One of the central findings about the portrayal of Hispanics in the press is that it mostly comes as bits and pieces inside coverage of other news events. There is little coverage directly about the lives of Hispanics and their experiences in the U.S. Of the 645 stories that related in some way to Hispanics and the Hispanic population, just 57 were primarily about Hispanics as a group.
Coverage cut across all media sectors, but three outlets in particular provided more coverage than others. In March, NBC Nightly News produced a week-long series, We the People, which explored how the growing Hispanic population is both adapting to and affecting life in the United States. CNN’s Lou Dobbs Tonight, a program that no longer is on the air but was known for Dobbs’ opposition to illegal immigration and job loss to Mexico, contributed half (6 out of 12) of the cable stories. And the New York Times contributed 8 of 18 newspaper stories, most of which were in-depth looks at issues connected to immigration, such as education and employment.
In this select universe of stories, what type of image does the press portray? What kinds of subjects triggered specific coverage?
During the time period studied, four main subject areas drove the coverage of Hispanic life in the U.S. Three of them inherently overlapped with each other: the troubled U.S. economy, immigrants—both legal and illegal, and the Hispanic population overall. The other main area dealt with the question of fair treatment and incidents of racial bias.
A number of the recession-focused stories discussed remittances, the money that immigrants send back to their families still living in their home country. Remittances fell in 2008 for the first time in decades. USAToday.com, on July 10, reported that the decrease had adversely affected Hispanics both in the U.S. and in Latin American countries. “Desperation is increasing among the millions of families who depend on money sent home by relatives in the United States.”
In a March 4 story, NBC Nightly News described the emotional toll that accompanied this trend, as foreign-born workers “had made a promise to their families back home to work hard and support them.”
NBC News also explored on March 3 how businesses and organizations are targeting their marketing towards the growing Hispanic population as a way of surviving the recession.
And the troubled U.S. economy was also tied in media coverage to the narrative about Hispanic immigrants, particularly immigrant labor. A Mexican census figure released in early May showed a 25% drop in emigration to the U.S. The New York Times and Lou Dobbs Tonight produced stories about this drop and conjectured that the recession might be a major cause, as U.S. jobs grew scarce.
There were a few stories about the lives of Hispanics that were not tied specifically to news events. One from the Washington Post on March 8, reported that second-generation Hispanics and Asians are marrying within their own ethnicities at growing rates. As the number of immigrants continues to grow, according to the story, so has the pool of potential partners.
A handful of stories talked about other impacts from the growing immigrant population. An NBC Nightly News package, for instance, considered the population spread through a look at a small Wisconsin city, Waukesha. “Latino families having families, growing roots and opportunity,” NBC Correspondent Lee Cowan reported.
A New York Times article on April 19 related some of the problems that arise in absorbing new immigrant groups. Smaller communities, the article stated, find themselves “unused to [the immigrants’] presence and unprepared to meet their needs.”
The New York Times also considered the impact of this growth on schools. A March 15 article examined a Virginia high school that had a surge of immigrant students. This school responded, according to the article, by “channeling them into a school within a school. It is, in effect, a contemporary form of segregation that provides students learning English intensive support to meet rising academic standards.”
Finally the question of fair treatment and sometimes even racism spurred broad stories about Hispanics in the U.S. The Associated Press, for example, conducted a months-long investigation of the accidental arrest and deportation of legal immigrants, finding 55 such cases: “In a drive to crack down on illegal immigrants, the United States has locked up or thrown out dozens, probably many more, of its own citizens over the past eight years.”
Fox News anchor Bret Baier commented that Obama’s choice of Judd Gregg as Commerce Secretary nominee caused some trepidation among black and Latino voters, as they feared he would cut census funding and thus potentially government money to their districts.
In addition to broad discussion of fairness, some outlets produced stories about specific incidents of racial bias. Anderson Cooper 360 investigated one Texas town where Latino and black drivers claim they are being disproportionately pulled over by police. And ABC News investigated a club in Philadelphia that attempted to bar a group of black and Latino inner-city children from swimming in their pool.
In the end, though, this coverage of Hispanics made up a very small part of the portrait of Hispanics in the media. In order to get the fuller picture, we can look more broadly at the larger swath of coverage.