december coverPoint of View

Despite the undeniable presence and growing influence of Hispanics across the U.S., network and cable news stations still don’t include enough stories on Latinos. And though more and more of us make news every day, it is mostly in stereotypical stories involving the current immigration debate or Mexico’s drug wars, for example.

“By the end of the century, there will be more Latinos than non-Hispanic whites [in the U.S.],” points out Jorge Ramos, host of Univision’s Sunday morning show “Al Punto” and anchor of the evening news. “Despite these hard facts and numbers, news media are doing nothing to cover the Hispanic community sometimes.” According to Ramos, Latinos and undocumented workers are absent from daily English-language newscasts and their point of view is ignored. “Very rarely do you see a prominent Latino in the news,” he says. “It seems that sometimes the hemisphere is caught between Mexico and the U.S. … More than misrepresenting Latinos or Latin Americans, they’re simply not including them in their news coverage.”

So it was rather refreshing when in March 2009, NBC Nightly News aired “We the People,” a series on the growth of the Latino population and how it is changing the face of the U.S.. “It was nice to see that the series reemphasized that Hispanics are not all new arrivals,” says Kevin Olivas, director of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists’ (NAHJ) Parity Project, a five-year strategic plan established in 2002 to help English-language news organizations increase the number of Hispanic journalists hired.

The series featured Hispanic families in places like Waukesha, Wisconsin and Little Rock, Arkansas. It included stories about the Boy Scouts’ efforts to reach Hispanics; the effects of the recession on hard-working legal immigrant and declining remittances to Latin America; successful professionals giving back to their Latino communities; and bilingual children of Latin American immigrants. The show was a fair representation of Hispanic Americans.

“There’s some concern with the rhetoric offered by pundits on cable networks when it comes to issues like immigration,” says Olivas. “[P]eople say things that may not be factually accurate and yet that’s the image people get of the entire community. … For Latinos or people concerned about Latino issues,” he adds, “it’s a matter of covering the entire community fairly and accurately. The NBC news series is an example of an attempt to do that.” But does it take a special report to have to address these misconceptions of Hispanic Americans, or should Latino faces be part of the mainstream, of everyday stories concerning all Americans?

Beyond the Taco Beat

In 2008, ABC won an Emmy for “California Burning,” its coverage of the California wildfires. Jim Avila, ABC News senior law and justice correspondent, contributed to that report with the story of migrant workers in San Diego. He decided to find out what they were doing, how they were coping, and during a “20/20” morning staff meeting he approached the executive producer with the idea for a story. The producer agreed, and soon after a camera crew and producers found workers in a field next to a property already evacuated. The farmer for whom they worked was making them stay despite the mandatory evacuation and nearing flames.

“That was a mainstream story,” said Avila, who last year was named Hispanic Broadcaster of the year by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ). “Frequently people don’t think about what’s happening to Latinos.” And though news coverage about or including Latinos in regular broadcasts has improved, he feels it’s not enough. “There’s just so much going on that the immigration issue has not gotten the attention that it should. Just recently, ABC has been doing stories about the violence over the border, but I don’t think we’ve done a good job. I don’t think anybody has done a good job telling the immigration story. It’s difficult to get room on the broadcast.”

The NAHJ’s 2006 Network Brownout Report, which examines the portrayal of Latinos and Latino issues on network television during two separate weeks in 2005, pointed out that of an estimated 12,600 stories aired by ABC, CBS, and NBC, less than one percent were exclusively about Latinos or Latino-related issues. But within those 105 stories, a significant portion lacked diversity of opinion. Though those numbers were a slight improvement from 2004, at the time the report was published Latinos still continued to be nearly absent from non-Latino stories, with Hispanics appearing as quotes sources in only 1.7 percent of the 12,495 mainstream stories aired in 2005.

The son of a journalist, Avila knew very early on that he to follow in his father’s footsteps. In 1976, he started out as a desk assistant at KCBS radio in San Francisco. When he applied for a job in the late seventies with WBBM-TV, Chicago’s CBS affiliate, Avila was told they liked his work, but they already had a Latino on staff, John Quiñones. He tried with ABC-owned Chicago station WLS next and was hired. “I was pleasantly surprised because there was a Hispanic reporter there already.” But only two weeks after Avila got there, the other one was fired. Back then, there was a quota, and one Latino journalist on staff or on air was more than enough. Things changed for Avila when he was assigned to be the City Hall reporter, the first Latino to do so in the Windy City.

Now also a correspondent for “20/20” and a contributing reporter for “PrimeTime,” as well as a regular weekend anchor, Avila is one of the many Latino faces on ABC, including Quiñones and Elizabeth Vargas. The direct correlation between the number of Hispanic journalists in the newsroom and on screen with the number of Latino stories aired is obvious. But even though the number of Hispanic-relevant coverage and Hispanic faces in mainstream stories seem to have improved over the years---and there are more Latino journalists on screen now than ever before---the ratio of Hispanic faces in the news is not equal to the 15 percent of the population Latinos make up.

“I covered mainstream news…and sometimes that got the Latino community upset,” says Avila. “They wanted us to cover their issues all the time.” Avila didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a Latino journalist by only covering the “taco beat,” as they called it then. Instead, he felt---and still does---that his role as a journalist who happens to be Latino is to bring those sensitivities to the newsroom and deflect any stereotypes when a story includes the Latino community.

While Latino reporters shouldn’t have to only cover stories pertinent to their communities, when they don’t push for such coverage, their point of view gets overlooked. Soledad O’Brien, CNN anchor and special correspondent, is currently working on the four-hour documentary “Latino in America,” scheduled to air this fall along the lines of “Black in America.” O’Brien will take a close look at how the nation’s largest minority is reshaping neighborhoods, “forcing a nation of immigrants to rediscover what it means to be an American.”

María de la Soledad O’Brien is the daughter of a black Cuban mother and a white Australian father. She grew up in the white suburbs of Long Island with no other Latinas in sight (besides her immediate family). And though her mother was a Spanish and French professor, she made sure they all spoke English at home. “I think she didn’t want us to speak Spanish because she didn’t want us to stand out more,” she says, because as the only black Latino family in Long Island they definitely did already.

In the upcoming documentary, one of the first things explored is the last name García. “It’s one of the most popular [last] names in the United States,” says O’Brien. “I wanted to show the range of Garcías—there are Garcías who speak Spanish and some who do not, Garcías who are much darker skinned than me, and Garcías who look like they just rolled out of the mid-West.”

O’Brien is not as concerned with the number of Latino-themed stories in the news or whether they’re good or bad, as she is with whether those stories are nuanced. A fully diverse newsroom, whether it is television or print, guarantees a fair and accurate representation of all stories. She feels there are clearly not enough Latinos in the newsrooms across the country, and consequently the same story is always aired. “It means you’re not getting a lot of nuance or feedback,” and that more diversity is needed in editorial meetings.

Avila agrees. “What we need to work on, and what ABC has acknowledged is that we need more [Latinos] who make the decisions. If you go into the newsrooms where decisions are being made every day, there’s a need for more minority representation.” He says part of that is because most Latino talent is attracted to the glamorous part of the job, on screen. Also, the networks have failed to groom talented minorities to be seniors and executive producers. During the last Unity Conference for Journalists of Color in Chicago, Avila says ABC president David Westin addressed minority journalists and committed himself to starting a program to train minority producers for such positions. Though the details are still vague, a company-wide e-mail was sent to ABC staff announcing the program would be in place soon and asking those interested to get involved.

Walking the Walk

Maggie Rodriguez, the host of CBS’s “The Early Show” and Katie Couric’s stand-in for the Evening News, was already working behind the cameras when she made the leap to TV reporter, first as associate and then assignment producer for a Univision affiliate in Miami, and later as a producer of the morning broadcast show “Hablando.”

Her first break came when Hurricane Andrew hit Miami. Reporters couldn’t get to work because the streets were blocked, and producers decided to give her a chance on air. She later became a reporter on “Noticias y más,” and later the evening news “Noticiero Univision.” But after a while, Rodriguez realized she was ready to crossover to English-language television. “I felt I could express myself a little better in English. I also saw I had more runway there, more opportunity.”

She got herself an agent and sent tapes to the major networks. ABC in Los Angeles soon came calling, with a stellar recommendation from fellow Univision journalist Jorge Ramos, who pointed out to an ABC executive that Rodriguez was a rarity and an asset because she could do the job in two languages. Rodriguez got the job.

It was the early nineties, and the major story then was California Proposition 187, which prohibited undocumented immigrants from accessing health care, social services, and public education. She did many stories on Proposition 187, and says speaking Spanish fluently was a huge benefit. “I understood them in their language and I was able to translate their words with all of their passion and all of their true intent. I don’t think that someone who didn’t speak their language or understand their culture would have done their story justice.” Ironically, even though it was Los Angeles and there were a few Hispanics on staff, none spoke Spanish. “It was all very rudimentary, ‘¿Sí, cómo estás?’ kind of stuff.”

It was then she realized how privileged she was to be there, “and thank God because [the] story needed to be told right.”

Meanwhile, O’Brien says she’s frustrated that she’s not fluent in Spanish and is making sure her children learn her mother’s native tongue. “Even if my mother weren’t Cuban, with the number of people that speak’s an important thing to [know] as a journalist. How do you interview people if you can’t fully understand the nuance of what they’re telling you?”

Avila, too, grew up only speaking English at home and says he wishes he spoke more and better Spanish. Though he didn’t have any negative experiences during his years in journalism because he is Latino, he did notice that the language barrier was an issue for Latinos trying to break into English-language broadcast journalism. “When I was growing up it was all about assimilation, we were taught to speak English and speak it well. The generation after me were very much into bilingualism, unfortunately in many cases people didn’t speak either language well.”

A Double Mission

Any good journalist will say that their job is to tell an unbiased story accurately and factually, to offer a fair representation of the people or events without actually advocating. But some Latino journalists argue that theirs is an innate commitment to do so better than others. “As Hispanics [we] will always give a more accurate representation of a Hispanic story,” explains Rodriguez, “just because we understand the language and are part of the culture. We have a unique understanding of the people that an Anglo would not have.”

After seven years with ABC in Los Angeles, working her way to weekend anchor, Rodriguez joined CBS in 2008 as co-anchor, and has since substituted for Couric about a dozen times already. “The first day I did it I got so many emails from people congratulating me, from people I know but people that I never met, specifically a flood of emails from Latino viewers,” says Rodriguez. She recalls with emotion one lady in particular who wrote, “to see a Latina up there, representing us and to have done it so well brought tears to my eyes.”

She takes her current roles at CBS seriously, and sees it as an opportunity to educate her peers on how to be cognizant of Latino viewers, by pushing stories about Latinos that are of interest to all Americans, as well as informing them of more humane and respectful labels---such as undocumented immigrant instead of illegal alien. “All you have to do is to mention it to them. If I wasn’t here, they wouldn’t think twice because forever ‘illegal alien’ was used and they didn’t put a face to that term.”

Though she’s careful to not force irrelevant stories upon her viewers, she does feel a need to include the Latino perspective. When she was invited to host the National Council of La Raza’s Annual Conference in 2008, she saw it as opportunity to share the experience with “The Early Show” viewers. She asked producers if she could host the show from the conference and do stories about the importance of the Latino vote on the next presidential election. They quickly agreed, and so for two days, she anchored her show live from the conference.

“That’s the whole point of having a newsroom that is reflective of the community,” says O’Brien. “I expect to fight for stories about people I know. I step up when a story isn’t told [accurately].”

Jorge Ramos agrees: “I would like to see more Hispanic faces on the air, and more Latin American news and Hispanic news.” Given the current economic crisis, and the loss of advertisers and viewers—and for daily newspapers, readers—to online news coverage, more energy should be spent on attracting members of the fastest growing segment of he population. Ramos feels it’s a strategic business decision, one that makes a lot of sense. How do you attract Latinos? Very simply, he says. “By covering news that Latinos are interested in, [such as] education and healthcare and jobs, and news related to Latin America.” In essence, the same news that is of interest or concern for all Americans.

According to Ramos, nine out of ten Hispanics in the U.S. are bilingual and free to seek the information they want in either Spanish or English. Ramos says at his network they have noticed that viewers who have an option between watching news in Spanish or in English are actually switching from English to Spanish, “because we are providing them with something they can’t get in English-language news.” He argues that if English-language news broadcasts included in-depth coverage of Latin America, much the same way Spanish-language news does of the rest of the world, they would notice immediately a change in ratings. Crossover journalists are another way of attracting English-language Hispanics.

When Ramos first arrived in the United States in 1983, he went to Los Angeles seeking a job. “I went to talk to a news director in California and asked for a job,” he recalls. “His response was very direct. He told me, ‘You will never work in English because of your accent. And don’t even try to work in Spanish-language media because eventually, very soon, all Latinos are going to assimilate and stop speaking Spanish.” Ramos laughs about it now because in the end, the news director lost his job and Ramos got his own.

“That’s what’s so interesting about Hispanic journalists,” says Ramos. “We have a double mission—to report the news as any other journalist, but at the same time we have to let the other 85 percent of the population who we are.”

Conversely, news veteran and host of Fox News’ “Geraldo At Large,” Geraldo Rivera feels it’s better for Hispanics as a whole to be represented less in mainstream news so as to not tag the face to the story. “Because of the immigration debate and the tone of the debate, and the stereotyping involved,” he explains, “Latinos have been the object of one of the most virulent hate campaigns, certainly, in living memory.” He says Latino-relevant coverage in television or talk radio is scandalous and sloppy, and that no other ethnic group would tolerate what’s said about Latinos under the excuse of talking about immigration or problems resulting from immigration. “We don’t picket in front of CNN because Lou Dobbs is talking trash about us. … It’s only in recent years that Latinos and Hispanics—and I think those words are synonymous---have used that description rather than Honduran or Puerto Rican or this or that. The sense of community is new.”

When in the early seventies Rivera famously exposed the conditions of the mentally retarded in institutions in Staten Island---coverage for which he received an Emmy---the patients were largely minority. “ I made sure I didn’t emphasize that point because I didn’t want the majority community to think they were doing another favor for minority people.” He says that’s exactly the way journalists should now deal with the economic crisis. “Let us get helped like other Americans…It shouldn’t be [just] a Latino issue.”

Rodriguez hopes her viewers see her as a fair journalist, doing a good job, who happens to be Hispanic. “Hopefully they’re saying, ‘She doesn’t look the way I imagined. She doesn’t talk the way I imagined Hispanics would.’” She knows she’s breaking stereotypes, and hopes this will instill a positive image of Latinos in the mind of Americans.

And while Hispanic journalists want to do their job like anyone else, many have come to realize the future lies on their shoulders. When O’Brien was presented with the Hispanic Heritage Award in 2005, she was humbled. “In one way you feel woefully undeserving, and at the same time you realize you have this pressure on you, you have this opportunity and an ability to make a mark in your field.” O’Brien at that moment acknowledged to herself that she had a huge responsibility to tell the stories of Latino and African American communities, and to do it well:

“There’s so much happening in the world, in 18 minutes, [that] if you don’t have a Latino in there saying, ‘Here’s why this story matters, why it needs to be covered,’ it probably won’t unless it’s an obvious story.”

But Latinos are everywhere, even if the rest of America isn’t always fully conscious of it. According to recent numbers released by the Census Bureau, one out of every four kindergarteners is Latino. “I am completely convinced the first Hispanic president has already been born,” says Ramos.

Aida Bardales was the editor of Criticas and now writes for the New York Daily News.