Latino voices missing in US media: It’s time to weigh in

Even though Latinos are increasing in number throughout the media landscape, their impact has yet to be felt.

Sonia Sotomayor is the first-ever Latina Supreme Court Justice in the US [AP]
Sonia Sotomayor is the first-ever Latina Supreme Court Justice in the US [AP]

What do a pope, Pepsi campaign and American presidential election have in common? 

Because Latinos have been directly involved in each one of these significant moves in the arena of religion, pop culture and politics, there appears to be universal acknowledgment that Latinos have pierced the mainstream bubbles of representation. But it is a mirage. 

Yes, Latinos are now the majority minority group in the United States with 16 percent of the nations’ population: 51.1 million. But you would not know that by their absence from mainstream American media. 

Pope Francis, the first ever papal representation from Latin America, is said to be the genuine voice of millions of Latino Catholics in America and across the world. Last week, the ABC TV’s Golden Globe-winning sitcom “Modern Family” carried the largest audience and was most viewed live and on DVD. It features Sofia Vergara, who also stars in PepsiCo commercials and has her own line of clothing at Kmart Corp, the No 3 discount retailer in the US where supposedly she represents American Latinas. 

On the political front, 31 Latinos are now members of US Congress: three Republican Latino/Latina governors in Susana Martinez of New Mexico, Brian Sandoval of Nevada and Luis Fortuno of Puerto Rico. We have the first-ever Latina Supreme Court Justice in Sonia Sotomayor with her memoir, My Beloved World, selling in both Spanish and English. 

Very few anchors and hosts

But earlier this week, the Republican National Committee revealed in the “Growth and Opportunity Project” report that only 1 percent of its $1bn presidential campaign fund in 2012 was spent trying to woo Hispanic voters. This came just days after Luis Miranda, the director of Hispanic Media for the White House, resigned from his post to become a communications consultant in the private sector. 

 Latino vote key to battle for US swing states

So, those who say symbolic representation does not matter are clearly not paying attention. Perception reinforces reality. The ethnicity and/or gender of the individual in a high profile position, delivering the news or messaging matter greatly. It is about credibility. 

Do people assume that just because Latinos are present they will be heard? The logical expectation is that the power of numbers will eventually follow in the media. But Latinos are virtually invisible as anchors, hosts and journalists in American broadcast, text and digital outlets. 

Sports Illustrated released a list of 10 most powerful people in sports media that included no Latinos: of the 10 men, eight are white and two are journalists of colour. The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport also recently released its 2012 study of minorities and women covering sports in American’s news outlets. Unfortunately, nothing but the date has changed since its first report in 2006. The findings revealed that 90 percent of sports editors are white and suggested that minorities and women face incessant obstacles in the world of sports writing. 

This is definitely a matter of great concern from symbolic, framing and substantive perspectives. The lack of diversity can and does have implications. 

In the February 25 cover of Bloomberg’s Business Week -“The Great American Housing Rebound?” – Latinos and other racial minorities are portrayed as moochers, culprits and greedy benefactors of the housing crisis. Not only is this irresponsible, but is also flat out wrong. Latino and black homeowners and borrowers were more likely to be the victims of unscrupulous practices by banks and lending companies such as Wells Fargo and Bank of American/Countrywide

This kind of insensitivity can almost surely be traced to the lack of concern over the thought process by news management. In his recent book, Juan in a Hundred: The Representation of Latinos on Network News, University of California-Los Angeles Professor Otto Santa Ana shows how fewer than 1 percent of the evening news coverage on ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN focus on Latinos; and, when they do, not much of the content or tone of the stories are positive. 

Even when a Latino talking head is merited on news shows for commentary, he/she is not there. For example, shortly following the 2012 election, as English-language television networks were touting the performance and power of the Latino vote, most, if not all of the TV pundits talking about “their arrival”, were non-Latinos.

This is not merely episodic. Of the 23 MSNBC anchors and hosts listed on the website, only one is Latino. As for CNN, of the 21 anchors or hosts, only two are Latinas: Soledad O’Brien and Zoraida Sambolin.

Need diversification 

And even those numbers will be cut in half to one. O’Brien is leaving the network to launch her own production company – Starfish Media Group. She was the driving force behind the launching of “In America” series, a move credited with diversifying the network’s coverage of issues affecting communities of colour and the LGBT community. But just last week, Alina Machado was hired as a reporter based in Atlanta for CNN, CNN en Espanol and CNN Latino. 

“Pope Francis, the first ever papal representation from Latin America, is said to be the genuine voice of millions of Latino Catholics in America and across the world.”

At PBS, another influential figure in expanding the voice and presence of the Latino collectivity in the media is Maria Hinojosa. Her pilot “America By The Numbers” will debut eight new episodes on PBS in fall 2013. As anchor and managing editor of NPR’s Latino USA, Hinojosa has received two Emmy awards for broadcast and reporting. In the last decade, she was named one of the “100 Most Influential Latinos in the United States” by Hispanic Business Magazine. But she may be the exception.

In digital and print outlets, so far in 2013, there are no Latino/Latina columnists. Maria Burns Ortiz – the National Association of Hispanic Journalists Sports Task Force chair – penned an ESPN social media column, but was recently told that her column was being suspended indefinitely.

A September 2012 study by FAIR revealed that less than half of one percent of op-ed bylines over a two-month period in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and New York Times were from Latinos.

Some will point to the creation of CNN en Espanol, ESPN Deportes, Fox News Latino and NBC Latino as progress. But in the eyes of mainstream media, these outlets are viewed as separate entities and therefore different, targeted to a specific demographic subset.

When this occurs, there is the unintended consequence of promoting the myth that Latinos are not interested in embracing the English-language media. This by default reinforces the idea that Latinos do not want to assimilate to American ideas and values. Such perceptions can lead to irresponsible behaviours. We have already seen this kind of view infecting the immigration reform dialogue.

It is clear that the American news media still lacks the necessary Latino voices to reflect the heterogeneity of this collectivity. Diversification must come to all facets of the media industry: news anchors, on-air journalists, editors, producers, reporters, commentators, subjects and more. 

My question is: if Latinos are so large a group, why so silent? I believe it is time for the traditional voices and faces in American media that are mostly white and male to make room for the fair representation of Latino men and women. When I tune in, click on or turn the page, I no longer want to have to answer the question of “donde estan los Latinos?”  

Dr Jaime Dominguez is a faculty in the Department of Political Science and the Latino/a Studies Program at Northwestern University. His research interests include race and ethnicity; Latino and urban politics. He is also a Northwestern Public Voices fellow.

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