Editor’s note: This is the second of two articles on Micronesians in Hawaii. Yesterday we examined discrimination against the group in Hawaii. Today we explore the role of the media in shaping attitudes toward Micronesians. Also, to learn more about Micronesians and why they have special status in the United States, read this backgrounder.

Is there discrimination against Micronesians in Hawaii? Yes, Civil Beat was told by multiple sources.

How many of those sources were Micronesian and willing to go on the record for our story on the subject? Not many.

Despite reaching out to nearly a dozen Micronesians living in Hawaii — pastors, researchers, doctors, educators, government officials — few returned Civil Beats calls.

Of those that did, and from the non-Micronesians who were willing to comment, a consistent theme arose: suspicion of reporters.

“I am not at liberty to talk,” said one. “Of course, we have heard and seen incidents of discrimination. But we want valid things we can proceed on. This is very sensitive for me and I will get a scolding, so I do not want to comment at this time.”

Why the reluctance to speak out? Because, they said, the media sometimes gets it wrong.

Sensitive About Coverage

The origins of wariness of local press, Civil Beat was told repeatedly, lie with a July 2007 article published in The Honolulu Advertiser.

The front-page story reported that the number of Micronesians using state homeless shelters “soared by nearly three times” between 2001 and 2006.

Reporters Will Hoover and Dan Nakaso wrote:

(Micronesians) now make up more than 20 percent of the state’s total homeless shelter population — even though Micronesians represent little more than 1 percent of the state’s population, a new study says.

At some shelters in 2006, Micronesians exceeded 50 percent of the total number of residents, the report states.

At the same time, the number of Native Hawaiians using the state’s homeless shelter system plummeted by 24 percent, the report states. Native Hawaiians make up the largest homeless population in the state.

The report — “Not-So-Silent Epidemic: The Rise in Shelter Utilization by Micronesians in Hawaii, 2001 to 2006” — was conducted by an “independent homeless services consultant” named Michael Ullman, who used data from the state’s Homeless Management Information System.

Ullman, according to the story, said he wrote the report “to alert public officials to the problem and to urge them to re-evaluate the policy that gives homeless persons preference to public housing.”

But other sources were contacted, too.

“In my opinion, the decline in Hawaiians and the rise in Micronesians primarily exists at the downtown shelters — IHS and Next Step,” the article quoted Kaulana Park, the state’s homeless solutions coordinator on the Waianae Coast. “Park said the new report is preliminary, and doesn’t include statistics from 2007 — a year in which the state has spent millions to stem the tide of homelessness on the Waianae Coast.”

The article also talked to people who work closely with Micronesians:

Danny Rescue, senior consul with the Federated States of Micronesia Consulate in Honolulu, said the growth of Micronesians in Hawaii homeless shelters is merely a step toward greater assimilation of Micronesians in the Islands.

“Our community here is still relatively young,” Rescue said. “These things can happen until they get better jobs and educated. Community-building, acculturation are all part of it.”

The use of the word “epidemic” to describe a people inflamed some.

Those involved with the story, including Julia Estrella, a representative of the nonprofit advocacy group Micronesians United, say a hooponopono session — a Hawaiian practice of reconciliation and forgiveness — was held between Advertiser staff and Micronesians after the article was published.

Reached by Civil Beat, Ullman defended the use of the word epidemic, saying it has been used in national reports on homelessness and housing instability.

“I was extremely disappointed that the non-Micronesian advocates for the Micronesian community convinced them that they should interpret the story as negative and bad for the community instead of seeing the story as an opportunity to help their cause,” he wrote in an email to Civil Beat. “To get a front page story for your cause is typically the dream of any afflicted group. I blame the non-Micronesian advocates for fueling the uproar.”

Reporter Nakaso declined to comment and Hoover didn’t return calls.

Ugly Online Comments

The Advertiser’s online comment section added fuel to the fire.

One comment included this excerpt:

A Micronesian family (looks more like 10 families) resides in our neighborhood. Approx 20 people reside in a modest size 3-bedroom SINGLE home. Since they moved in 6 months ago, the neighborhood went to crap – literally. . . . Almost every other night, they have people hanging around in their front yard sucking up beers and soda talking story – often until 2 a.m. on a WEEKDAY. And during the day, the house is still full of people. J-O-B?? Nope, not in their vocabulary. I swear that out of the 10+ adults in that home, 2 or 3 work. The rest stay home all day and do NOTHING. Sit around and do NOTHING. The owner of the house could care less because he’s the quintessential slumlord and he’s content knowing that his rent checks will come in – BECAUSE THEY ARE GUARANTEED BY THE GOVT.

And this:

I apologize for stereotyping but with these grim statistics – 20% of our homeless shelters are full of these people — while they only represent 1% of the island’s population. HOW CAN I NOT STEREOTYPE??? Keep these leaches off our island. We have more than enough locals struggling to get by. We don’t need any more people migrating here and sucking our already lacking system bone dry.

Civil Beat obtained the comment from Seiji Yamada, an associate professor at the John A. Burns School of Medicine. He’s the author of “Discrimination in Hawaii and the Health of Micronesian,” an article published in the March 2011 issue of the Hawaii Journal of Public Health.

Yamada makes reference to the comment in the article — he calls it a “blog post” — but the comment is paraphrased and not cited at length. Yamada did include the full post in a longer, unpublished version of his article, which he provided to Civil Beat.

“Note the manner in which the blogger echoes the polite discourse of the elites, emphasizing the expenditure of state funds on the Micronesians and calling for a transfer of responsibility to the federal government — though, of course, Hawaii’s residents pay both state and federal taxes,” Yamada observed in the longer article.

In this regard, “discourse among the politically powerful is paralleled by popular discourse.”

Two months after the original story on Micronesians using homeless facilities was published, Advertiser reporter Gordon Pang wrote an article stating that Micronesians were highly critical of Ullman and the Advertiser story for casting “an unfair and negative light on those who have come to live and receive services here.”

Many demanded a written apology from both Ullman, who Pang reported admitted he “could have chosen his words more carefully,” and the newspaper, whose executives said “they understood where the audience was coming from and promised to provide more sensitive coverage.”

Described as Leeches

Julie Walsh Kroeker teaches a class on Micronesians in Hawaii for the Center for Pacific Islands Studies at the University of Hawaii.

“My Micronesian students have analyzed media reporting, and a common reaction is that the media tend to emphasize the voices of outsiders and also to misrepresent the history so that people tend to see these red flags about this population,” Kroeker told Civil Beat in an email. “The word ‘leech’ pops out a lot.”

Kroeker says journalists also do not always interview “the right people” but rather “one person representing many people — and that’s not right,” she said. “And they don’t represent the diversity, either.”

In fact, she said, “Micronesian” is only an external label “and not used by real people.”

She cautioned as well that Civil Beat not “exacerbate the generous, but misleading idea that COFA peoples should be tolerated, if not welcomed in Hawaii, because of ‘the tragic history of nuclear weapons testing.’ It is misleading of course since only the Marshall Islands — one of three COFA nations — were directly irradiated.”

COFA refers to the three Pacific nations covered under the Compact of Free Association that allows Micronesians visa-free travel to the U.S.

Kroeker also passed along this recommendation from her students: “In most media representations there is no mention of WHY the U.S. signed the Compact in 1986. It’s a one-sided representation that Compact funds and access to the United States are some sort of aid package that generous and guilty Americans offer because of nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands.”

Suspicions Persist

Not all coverage has been negative.

In April 2008, for example, Advertiser reporter Mary Kay Ritz covered a conference titled “Micronesian Voices in Hawaii.”

The article noted that Micronesian migration began well before Hawaii statehood and explained how migration began to increase after the 1986 COFA. Ritz paraphrased Ben Graham, a consultant and researcher based in Majuro, writing that “understanding what drives Micronesian migration will foster greater understanding of its pressures on resources here.”

Other local news sources have also offered culturally sensitive reporting — notably, articles in Honolulu Weekly about the role of religion and family and the misunderstandings about Micronesians.

But, suspicions about biased media persist.

Masae Kintaro of Palau, who frequently visits her daughter’s family on Oahu, said the media had only presented one side of Micronesians’ story.

“A lot of newspapers, and the politicians, they write news about how we have used a lot of the services here and the cost of it to Hawaii,” Kintaro told Civil Beat. “The problem is that people don’t have the background as to why we are here. We are here because the U.S. wants our islands for military land use.”

A Chuukese woman, whom Civil Beat granted anonymity because she was afraid of the impact of speaking out about her experiences, said, “With more of us here, with the media telling about our needs and how much we have cost the state money, it has made a lot of local people angry — like we came to take away their money.”

Ironically, the July 2007 article that incited all the fuss actually explained, albeit briefly, both the Compact of Free Association and the fact that many health problems are associated with the nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands. But that information is found deep within the article, and it’s possible some readers didn’t see it.

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