Broadcasting News and Emergency Information to Non-English Speakers

Posted: 1 Apr 2016

See all articles by Jon M. Peha

Jon M. Peha

Carnegie Mellon University

Date Written: 2016


Giving everyone access to local sources of news and information has many benefits, from building cohesive communities to helping voters make informed decisions. It is even more important when hurricanes or earthquakes hit, and lives depend on access to local information. In the U.S., the primary method of disseminating emergency information during a disaster is TV and radio broadcasting, but most of these broadcasts are of little value to non-English speakers. New approaches may be needed to provide information to some of these individuals in their own language during disasters, perhaps by helping or requiring some English-language broadcasters to provide emergency information in languages other than English, or expanding use of alternative technologies such as smart phones and the Internet. This paper will inform the development of effective approaches by analyzing the number and locations of individuals with limited English proficiency (LEP) who cannot receive TV and radio broadcasts in their native language, what languages they speak, and their risk from natural disaster. By looking at the population density of LEP populations, the paper will explore how effective it would be to require existing English-language broadcasts to cater to sizeable LEP populations in their markets. To achieve these results, we have combined data from the U.S. census on the geographic distribution of LEP individuals, data from a variety of sources on the broadcast language(s) of each TV and radio station in the U.S., data from the Federal Communications Commission and elsewhere that allows us to estimate coverage areas for each broadcaster, and data from the Federal Emergency Management Administration on the geographic distribution of declared disasters.

Using GIS, the LEP population census data is overlaid with broadcast coverage areas to analyze the extent to which non-English broadcasts are available to a LEP populations. Preliminary results indicate that the number of LEP individuals who cannot receive broadcasts in their native language is probably in the millions. Much attention has been put on Spanish speakers, since the majority of non-English speakers in the U.S. speak Spanish. However, the majority of non-English TV and radio stations broadcast in Spanish. Our preliminary results show that of those LEP individuals who cannot receive a broadcast in their native language, there are a comparable number of Chinese-speakers, Korean-speakers, and Spanish-speakers. Thus, it is a mistake to focus only on Spanish. Four media types were considered, AM radio, FM radio, full-power TV, and low-power TV (LPTV). All four had significant reach and could potentially play a useful role in communicating emergency information. Since the number of LPTV stations may decrease in the wake of the digital transition and upcoming spectrum incentive auctions, this paper will further explore how shutting down LPTV stations would affect LEP populations. LEP individuals are safer if they are served by multiple broadcasters in their own language, because disasters can cause some broadcasters to fail. The level of redundancy varies considerably by language. For example, a large majority of Spanish speaking LEP individuals are served by multiple broadcasters, but this is not the case for Hindi speakers. This paper will determine how great of an impact the upcoming incentive auctions that threaten to shut down LPTV stations would have on LEP populations that rely solely on LPTV broadcasts.

Keywords: broadcasting, emergency alerts, non-English speakers, LPTV, disasters, television, radio, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, LEP

Suggested Citation

Peha, Jon M., Broadcasting News and Emergency Information to Non-English Speakers (2016). 44th Research Conference on Communication, Information and Internet Policy (TPRC). Available at SSRN:

Jon M. Peha (Contact Author)

Carnegie Mellon University ( email )

Pittsburgh, PA 15213-3890
United States

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