattle Chinese Post, Seattle Chinese Times, and AAT TV, reported they contacted WSDOT communications and their advertising agency last year, but received no response. Numerous other ethnic media outlets gave the same report.

The fact is that many ethnic communities rely on ethnic media, and they care about transportation.

The Vietnamese Friendship Association recently released a study showing that, after getting information through word-of-mouth, the Vietnamese, age 35 and above, rely more on Vietnamese-language media than English language media for social and economic resources. Nearly 70 percent expressed concern over transportation.

WSDOT would save money by investing more in informing communities with limited English proficiency about the 520 tolling now, rather than dealing with customer complaints and inquiries later.

With the electronic tolling ease, many of those who do not regularly access mainstream media or comprehend ads on billboards and buses will continue to use 520 without even understanding a toll exists. They will only find out when they receive a notice for a fine in their mailbox.*

This Friday, Janet Matkin of the WSDOT will visit with a group of local ethnic media to discuss how to improve outreach to ethnic communities. Everyone agrees they share the same goal: to ensure as many people as possible are ‘good to go’ when tolling on 520 starts. ♦

Julie Pham, PhD, is the managing editor of Northwest Vietnamese News and founder of Sea Beez, a capacity-building program for Seattle’s ethnic media.

She can be reached at julie@nvnorthwest.com.

*This story has been edited in response to a reader’s comments.  Thank you!

3 Responses to “Commentary: 520 tolling campaign overlooks ethnic media”

  1. Washington Realist says:

    If I went to Mars and they decided to toll something there without my knowing it, maybe I could sue them.

    I don’t go to the International District and complain because I can’t read the writing on the store signs.

  2. Sonia Ruiz says:

    Dr. Pham,

    Thank you for your editorial. Ethnic media, and too often organizations that work with communities of color, are dismissed by corporations, government and especially political parties 11 months out of a year until “they need us.”

    Then they throw pennies on the dollar for a little bit of outreach rather than incorporating our organizations, leaders and media throughout their campaigns and initiatives.

    Any entity that wishes to reach the public – all of us – needs to invest a percentage of their budget equal to the target population.

  3. K. Cooper says:

    There will be no civil penalty if you cross the 520 bridge without a pass or call within 72 hours. You will receive a bill in the mail for the toll rather than a fine.

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