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How Latinos Languish on Network News

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

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

Max the paperboy January 25, 2013 at 03:09 AM
"Proud American",,,,,,,,,,,,,,The land that you consider to be your home is land that used to be considered a part of Mexico, until it was stolen by proud Americans practicing their unique form of theft and murder called manifest destiny................you should consider yourself to be a guest..............
ERHS Moms January 25, 2013 at 03:37 AM
@Max - you do realize that that didn't just happen here, don't you? There are parts of Italy in France, parts of Austria in Italy, and part of Ireland in Great Britain. My point is that after so many years anyone in the United States of America doesn't need to consider themselves a guest here. The fact that parts of this used to be Mexico is such a weak argument to use - as if this part of the US had stayed Mexico it would have somehow changed immigration? It wouldn't have changed it at all. People emigrated from many places because there was opportunity here that did not exist in older cultures. People emigrated here because the government has been amenable to immigrants giving them chances not found elsewhere. And because the government wasn't as corrupt here as in other places. Corrupt government and lack of opportunity is the reason that many people came to the USA.
Kathy January 25, 2013 at 03:40 AM
"Latinos are largely invisible....." are you kidding???? They've pretty much taken over public schools and LA civic administration. Look at local voting choices. Btw, I'm NOT and immigrant, my Great, Great, Great Grandparents were immigrants, but I was born in America. As were millions of those of Mexican/Latino descent who were born in America. They are not immigrants. There were BORN here as Americans.....they are NOT immigrants. Wake up and stop this stupid division based on race.
nonoise January 25, 2013 at 06:58 PM
10 plus cable channels in spanish only, all the time. And, all news channels have all races. This instructor is still living in the past.
Victor Enzo January 26, 2013 at 10:17 AM
Well put. As a Latino, I whole-heartedly agree.
Victor Enzo January 26, 2013 at 10:44 AM
I don't feel compelled to read Latin American news media just to get some kind of racial fix. I feel a greater sense of identity and connection with fellow Los Angelinos than the idea of belonging to a large and broad ethnic group. American news is important to me because I live here, and so does everyone I know and love.
Rev M G Martinez, ULC January 26, 2013 at 02:49 PM
I feel compelled to watch Latin American News, (& I can't speak conversational Spanish, having been raised by English speaking grandparents) because I want to know what's going on in the Americas. If I didn't read Spanish News, I wouldn't know about the Narco War on our Southern Doorstep, that has resulted in upwards of some 60,000 Mexican lives. I would hardly be aware of the hundreds and hundreds of murdered women in Juarez. I wouldn't fully comprehend the dire straights a person coming here illegally must face, just so they can join the ranks of the working poor, with leaders who appeal to worse in us. Exploiting those ancient suspecions, mistrust, and fears between people. Having said that, I'm of the opinion that no rational citizen would knowingly accept unfettered illegal migration across their sovriegn boarders, if they fully comprehended what that meant. The situation created by The City Of Los Angeles' Sanctuary Policies have been a complete, horrific failure on every level imaginable. This City could never maintain it's desirability, superiority, by importing massive poverty, in the form of slave wage labor! I also reject the nonsense that illegal aliens are "invisable in the shadows." Like hell you say! And as I've long maintained, for every Hispanic illegally residing in So. Cal, there must be 2 illegal Asians. I reject any notion, particularly political, based on ethnic or racial pride. I'm Pro-Citizenship, pro USA!
nonoise January 26, 2013 at 04:09 PM
This professor is still living in the past. Times have changed. No one believes his racist garbage any more, at least not anyone that lives in the real world. Illegal aliens do not hide from some society. They are everywhere out in the open. Just look a Home Depot's and on the streets. They are everywhere. There is no hiding the truth anymore. Illegal aliens are NOT in hiding.
Creper Chimone January 26, 2013 at 09:21 PM
You can tell by some of the posts here that a bias against Latinos still exists here in Los Angeles and in this very community. And to claim this reverse racism is insulting. The news storys brought up (Arizona and the election) were news stories that highlighted this bias. Arizona wanting to id people who look a certain way and the republican party thinking that Latinos don't matter is pretty straight forward bias. I find even on this site there is bias, the gentrification going on concludes that all the new stuff is better because it's not latino - on this site Latino owned storefronts have been called 'ghetto' and that they should get out of town so that 'progress' can happen. I feel that these posters feel that all Latinos in this community are gangbangers or leaches on the system who don't contribute, which of course is not true. Forcing people out of their neighborhoods is not progress, it's just repeating history.
OmarA. G January 26, 2013 at 10:23 PM
I agree Chimone, I know I have worked with many White folks from different classes, educated, un-educated and the ignorant are usually the uneducated weather they are poor, or middle class. Now the educated have a better sense of what is really going on and don't resort to the ignorant comments we've all seen and read throughout various news sites and blogs as long as they can stay anonymous through screen names. But WGAS, because time will tell and the social economic balance will begin to swing our way what we as Latinos weather we are 1st. Generation imigrants to American's with Latino background is we MUST UNITE, support each other because at the end of the day, all they see us the color of our skin, not our zip code or or tax returns, or the degrees hanging on the wall, all they see is color.
El Cid January 26, 2013 at 10:46 PM
“In helping others, we shall help ourselves, for whatever good we give out completes the circle and comes back to us.”
nonoise January 26, 2013 at 11:22 PM
Wrong, Omar. A lot of hispanics are now wanting everything for them, equality for them, but not for everyone, not for all races, only for them. We know where most illegal immigration comes from. It is not racist to tell the truth. Dr King's dream was meant for all races, but some groups only want it for themselves. There is a lot of reverse racism today. We must support all races and not just one, to say otherwise is racist. We must suport all races and not just the one that we are.
Creper Chimone January 27, 2013 at 12:01 AM
this is exactly what I'm talking about
nonoise January 27, 2013 at 05:34 AM
What exactly are you talking about? You want things to be fair for you but not for others? You are not in reality. There is a lot of reverse discrimination. You do not want to admit it, but by not admitting it shows racism.
nonoise January 27, 2013 at 05:54 AM
I guess that Creper thinks only whites are racist and no other races are. Is that right?
Rev M G Martinez, ULC January 27, 2013 at 07:13 AM
I feel sorry for Chinese people in Lost Angeles. Bus riders know, that despite Federal Law against distracted driving, Metro Buses have televisions. T.V.s that more often than not, are broadcasting Spanish programs. There's never any Chinese, or Filipino programs. I mean come on! Asians have just as much historical claims to So. Cal., as Mexicans do. Ditto Russians, for that matter. Bias against Latinos? Hispanios, Mestizos, Centro-Americano, but overwhelmingly Mexicanos, ask of the US, what no other country has ever asked of another sovereign nation. Free, and unfettered access to US territory, and resourses. Territory bought and paid for with American lives and treasure. No, they don't ask. They demand, as if it's their right. Applying their logic, Spain has a better claim to the SW United States, than Mexico. Whites under 30 yrs old mostly voted for Romney. Brown students in LAUSD drop out rates are near 60% In a dozen years, who will be paying the bills, and who will be dependent on government benefits? Who is more likely to be employed? The White, or the "Minority"? Whites are the new minority! Do you think White America is cool with being displaced by illegal aliens? Because that's what's happening. Let me tell you something, White Americans are the majority of lawful gun owners in this country. They're not surrendering their weapons. Neither are Korean shop owners in L.A. The '92 Roits still fresh in their minds. Illegal Aliens give Mex.-Amer.'s a bad imagine. True!
Rev M G Martinez, ULC January 27, 2013 at 07:54 AM
Let me explain myself, I believe professors like this seek to inculcate a bias against Whites, and indeed against the US itself. Equating Manifest Destiny with "thieft and "murder." Remember the Alamo? If you take something that doesn't lawfully belong to you, then you're stealing. Whiether it be affordable housing, an entry level job, or a seat in a class room. If it's not yours, it don't belong to you. Right? Stealing is immoral, and it's illegal. Most Americans realize this. If a young child, or infant is brought here illegally, then the fault is that of the adult who endangered their lives, and jepordized their future. It is not the fault of our country. Most Americans recognize this also is true. However Dreamers don't understand that basic premise. They think their being treated unfairly. They are being treated unfairly, but not by the US. They're being treated unfairly by the adults like this professor. Who try to convince these youngsters that they're hated because of their skin color. What do "Latino/Hispanic/Chicano" Leadership call for? Amnesty, and Guest Worker. Break the law, and be forgiven, and a return to the Bracero Program! Which is what Guest Worker means. That's a helluva imagine for Mexican Americans to have for themselves! Not only all that, but how can you seriously argue a lack of Latinos in the news, when most of the news casters are Latino? They're Latino, or some other person of color. Does anyone seriously believe brown people are invisible?
Nimby pimp January 27, 2013 at 05:54 PM
Thanks for the piece. It will be fascinating to witness the means by which whites, including liberal media elites, will attempt to maintain power and privilege as demographic changes reshape the country. Remember Orwell's observation: "He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past."
OmarA. G January 27, 2013 at 06:03 PM
Yeah? Wow, what channel are you watching? Let me guess... FOX? Ha. How is this we as Latino's only want this for ourselves? State some facts. And I'm pretty clear on Dr. King's messages and what he stood for, I've been watch and reading about Dr. King since1980, I know what he stood for.
dee-aych January 27, 2013 at 06:07 PM
@Creper Most of the storefronts in Highland Park ARE ghetto. They look like a drunk 12 year old designed them. I hear his name is Alza.
OmarA. G January 27, 2013 at 06:10 PM
I'm just gonna say, to Nonoise & Proud American show your real name and stand by what you speak, because we can agree to disagree but it boggles my mind why you would hide your identity since WE American's are proud of what we stand for what about you? Not proud enough for that right? Kick rocks.
nonoise January 27, 2013 at 06:23 PM
Some truth to that Nimby. Those that controlled the past are now being controlled and abused by the ones that used to be abused. Fairness should be for everyone. Now let's see if those that wanted fairness in the past will give fairness to those that they asked it from. I do not see that happening. Many whites put their lives on the line for fairness for all and fought hard for fairness. I don't think that will happen when things are turned around. And, that time is now. Or course, this only applied to the poor, not the rich.
nonoise January 27, 2013 at 08:04 PM
Omar, I do not hide behind my name. Everyone in Northeast knows me and knows about my noise problem.
Nimby pimp January 27, 2013 at 08:43 PM
Where did you go to school? You don't seem to understand anything.
El Cid January 27, 2013 at 10:51 PM
LOL - I will say...everyone does know who Nonoise is, her noise problem with Divine Savior Church and her extreme dissatisfaction with Public Education/LAUSD. I will say, Nonoise has a right to express her point of view! Sadly, Nonoise is filled with too much hate. Instead choose hope. Replace anger with kindness. Where there is despair, dare to dream. Where there is distrust, dare to believe.
Nimby pimp January 27, 2013 at 11:14 PM
She abuses her right with one ill-considered and ill-informed opinion after another - on virtually every issue! I propose that Patch charge by the word. We could cut into the city's deficit with fees from some of these babosos with too much time on their hands.
nonoise January 27, 2013 at 11:21 PM
Don, there is no way to trust any member of Divine Saviour Catholic Church. And, all the hate comes directly out of their door and from them. From their refusal to lower the volume on their amplified sound system to the lies they told me court (I won, they lost) to the lies they told their kids to write down on paper and so much more. What hope? Divine Saviour Catholic church has told lie after lie after lie. Yet, you want them to be trusted after a million lies have been told? That makes no sense. Thanks for agreeing that I have the right to express my point of view. That is more than what Divine Saviour Catholic Church thinks. They took me to court to shut me up. (I won, they lost). And, Councilmember Ed Reyes has egg on his face for supporting them when they lost.
El Cid January 28, 2013 at 01:26 AM
With all due respect Nonoise...define "I won, they lost." Did you really win? What did you really win? For every moment you waste on anger & hate, you lose peace of mind and a part of you is lost. Find peace of mind within you, and you will find peace with others. As for Ed Reyes - I hear you! What a huge disappointment! I have absolutely NO kind words to say of him or his contributions to HP.
Sergio January 28, 2013 at 05:18 AM
Its because there are two groups of Latinos the english speaking and the non english speaking. The non english speaking have their own channels like Univision, Telemundo to cater to them. Thus other networks focus on issues and stories that affect the greater english speaking audience. Solution get all Latinos to tune into and become the constituency of network news like FOX, NBC, CBS but for that they need to learn english which Univision and Telemundo are preventing and do not want as they profit from keeping their audience english free out of the reins of english competitors
nonoise January 29, 2013 at 08:09 AM
Don, with all due respect, all that matters is that they lost. Google SLAPP. That is what it was. And, they lost. First amendment won!

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