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Ethnic

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

What did the world that was put forward by the ethnic media look like on May 11, 2005? It varied significantly, depending on where you looked.

The violation of No-Fly Washington, D.C. airspace by a small plane, a big story in mainstream and some ethnic news outlets, didn’t even crack the paper the next day in Rumbo de Houston, that city’s Spanish-language daily newspaper. Instead, news of a mosquito infected with West Nile virus was the big news. On local Spanish-language TV in Houston, a Hispanic man killed when his car was hit by the city’s light rail system was a major story.

One national Spanish-language newscast led with the airspace violation, but the other led with the court appearance of an Illinois man accused of killing his 8-year-old daughter and her friend. Iraq, meanwhile, made nary an appearance in any of the outlets, while the topic of immigration was a part of the news mix of each in one way or another.

Our Day in the Life of the News sample of ethnic outlets from May 11 was a mix of different kinds of media.

National ethnic media are hard to find, but we recorded two newscasts, Univision’s and Telemundo’s. Beyond that, we captured the local ethnic media —newspaper, TV and radio — in Houston, Milwaukee and Bend, Ore. We recorded two local Spanish-language newscasts, both in Houston. Among the cities we chose there was only one foreign-language daily newspaper, Rumbo de Houston. None of the Spanish-language radio we recorded in our cities had meaningful news content. We also looked at one African-American publication, a weekly community newspaper in the Milwaukee area, the Milwaukee Community Journal.

The sample, while admittedly small, revealed noticeable differences in what audiences got from those outlets.

Spanish-Language Outlets

The Hispanic media aren’t simply copies of others in a different language. They tend to be broader in the scope of their topics and in the geographic regions they cover, and that is true for local outlets as well as national ones. Stories affecting members of the local ethnic community are given heavy treatment.

Take, for example, the newscast for KXLN, the Univision affiliate in Houston. On May 11, it opened with an interview with a family whose son lost his legs jumping from a moving train five days earlier. That piece was followed by comments from visitors to the station’s Web page about railroad safety. Then came a second-day piece about a man who was killed when he was struck by a city light rail train.

The newscast did a serious, lengthy piece on religion. The story focused on a Hispanic woman who was a member of the Episcopal clergy and raised the question why women can’t be priests in the Catholic Church. The report wasn’t just a profile. It waded into meatier religious topics, at one point quoting a local monsignor about why women are not allowed to be priests. It then challenged his reading of Scripture by noting that supporters of woman priests also quote the Bible. And the piece was just Part 1 of a multi-part series.

The plane scare that dominated cable and network evening news that day, when it did appear on KXLN, got only one paragraph, more than half-way through the newscast.

That was followed by a longish story about the discovery of a mosquito carrying the West Nile Virus in Houston and the fumigation scheduled for the affected area. Immigration made an appearance in two pieces — one about emergency health care for illegal immigrants and a short item on the Mexican government’s reaction to the U.S. government’s plan to make driver’s licenses harder to get.

And the local newscasts reached out further, geographically and otherwise, for some of their topics. For instance, Telemundo’s local newscast on KTMD did a lengthy feature on the city of Alvarado in Mexico’s Veracruz State, hundreds of miles down the Gulf coast from the Texas border. The city is known as “the place where the most dirty-mouthed people live,” and the story was filled with bleeped expletives. At one point the reporter interviewed a resident of the region who told him, “It’s very common here for someone to say, ‘**** your mother,’ and I will answer, ‘**** yours.’ We talk like that.”

A numeric accounting of the topics that appeared on Houston ’s local Spanish-language TV is revealing. Consider, for example, that traditional staple of local TV news, crime. It was in short supply on those newscasts, only 16% of their newshole. That is far lower than the 42% that mainstream local TV spends on the topic.1

Government news barely cracked the local newscasts we saw on May 11 — only 6% of all coverage. That was less than the government coverage on mainstream local news that night, which weighed in at 9%. But foreign relations was a much bigger part of the Spanish-language newscasts, with just under 15% of the stories. English-language local TV did only about 4% of its stories on the topic.2

National Spanish-Language TV

The national Spanish-language newscasts looked different from each other and from their English-language counterparts. Telemundo opened its May 11 newscast with three different crime stories from across the country — murders in California , Illinois and Texas — before turning to a relatively short piece on the plane scare in Washington.

Univision, meanwhile, opened with a lengthy package on the plane scare. It quoted a range of people — the Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Hispanic Congressional employee, and President Oscar Berger of Guatemala , who had been in the Capitol for trade talks.

The pieces on the two networks were different in tone as well. The Univision story at several points drew comparisons to September 11, 2001, and relayed complaints from evacuees that it was difficult to clear the Capitol. The Telemundo piece emphasized that the Capitol was empty in “seconds.” The report quoted the president of El Salvador, who was visiting the Capitol, as saying the evacuation “was very effective, and that only a few cell phones were lost. And someone ripped their pants.”

Immigration matters and the accounts of struggling immigrants also played a big role in the national Spanish-language newscasts. On May 11, Univision’s “Noticiero” did an update of a story on thousands of New York residents who were going to lose their drivers’ licenses because they did not have valid Social Security cards. “Today, on the other hand, thanks to a judicial decision, there is hope,” anchorman Jorge Ramos told his audience. “Although, as Blana Rosa Vilchez of New York says, we should not get overconfident.”

The use of the word “we” is interesting because of the way it links the identity of the station with its audience. “On your side” isn’t just a marketing phrase for these newscasts. There is a definite feeling that the news is aimed at a particular community, and that the station is working with its viewers.

On May 11, Telemundo’s “Noticiero” did a piece focusing on Springdale, N.Y., where the rape and murder of a housewife, apparently by a Guatemalan worker, had created distrust toward immigrant workers. The story featured some of the same “we’re in this together” viewpoint. “The workers simply state that they are paying for the actions of one person,” said the reporter. “This is taking away their daily bread as workers: because of one, everyone has to pay.”

And both networks were interested in news south of the border. Both had a story about Mexican soap opera actors hit by a car in Mexico City. Telemundo had several other pieces from Mexico, including a story about how the U.S. embassy denied a humanitarian visa to a woman whose husband had been beaten in New Jersey, violence in the Mexican city of Nuevo Laredo, and the death of an actress in Mexico City who had a heart attack when she thought she was being robbed.

Looking at the geographic focus of the stories covered — what the stories were about rather than where they were reported from — Spanish-language TV really stood out. On May 11 Univision’s national newscast included stories about the arrest of 400 youths by the government of Cuba, the man who ran over Mexican actors on a street in Mexico City, and the increase in fake versions of drugs like Viagra coming over the Mexican border into the U.S. Even the story of the Washington plane scare took a different approach with its interviews with Hispanic witnesses.

The numbers make the differences between the Spanish-language outlets and their English-language counterparts clear. Roughly 36% of the stories on all the Spanish-language TV newscasts we examined were about international topics.3 That is far above local TV’s 9% and cable’s 29%, though less than the national evening TV news with 48%.4

Perhaps because of Telemundo’s heavy focus on murders, crime coverage in the national Spanish-language newscasts was high, 28%, well above the 19% on the network newscasts.5

As for the specific topic of foreign relations, Spanish-language newscasts stuck out for the large amount they had at national level, just as they did at the local level. The national newscasts devoted about 19% of their stories to such news, almost twice the 10% the mainstream network evening newscasts carried. The national Spanish-language newscasts looked a bit more like their English-language counterparts in the amount of their government coverage — 16% for Spanish-language, 17% for English-language.6

Spanish-Language in Print

The lone Spanish newspaper in the cities in we examined in our Day in the Life study, the tabloid Rumbo de Houston, had a different approach from the English-language newspapers.

Crime, for instance, barely made an appearance in the May 12 Rumbo de Houston. Indeed the paper was less focused on crime (12% of space) than any other newspaper type we examined.7 The only traditional crime-focused story was about an attack on a journalist in Nuevo Laredo, the town near the U.S.-Mexican border where the lawlessness had became national news in the U.S.

Local news, however, was not lost in the issue. On the front page, the paper featured a large story on the mosquitoes infected with the West Nile virus, followed by a piece about the death on the city’s light rail system, which the paper called “one of the most dangerous transportation systems in the whole country.” There was a story about the regulation of Houston taco stands and one on the “pressures” involved in the mayor’s prodding of firefighters on a contract.

National news did not figure prominently in the May 12 Rumbo. There wasn’t a story with a national focus until page 6, and that was a preview of a local meeting about military base closings. On page 8 there was a piece on a potential new law that would make drivers’ licenses more uniform. The war in Iraq didn’t make an appearance until page 9 (out of 12 pages total), which had a short item about the number of deaths since the installation of a new Iraqi government. And the small plane that violated D.C. airspace wasn’t even mentioned.

We again saw the foreign focus we found on Spanish-language TV. Just after the opening local stories, page three carried a piece about how residents of El Salvador would have to use an extra digit to make calls in the country. Other stories reported on money being shipped from immigrants in the U.S. to friends and family in Mexico, on the Mexican government’s opposition to the building of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, and various short items about Central and South America (the subjects of eight stories in all).

Rumbo was more like its English-language counterparts in some ways. Roughly 25% of the newshole in the 12-page tabloid was devoted to government, compared with 27% for national newspapers, 24% for suburban papers and 20% for metro newspapers. About 10% of the hole in Rumbo was devoted to foreign relations, compared to 11% in the national papers and 8% in the metro papers (it’s probably not a surprise that suburban papers did little foreign coverage, 2%). Domestic issues got roughly the same amount of coverage in Rumbo as in other metro papers, with both devoting roughly 14% to the topics.8

On the whole 47% of the Spanish-language stories we examined had an international focus. That far outstripped all the other types of papers: metro (24%), suburban (8%) and even national (30%).9

Spanish-language papers were close to the metro-paper average when it came to journalist opinion — neither had much, only 3% of stories and 2%, respectively.10

African-American Media

The African-American paper we captured, the weekly Milwaukee Community Journal, provided content that was truly community-based in almost every sense of the term. The content was either about African Americans, about Milwaukee, or both. Its content fit with what we’ve found in previous years in this report. The African-American press, published in English and generally published weekly, is not designed to serve as a substitute for the mainstream media but as a complement.

The front page of the paper presented a look at the mix inside. One story reported that the Police Athletic League facility in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods was being put up for sale because of the PAL’s bankruptcy. Another noted that the national unemployment rate for African-Americans was twice the national average. Another described a lawsuit being filed against the city by individuals claiming their constitutional rights were violated by the Milwaukee police.

The pieces had a definite point of view and were as intent on stirring action as they were on reporting facts. The PAL story gave readers contact information for anyone interested in the bidding process. The lawsuit story didn’t include a comment from the police department, but it not only outlined the lawsuit in detail, it also quoted a letter from a Milwaukee alderman requesting an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department.

But the unemployment story may offer the most telling sign of the paper’s point of view. The piece presented opinion as fact. It called the unemployment numbers “another in a series of blows that the American middle class has suffered under the Bush administration” and added that the Bush budget “fails to promote security or to honor our veterans.” It then said, “Democrats will keep fighting for the values that will strengthen the American middle class.”

The paper carried an article about a local church’s “Day of Restoration” designed to bring the community together to discuss its problems. A lengthy piece reported recent parties and events in the community attended by a columnist from the paper — everything from a high school recognizing attendance and its honor roll to a lecture by the singer Patti LaBelle. There was also a lengthy piece on marijuana and mental health.

Footnotes

1. PEJ research.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.