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How Latinos Languish on Network News

UCLA Professor Otto Santa Ana notes that less than 1 percent of evening news stories are about Latinos—and how to better cover the community.

How Latinos Languish on Network News How Latinos Languish on Network News

Latinos are the largest and fastest-growing ethnic minority group in the United States. But you wouldn’t know it from watching network news. Less than 1 percent of the evening news coverage on ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN focuses on Latinos—and not much about the content or tone of the stories is positive.

That’s the startling discovery in a new book by Northeast Los Angeles resident and UCLA linguist Otto Santa Ana. Titled Juan in a Hundred: The Representation of Latinos on Network News, the book blends quantitative research, semiotics, cognitive science and humanist theory in a scholarly but accessible manner to highlight the consequences of a deplorable trend. (Juan in a Hundred is a pun on the professor’s 2004 finding that no more than one in a 100 evening news stories were about Latinos.)

‘Brown Tide Rising’

A professor in the César E. Chávez Department of Chicano/a Studies at UCLA, Santa Ana rose to literary prominence in 2002, with the publication of Brown Tide Rising: Metaphors of Latinos in Contemporary American Public Discourse, an examination of hundreds of print media articles, including from the Los Angeles Times, in which Latinos are depicted as invaders, parasites, animals and weeds—an imagery that, he argues, was directly responsible for Proposition 187, the 1994 ballot measures that prohibited illegal immigrants from using health care, public education and other social services in California.

Published this month, Santa Ana’s latest book took six years to write. The process began in 2004, when he examined 12,000 stories that aired across the four major networks and found that only 118 were about Latinos. The ratio has remained roughly stagnant since then, says the professor.

Latinos on Network News

Santa Ana defines U.S. Latinos as people who live in this country and are of Latin American or Caribbean descent. Most of the news stories that the professor studied for his book were related to people from the Caribbean islands, Cubans, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, besides those who trace their ancestry to Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Costa Rica. 

“Nothing has changed dramatically—there have been very modest, incremental changes in the format of news stories since 2000—or even 1990,” says Santa Ana. “The focus is really on mayhem, tragedy—if there’s a hurricane or tornado or some terrible event that would draw readers, Latinos will be covered.” He adds: “Economic news stories? Only if they’re major. Health? Rarely.”

One exception is what Santa Ana calls “Beltway news stories”—news related to federal government policies toward Latinos. “Those are basically the two criteria that make stories about Latinos newsworthy,” says the professor, adding: “And that omits a tremendous amount of interest [in Latinos] and contrasts with how Latinos are represented in the news from the general American.”

Latino Deaths Ignored

Deaths and obituaries about notable Latinos are also conspicuously absent from major network news. “Every day there is a newspaper story about some notable death, but Latinos are not represented whatsoever in network news—there’s not one two-minute obituary.”

In contrast to the 144 evening news obituaries in 2004, not to mention 89 stories surrounding the death of President Ronald Reagan that year, not a single Latino’s death was noted, writes Santa Ana. He points out at least four major omissions in 2004, including:

• Reynaldo Garza, the nation’s first Latino federal judge, who for personal reasons declined President Jimmy Carter’s 1976 offer to become U.S. Attorney General.

• Frank del Olmo, arguably the nation’s most influential Latino journalist who was a Pulitzer-winning editor, columnist and reporter for the Los Angeles Times.

• Pedro Pietri, the Nuyorican poet and author of the Puerto Rican Obituary, a 1973 epic poem depicting the lives of five Puerto Ricans and their unfulfilled American dreams.

Latinos, Minorities in Same Boat

“My perspective is that Latinos—and African Americans or women, for that matter—are not given a fair and balanced representation in the news,” says Santa Ana, adding that although his book focuses on Latinos, its findings are representative of other minority groups in the nation. For example, says the author, women accounted for less than 20 percent of all network news in 2004—a figure that might have been much lower were it not for the fact that many of those stories were about U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

“The fact that Latinos were completely ignored when we constituted 14 percent of the population indicates the mindset that excludes Latinos from being part of the American fabric,” says Santa Ana, adding: “Even the other day, when Jenni Rivera died, it took two days for NPR and CNN to cover it—only after there was such a mounting expression of grief from a large population of Latinos.”

Why are Latinos Largely Ignored?

“Generally, network newscasts and news editors do not view Latinos as part and parcel of America—their representation is limited to boilerplate news stories,” says Santa Ana. “Effectively what happens is that there is a reinforcement of expectations and a narrow range of stories is presented.”

This stereotyping is most glaringly evident in immigration stories, which Santa Ana has masterfully analyzed. Of the 118 stories that the four major networks broadcast in 2004, 38 were on the subject of immigration, including 22 about people crossing the U.S.-Mexican border. (President George W. Bush proposed comprehensive immigration reform in 2004 as part of his reelection campaign strategy, although no bill about the reform made it to Congress.)

Immigration—and the American Western

“Every one of those news stories had the same characters, and the narrative was that of the two-dimensional American western genre film,” says Santa Ana. “For every one of the news stories, the border patrol agent was the protagonist, just like the white-hatted cowboy—a lone hero defending a vulnerable nation against villains. And the villains are ‘types,’ not people.”

The only exception among the 22 stories on immigration was an NBC feature about a border patrolman who couldn’t stop the tide of immigration. “He has a few successes, but the plot resolution is that he fails to stop immigration,” says Santa Ana, adding: “We learn nothing about immigration from such stories except that immigration is a problem that is not resolved.”

Titled "Immigrants Flooding Across the Border," the April 30, 2004 NBC feature  revolves around a border patrol agent in the midst of what the NBC anchor describes as a human-versus-nature “situational conflict.” (See the first accompanying video.) As the agent faces his antagonists—a string of immigrants crossing into the U.S.—“NBC dehumanizes them with a long-distance camera shot,” writes Santa Ana. “They are shown like so many migratory animals moving single file across a desert plateau, a characterization supported by a sound bite: “Traditionally they return in the spring months.”

The narrow scope of network news about Latinos is matched only by the frequently poor background research that goes into reporting that news, argues the professor.

“By and large, I saw a lot of mediocre stories, all of which were made to look beautiful” with the help of superb video-filming techniques and a lot of effort in the editing room. “The high gloss and high production values that American audiences are so used to becomes an end in itself.”

Gross Misrepresentations

Although network news frequently relies on major newspapers for story ideas, the content of newspaper stories is often misrepresented, Santa Ana found in his yearlong research.

For example, a Feb. 22, 2004 NBC news brief inaccurately summarized a Wall Street Journal article reported from Kansas, according to Santa Ana’s book. In the news brief, viewers see NBC anchor John Seigenthaler against the backdrop of a street scene depicting two men of color, one of whom is wearing a suit and tie. The Journal logo appears in one corner and is quickly replaced with the story title—“Hispanic Jobs.” The anchor delivers a 52-word report:

"A new trend in the American workforce. Hispanics are taking a large share of the new jobs created in the U.S. economy. The number of Hispanics with jobs increased to almost 660,000 in the last year, while only 371,000 non-Hispanics found work. Most of the new jobs were in construction and services."

“NBC did not use the semantically unmarked verb get, but framed the story with the word take,” writes Santa Ana. Although the wording was from the Journal’s lead sentence, NBC editors omitted key information from the well-written article, including the fact that the jobs Latinos were taking were often dead-end construction jobs “others would shun,” in the words of the Journal.

Further, the NBC brief made no mention whatsoever of the Journal article’s pertinent conclusion: “Hispanics with deeper roots in the U.S. faced the same employment hurdles that non-Hispanics do.”

Recipe for Network News

Santa Ana offers a set of criteria for network news. “The touchstone of American news is fairness, balance and objectivity,” he says. “But objectivity is impossible—even journalists recognize that because we always come with a perspective and the best we can do is to render our perspective accurately.”

The professor proposes that "truth" and objectivity should not be network journalism’s highest priorities. Instead, their benchmark ought to be narrative. “Rather than pursuing objectivity—or even balance—TV reporters should look at the news story narrative,” he says. A story’s structure is more revealing than journalists may realize because it tells them “what a story’s bones are, what the story’s type is,” says Santa Ana.

Unlike print stories, which readers can visually scan in an instant and access at any point, TV stories must be followed from beginning to end before viewers can make proper sense of them.

“So, in a television story, the narrative becomes more salient and the framing of the story more fundamental,” says Santa Ana. “The framing is invariably done in the establishing shot, with the anchor or correspondent, and the narratives have a stock set of formats—the Western, the crime story, the person of intrigue, the scandal.

Poor stories based on conflict or political issues such as immigration tend to take a single narrative line, argues Santa Ana. “A better news story doesn’t necessarily provide two different points of view because a single narrative, with a single framing, always disadvantages the ‘added on person,’” he says.

“What you should be trying to do is provide two interwoven narratives in a single story”—one from the viewpoint of the protagonist and the other from the perspective of what might be called the antagonist, says the author. “When you have two narratives, no one is denied full representation as a person and there is very less opportunity for stereotyping.”

‘Dangerous Crossing’

The best network news story that Santa Ana came across in his research was Dangerous Crossing, a two-and-a-half-minute BBC story featured on the ABC network. (See the second accompanying video, which offers a stark contrast with the NBC video about immigration.)

The story, about a group of immigrants journeying across the Mexican landscape into the U.S., begins with close-up shots of the immigrants in a van. “The shots give tremendous subjectivity—you could see fear, anxiety, hope rendered about individual people who don’t say a thing,” says the professor. “The story began with the narrative of the voyager, the protagonist.”

Halfway through the story, a completely new narrative begins. A border patrol agent who’s looking for the immigrants is introduced. Although he uses animal and criminal metaphors to characterize the immigrants, “he’s a very likeable young man” who, too, is “given tremendous subjectivity,” says Santa Ana.

“At the end of the story, you don’t see the immigrants as stereotypes or the border patrol agent as a John Wayne. And at the very end you actually hear statements from two Honduran sisters who have immigrated.”

Lesson for Network News

Santa Ana argues that network news risks becoming obsolete if it continues to report about minorities in the manner described in his book. “I’d rather have television news representing Latinos and other people in more realistic ways,” he says. Indeed, in the era of the smart phone, the alternative for conventional network news may well be to become severely marginalized or disappear.

Related: Arizona Firestorm: How Politicians and the Media Keep us in the Dark About Immigration


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