News Coverage of Hispanics Surpasses Expectations

Article excerpt

Dozens of studies have documented the news media's role in race relations in America. As early as the 1940s, the Hutchins Commission on Freedom of the Press urged newspapers to adopt a goal of trying to present "a representative picture of the constituent groups in society."(1) In the 1960s the Kerner report, following several major racial conflicts, placed part of the blame on the media for America's steady drift toward two separate nations.(2)

For the most part, scholarly research has come to similar conclusions, finding that African-Americans have been represented in unfavorable ways.(3) Some researchers have concluded that "exposure over time to local TV news presents viewers with an accumulation of images that make blacks appear consistently threatening, demanding and undeserving of accommodation by government."(4) Shanto Iyengar concluded that the stereotyping was so ingrained that even when pictures of criminals were not shown, about a third of the respondents in his study remembered seeing a picture of a black criminal.(5) Perpetuating stereotypes is not the only way the media may fail to serve their minority communities. Martindale, who has done extensive research on the relationships between African-Americans and the media, observed that media coverage of blacks in the past has concentrated on the problems facing blacks (racial discrimination in the South, for example) and not on conditions in local black communities (schools, recreation facilities, etc.).(6)

Most of the research on the media's role in race relations has dealt with their coverage of African-Americans. Less attention has been given to the coverage of Latinos. However, many American cities are beginning to experience pronounced growth in their Hispanic populations. In 1990, for the first time, the U.S. Bureau of Census allowed Americans to identify themselves as "Hispanic" and about 23 million Americans did so.(7) In a 1996 census report, nearly 32 million Americans said they were Hispanic. The Census Bureau projects that by 2040 Hispanics will number more than 80 million.(8)

Research Questions

Clearly, many American cities will experience growth in their Latino communities. The question becomes how the news media will deal with this growth. We decided to look at how a newspaper in one area with a fast growing Latino population has treated these communities. While we are not arguing that these findings can necessarily be generalized to other markets, we believe that a case study can be of value to understanding the issues that emerge as Hispanic populations grow. We concentrated on these research questions:

RQ1:

How are Hispanics portrayed in newspapers? Is the emphasis on crime? On festivals? On ethnic events? Or, using Martindale's distinction, on conditions in local Hispanic communities? Are Hispanics used both as sources and as subjects in stories?

RQ2:

How do Hispanics perceive they are being portrayed?

Prior Related Research

A recent search through the indices of Journalism Quarterly and Newspaper Research Journal found few titles that discuss news coverage of Hispanic communities although some work has been done involving prime-time entertainment programming. However, research reported in the popular media suggests that the news media cast Hispanics in stereotypes similar to those of African-Americans. Studies of local news in San Antonio and San Francisco found that Hispanics were over-represented in crime stories. Just as African-Americans have complained that the media too often use them as sources only on stories about race, some Hispanics believe they are underused as sources.(9) Perhaps another sign that many newspapers have trouble taking Hispanic communities seriously is this observation by a white reporter: "My newspaper editors go overboard in coverage of weekend cultural events and ethnic events in an effort to get pictures and quotes from minorities in the paper. …