Maynard Media Center on Structural Inequality
Immigration Issues Dominate
Media Focus on Latinos
By Jean Marie Brown
Maynard Institute (July 5, 2012)
Issues related to immigration have dominated recent mainstream media coverage about Latinos as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the controversial Arizona immigration law, and President Barack Obama altered deportation status for people who are under 30 and were brought to the country illegally as children.
But the coverage also underscored a major flaw in the media's treatment of Latinos: rarely are they mentioned in reporting on issues other than immigration.
The importance of the immigration issue cannot be denied. In the past 40 years, an estimated 12 million people entered the United States from Mexico, and slightly more than half did so legally, according to the Pew Hispanic Center's updated report in May.
The inclination to focus on immigration is understandable, says Aly Colón, a diversity consultant who has worked with the American Society of News Editors, Public Radio International and the Poynter Institute.
"It's obvious for the media that this is a natural way to go," says Colón, noting that many Americans, including those in the media, don't have a very informed idea of Latinos' role in American society. Seeing very natural issues that affect everybody isn't always easy, he says.
"The media tends to objectify groups outside of the mainstream," Colón says. "Until you know people by their names, they're not people."
Latino activists believe that the media must expand its coverage beyond immigration issues, particularly this year as the Hispanic vote is poised to play a major role in determining the winner of the presidential election in November.
One thing important to remember is that this may be the first time that Latinos have been considered a political force in the general election, says Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute, a nonpartisan, public policy research institute.
Gonzalez says past coverage that included Latinos didn't extend beyond the Democratic primary contest between then-Sen. Obama and Hillary Clinton.
"It's good that we're getting attention, but what has essentially come out is if you want the Latino vote, you've got to be good on immigration," Gonzalez says. "It's oversimplified. There are other issues that are really important."
Like Colón, he says the emphasis on immigration is understandable and describes immigration as a metaphor for Latino inclusion in America. The attention given immigration is natural because it's the issue that people feel most passionately about, he says. However, emphasis on it, almost to exclusion of anything else, gives a "skewed interpretation" of issues weighed by Latino voters.
Gonzalez notes that little attention is paid to home foreclosures, U.S.-Latin American relations or unemployment.
Louis Desipio, an associate professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine, suggests looking at Spanish-language publications and broadcasts to find broader coverage of Latinos.
He, too, notes that U.S.-Latin American relations are important but often overlooked in coverage dominated by nations with which the United States is in conflict or that are in crisis. Rather than identify themselves as Latino or Hispanic, Desipio says, many people identify instead with their country of origin and its relationship with the United States.
Focusing almost solely on one aspect of immigration provides a stilted and distorted viewpoint of the largest and fastest growing group of people of color in this country, Colón says. "It's not something bad in and of itself. It's just inauthentic."
Colón and Desipio cite NPR's recent coverage of Latinos as a good example of coverage showing that they are like anyone else.
Polling data and recent studies make clear that education, poverty and the economy are pressing issues with a voting bloc that is far from a monolith. These resources that can help to broaden coverage:
Education and Childhood
U.S. Department of Education projections [PDF] show that through 2020, Hispanic children will compose the nation's fastest-growing student population. However, the educational achievement gap between whites and Hispanics, seen through standardized testing, shows no sign of lessening.
Department data show that black and Hispanic students are disciplined at a disproportionately higher rate than are their peers. In May, a Beck Research survey of Hispanics living in five battleground states found that education was a leading issue. According to the survey [PDF], 58 percent of Latinos in those states said they wanted to hear more about education from the presidential candidates. The economy, jobs and deficit reduction were also major issues [PDF].
The U.S. Census Bureau's supplement population survey [PDF] chronicles effects of the recession on families, and Pew has analyzed data focusing on results for Hispanics. It shows that more Hispanic children live in poverty than those of any other racial or ethnic group [PDF].
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute estimates that Hispanics have lost 60 percent of their wealth since 2008, and its report details how the housing market collapse and subsequent foreclosures have exacerbated the homeownership gap between Hispanics and whites. The May unemployment rate for Hispanics was 11 percent, 2.6 percentage points behind that for blacks.
The immigration situation is much more complex and nuanced than coverage often shows. Pew's most recent immigration report [PDF] found that by the end of the last decade, Asians had outpaced Hispanics to become the nation's fastest growing immigrant population in the nation.
Released June 19, the report underscores the end of a 40-year migration trend that has resulted in Mexicans being the largest immigrant population in the United States. The shift was chronicled in a Pew report [PDF] released in May. That report, a review of U.S. and Mexican census information, shows that immigration from Mexico had virtually ceased and been reversed as the extended U.S. recession prompted some Mexicans to begin returning to that country.
Pew noted the reverse trend in a 2011 report that looks at immigration trends state by state. It's worth noting that this trend is more than five years old, meaning that it began about 2006 when mass protests about the nation's immigration policy occurred.
Finally, a Pew poll earlier this year [PDF] questions use of the terms "Hispanic" and "Latino." Only 24 percent of those surveyed preferred those descriptors. Instead, they identify with their country of origin.
Jean Marie Brown is a former newspaper executive who worked primarily for Knight Ridder and McClatchy newspapers. She is a full-time graduate student at the Schieffer School of Journalism at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. Her thesis is focused on the Fault Lines of coverage as outlined by the late Robert C. Maynard. She examines online media coverage daily for the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education in the Point of View column at http://maynardije.org/mmcsi/posts/point-of-view.