News Coverage of Latinos Found Lacking in Breadth, Depth


By Rod Carveth
It seems news media coverage of issues related to Latinos may have increased this summer with the Supreme Court decision upholding the Affordable Care Act, and President Obama’s announcement changing the deportation status of millions of young people brought to the United States illegally as children.  But you may want to think again.  That spike in what appears to be comprehensive news coverage many say is both predictable and limiting.
Diana Rios, professor of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies and Communication at the University of Connecticut says  that the mainstream news media continue to demonstrate “a lack of awareness of the contributions of Latinos.”
Two  research efforts examining news coverage of Latinos since the mid-1990s seem to support Rios’ statement, indicating  little progress in media coverage of Latinos in over a decade.   Six “Network Brownout” reports (1995-2006) sponsored by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and the 2009 Pew Research Center Report on “Hispanics in the News” report similar findings.
The “Network Brownout” reports examined news coverage of Latinos on the major news networks (ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC).   The major findings of those reports were:
• Stories featuring Latinos or dealing with Latino issues constituted about 1% of all news stories for the year studied.
• Unless there was a major event (such as the Elian Gonzalez controversy in 2000), most coverage of Latinos centered around immigration issues, crime or sports/celebrity stories.
• With the exception of New York and Los Angeles, cities with large Latino populations were underrepresented as locations where Latino-related stories originated.   Washington, DC was the city most frequently cited as the location for Latino stories.
• Though the percentages varied over the years, on average Latinos were interviewed in only about half of the stories that featured them.
Research over the last two decades has shown that news media coverage of Latinos centers on a very narrow range of issues, topped by issues related to immigration.  Dr. Rios says she thought that when the 2010 census figures came out, the news media would “provide more emphasis on this growing population” of Latinos.  Instead, she has says she has been disappointed, adding that the coverage has been dominated by the immigration policy, coverage that she says generally “lacks context.”  For instance, Rios claims “there’s no discussion of the economic relationship of Mexico and the United States or  no discussion of the different groups referred to as Latino or Hispanic.”  Those coming from Puerto Rico, Cuba or Mexico are all treated as if they are the same, Rios observed.  Puerto Rico is treated “as a foreign nation.”
A 2009  Pew Research Center media study of 55 U.S. news outlets took a look at how Latinos are covered in the media. The study included newspapers, cable and radio programs and the broadcast network evening and morning news programs.  The Pew Center reported “From Feb. 9 to Aug. 9, 2009, only a fraction of all news stories studied contained substantial references to Hispanics — just 645 out of 34,452. And only a tiny number, 57 stories, focused directly on the lives of Hispanics in the U.S.”
Among other key findings:
•The nomination of Sonia Sotomayor made up the largest share of Latino-related news (39%). The Mexican drug war was the second most-covered story (15%).
•In the small portion of coverage that dealt with the experiences of Hispanics living in the U.S., the most common story lines were the effects of the recession and the immigrant experience, after that was population growth and changing demographics, and then the question of fair treatment and discrimination.
• Though immigration accounted for just 8.4% of the coverage involving Latinos during this time period, when immigration was discussed, Latinos mentioned 10 times more often than that of any other ethnic group.
Taken together, these two research projects examining news media coverage of Latinos suggest that despite being over 16% of the U.S. population, Latinos are shown in, at best, 1% of the news stories.  Even when they are shown, Latinos are most often discussed in the context of the immigration debate.
Dr. Rios explains this news coverage of Latinos stating,  “News coverage is still dictated by corporations with limited ideas of what makes money when it comes to news.”  As a result, important stories are missed.  For example, Rios noted, “Connecticut has an aging populations of whites.  Many of the younger workers in Connecticut are Latino.  So, Latinos are part of a young workforce taking care of aging whites in Connecticut.”  That’s the story that needs to be covered, stated Rios.
Rios is hopeful that online news services can  help to expand the variety of news media portrayals of Latinos.  According to Jean Marie Brown of the Maynard Institute, however, that may take some time.  Brown monitors online news sites each day for the Institute, a few are so-called “mainstream” websites:  The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, and Slate.  Others are “ethnic” sites, such as MarioWire, theGrio, and The Root.  In terms of the “mainstream” sites, Brown observes, “News coverage is not representative of the positions of Latinos.”  The coverage, Brown says, “will spike around immigration,” but, even then, the coverage “lacks context, continuity and balance.”  When not focused on immigration, coverage of Latinos tends to focus on crime and celebrities.
Brown notes that there is some difference between how a news site such as The Huffington Post covers a story and theGrio covers that same story.  One example Brown cites is in terms of the coverage of the protestors at the Supreme Court the day of the Obamacare decision.  “Look at the photos on The Huffington Post,” Brown urged.  “They’re all white people.  If you look at the pictures on theGrio, there are a number of people of color.”
Coverage of Latinos will have greater depth and breadth in MarioWire versus The Huffington Post.  Yet, the readership is larger and broader for The Huffington Post.  Brown notes that the reader can go to “Black Voices” or “Latino Voices” for stories related to people of color.  However, many of the stories on “Black Voices” are the same as those on “Latino Voices.”  Besides, Brown says, having specialized sections misses a bigger point.  When people of color are more than one-third of the population and growing, “why are they not part of the main voice?”
[Note:  The author of this story co-authored the first five of the 11 “Network Brownout” reports.  CTLatinoNews co-founder Diane Alverio co-authored the first eight of the reports.]
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