Guest Post: How Newsrooms Can Better Cover U.S. Latinos

The Online News Association held its annual conference in Atlanta last week, drawing more than 1,500 digital journalists, reporters, editors, and entrepreneurs. Today’s guest blogger, Mikhail Zinshteyn of EWA, reported on the event’s “Disrupt Diversity” session. 

As the U.S. Latino population rises, news outlets are struggling to tailor their coverage to the many national and socioeconomic backgrounds that make up this large minority group.

Already, nearly one in five Americans is Latino and a quarter of newborns in the United States come from such households. Nevertheless, many non-Hispanic Americans harbor misconceptions about what that broad cultural term ‘Latino’ means—and media organizations might bear part of the blame. News media organizations also might be failing to distribute their content in ways that sync with the news consumption habits of Latinos.

These volleys of criticism were central to a presentation by three Latino media leaders who spoke last week at the Online News Association annual conference in Atlanta.

Of the roughly 53 million Latinos currently living in the United States, two-thirds are natural born citizens. And though 65 percent of Latinos have Mexican backgrounds, millions do not: Puerto Rico, El Salvador, Cuba and the Dominican Republic round out the top five U.S. territories and countries of origin for U.S. Latinos.

These differences in backgrounds can play out locally in ways that run counter to national trends. In Washington, D.C., three in 10 Latinos identify with El Salvador—double the share of those with Mexican heritage. Nearly one in 10 Washingtonians is Latino, according to city data collected in 2011. Individuals who identify with Mexico comprise 78 percent of the Los Angeles area’s large Latino population, according to Pew Charitable Trust research. However, that ethnic group represents a much smaller percentage of the New York City area Latino population—just 12 percent. The dominant Latino group in that region is Puerto Ricans at 28 percent, followed by Dominicans at 21 percent.

These variations have significant ramifications for what news content might connect better with local audiences, the panelists note. A national tragedy in Mexico may resonate more with readers in Los Angeles than in New York. Likewise, Cuban coverage might not capture the large Latino readership in Houston as it might in Miami. I can think of several more: For education reporters, a natural disaster in one Latin American country may explain an uptick in cases of distraught or absent students who are grieving over harmed relatives.

Despite the many “shades of brown” as Robert Hernandez, a professor of media at University of Southern California and one of the speakers at the ONA session, called the Latino population, enough similarities exist for newsmakers to take notice. Latinos are the youngest demographic group in the United States, with an average age of 27 compared with 42 for whites. And many more Latinos than whites ages 18-35 live at home, the panelists said.

I see several takeaways from these figures: Education reporters, for example, may want to highlight not only the average household income of Latino students but the size of the household, as well. Another wrinkle to consider when writing about education and Latinos: The multigenerational setup prevalent in Latino households might explain lower rates of pre-K enrollment. As “under-matching” becomes a larger theme in higher education reporting, how much do the family dynamics integral to many Latino households impel talented students to attend a local university rather than a highly competitive institution hundreds of miles away?

Minding the relative juvenescence of Latinos might also change some of the content delivery models of news outlets use to reach these groups, said panelist Charo Henriquez, who’s the innovation editor at a Puerto Rico media group. While fewer Latino households (62 percent) possess internet connectivity at home than the rest of the U.S. population (76 percent), Latinos are more likely than whites to connect to the internet via mobile phones. News sites with smartphone adaptability are better geared to reach Latino readers, the panelists note.

The Latino audience also contains diverse sensibilities in their choices of preferred language when consuming media. On local matters, there’s a tendency among Latino consumers to choose content in Spanish, the panelists said. However, one-third of Latinos consume news in English only; eight in 10 absorb the news in both languages.

The local angle is important, the panelists say. In many Latino communities, a Spanish media organization already exists that has brand recognition and trust among the community. English-language outlets should partner with those under-the-radar Spanish outlets to expand coverage and generate buy-in from the Latino audience, the panelists said.

How not to go about it: Hernandez skewered the Hartford Courant for running a Spanish-language version of its site that merely consisted of its English copy filtered through Google Translate.

Another takeaway from the session: While having minorities in the newsroom might expand and improve coverage important to Latino audiences, outlets might still overlook key stories because of insignificant interaction with low-income Latinos. One social media commenter who followed the panel wrote, “I take public transit every day (I live in LA!) You get story ideas on buses you can’t get otherwise! Meet sources too.”

Cross-posted at The Educated Reporter.

Does the ‘English Language Learner’ Label Help or Hurt Students?

Would a student who speaks English but whose parents speak Spanish be better or worse off being labeled an English language learner?

It’s a dilemma the Fronteras Desk, a new multimedia collaborative from seven public radio stations in the Southwest, portrays in an article and video about such students.

The article points out that the schools say students from homes where parents speak Spanish have limited English vocabulary and need the extra help. But parents worry that their children will be labeled and segregated from their peers. In addition, parents fear their kids will miss out on other opportunities, such as gifted programs.

It’s a story worth exploring. And it might extend beyond California. What is your school district’s policy about defining qualifications for English-language learning classes? Does the label segregate students unfairly?