by Myra Saturen
April 29, 2014
At a journalism presentation on April 29 at Northampton Community College (NCC), three curious and determined journalists gave listeners the inside story on how they discovered and pursued an elusive, impactful story.
Confronting a language barrier, the sensitive areas of race and gambling, and some sources' reluctance to share information, reporters Matt Assad and Pamela Lehman, and photographer Kevin Mingora broke the 2-part series, "Riding to Live," in the Morning Call a few weeks ago. The series is about the thousands of Asian residents of Chinatowns in Flushing, Brooklyn and Manhattan, New York, who make the four-hour round trip to and from the Sands Casino in Bethlehem. Some ride every day, some twice a day. These passengers fill every bus, every day. In all, the buses carry about 3,000 people on routes that operate from 8:15 a.m. to midnight.
The idea for the story germinated for a year before the article appeared in The Morning Call. Assad, who had covered the casino many times, became intrigued when people asked him about a new trend they'd noticed: in a city, Bethlehem, with a tiny (2.5) percentage of Asian residents, more than half the patrons rolling dice or playing cards at the Sands Casino were Asian, mostly Chinese. On tight schedules and after desultory conversations, the trio of journalists made it a New Year's resolution to cover the story in 2014.
The first major obstacle proved to be language. Riders, coming from New York City into Bethlehem on about 50 buses a day, spoke Mandarin, Cantonese or other dialects of Chinese and no English. And while the Sands's records of employment and gambling odds are public record, marketing strategy and information about "casino buses" are not. Casino executives, sought by Assad, stayed mum.
At last, after following many leads, the journalists found sources among some English-speaking bus riders.
Open about their identities and purpose, the journalists finally gained the trust of one bus operator, who not only confided in them, but also gave Assad a bus ticket. Thus the journalists learned of an underground system whereby the casino distributed free game vouchers to bus companies, which then sold cheap seats. Buyers would then sell the vouchers at the casino to prospective players at a discount. Most only made a moderate amount of money, but one couple who spoke to Assad said that they cleared $1,200 a month. The reporters estimate that about half the riders participate in this underground economy.
"We now knew the system," Assad said. "But that was not really the story. We wanted to know about the people who boarded the buses." To get past the language barrier, the reporters tracked down a class studying Chinese immigration at Lehigh University. A student volunteered to be a translator.
Then the story really got going. In addition to talking to people in Bethlehem, the reporters traveled to Flushing. Through interviews, they learned that most bus riders were poor, including many who were unemployed and some homeless. For many, this underground economy enabled them to survive in the absence of any other source of income. Riders also included many retired people of greater means, who had immigrated to the United States, following their children.
Bus runs left many passengers with several hours between rides. While waiting for buses home, some discovered pleasant pastimes in Bethlehem such as strolling its greenway, canal path and the Lehigh University Campus -- a refreshing break from the congestion of New York City. Groups of friends enjoyed doing tai chi near the Bethlehem Steelworkers memorial.
"The [casino/bus system] created a gentle cultural shift and cultural clash," Assad said. Police officers received complaints about the visitors littering or catching frogs in streams. Some Bethlehem residents complained about vegetables taken from their gardens. "We wanted readers to understand," Assad said. In China, where gardens are publicly held, he said, people feel free to pick produce; new immigrants did not yet understand the concepts of private property that prevail in the United States. No reports of major crime had been received.
Each journalist played a different role in the reportage. Assad conducted the interviews, Lehman researched the "tentacles" of the story -- the impact on Bethlehem -- and Mingora took memorable, and often hard-to-get, pictures.
According to an article published in The Morning Call on April 12, after the "Riding to Live" series was published, the Sands stopped allowing free-play money to be used in video poker machines.
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