How Newsrooms Can Do Better By Latinx Communities
Latinx Communities deserve good journalism year-round. Here’s how you can keep serving them well beyond Latinx Heritage Month.
By Beatrice Forman
Communications Student and Editor
When Jessica DeMoya Correa, a Latinx journalist on the Features desk at The Philadelphia Inquirer, was shopping at her local supermarket in September, she bumped into a reader. The reader, perplexed to see her there, asked what she was doing at a place “where poor people would go to shop for groceries,” according to a Twitter thread Correa wrote.
Her response? “I live in this neighborhood and I’m glad to find you here, because I am part of you and part of this community,” Correa said, aiming to dispel the notion that journalists report on a transaction basis, far removed from the communities they report on.
This snapshot represents a long-ignored truth: The media’s elitist tone has created a distrust so deep in marginalized communities that many cannot conceive of journalists of color being anything like them, caring about the same issues they care about or shopping at the same grocery stores. Often the most underrepresented group in newsrooms, the Latinx population feels this the hardest. The New York Time’s proportion of Latinx staff grew only 2% between 2015 and 2019, jumping from a meager 5% to the slightly less meager 7%. As of summer 2020, only 4.7% of reporters at the Washington Post were Latinx, which decreases to 3.4% when you examine leadership positions.
Latinx journalists are scantily present in the rooms where news is made. And when they are, they operate at the margins, doing the tough work of reconstructing relationships with communities of color with little acknowledgment and inequitable pay. Ultimately, this means that newsrooms rarely report accurately, let alone with passion and empathy, on the Latinx communities and the issues keeping them up at night.
Sure, Latinx Heritage Month brings a renewed focus on the vibrant history and culture of our diverse communities. But we shouldn’t have to wait for a calendar to remind newsrooms that we exist — and that we do more than just weather varying degrees of tragedy. Latinx Heritage Month is every month when you engage with the Latinx population. Latinx Heritage Month is every month when you report on our successes just as much as our fears. Latinx Heritage Month is every month when you equip reporters to head to Spanish Harlem, South Philly and beyond just to listen, not chase a story. Latinx Heritage Month can be every month, but it’s up to newsrooms to make that choice.
As Latinx Heritage Month draws to a close, here are 4 ways newsrooms can empower Latinx communities long after the sun sets on October 15.
1. Do Some Community Listening
Returning to Latinx communities only when you need to meet a deadline or chase a developing story turns the relationship transactional, with reporters extracting information while leaving little in return. This insinuates that talking to a Latinx person, leader or otherwise, is conditional on them being considered newsworthy. This disinvestment is dangerous and perpetuates a spiral of mistrust and resentment. Afraid of being exploited, Latinx sources are less likely to feel comfortable speaking with journalists, which in turn, forces stories on issues central to the Latinx experience to become half-baked, stereotype-reliant, and reductive. Articles that rely on tropes of poverty, unemployment, and fear don’t exactly build goodwill, so this cycle repeats itself. Rinse and repeat.
So, how do you break a cycle that feels inevitable? You end the patterns that enable it. Community listening entails seeking out Latinx communities for no other reason than to learn the basics: how they’re doing, what frustrates them, what motivates them, what they wished the general public knew about them, what they wish the government did better. This process builds trust. It makes readers feel as though they have agency over how their news is made, which encourages them to seek out reporters to their stories.
For inspiration, turn to the work of Resolve Philadelphia, a nonprofit that advances local journalism by elevating community voices. Simply put, they deal in community engagement. Most notably, they run an event series called Sound Offs, during which they engage in open-forum conversations with communities historically ignored by the Philadelphia media ecosystem. These meandering conversations helped reset the agenda in Philly, with topics repeatedly mentioned here catalyzing intersectional reporting sourced straight from the community.
2. Hire More Translators — or Reporters with Spanish Language Skills
According to a report published by the CUNY Craig Newman Graduate School of Journalism, there are approximately 624 news outlets in the United States that serve a population of 60 million Latinx people. Though 80% of these outlets are exclusively in Spanish, that percentage is rapidly diminishing as papers like Hoy Chicago, which published reliably for decades, have been forced to shutter. This creates a gap in coverage. Increasingly, millions of Spanish speakers now lack a consistent news source, potentially hampering their ability to stay informed in a time marked by disinformation.
Newspapers need to hire teams of translators and bilingual writers to produce original content in Spanish and reproduce articles drafted in English for a predominantly Hispanic audience. News is a public service. It cannot be gatekept. People’s access to coronavirus developments and late-breaking elections news should not be determined by the language they speak, so newsrooms must stop citing budget constraints as a way to ignore Spanish speakers. Translators and bilingual reporters are a long-term investment that can widen audiences to include Latinx readers who have struggled to find a mainstream paper that sounds like them.
3. Strike the Phrase “Illegal Immigrants” from the Publication’s Vocabulary
Newsflash: The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights calls the term “illegal immigrants” dehumanizing. This term devalues the immigrant experience and ignores the increasingly-complicated pathway to citizenship in the United States. Wait times are long, visas are hard to come by, and asylum grants are few and far between, leaving many with no other option but to enter the United States without documentation.
According to that CUNY study, the term “illegal immigrant” is significantly easier to come across than more positive phrases like “immigrant students” or “legal residents.” Simply put, this means the majority of stories about immigration one of the 3 most important issues for Latinx people cast them in a negative light and perpetuate the ill-conceived notions that Mexican and Central Americans have an illicit existence in America. That framework is unproductive and can prevent Latinx communities from receiving essential knowledge about policy changes.
Word choice matters. How news organizations refer to Latinx people in passing is a shorthand for how their reporters and editors feel about them—and this phrase reflects poorly. Opt for phrases like “undocumented immigrant” and “unauthorized immigrant” instead.
4. Highlight When Latinx Communities Thrive, Too
Oftentimes, Latinx journalists are the go-to sources for raw reporting on immigration, tropical natural disasters and their aftermath, and labor unions fighting for fair pay. This is well-intentioned. It acknowledges the strong ties Latinx history has to fights for equity and our hard-wrought battles for survival. But it also correlates the Latinx experience with, and the work Latinx journalists do, with tragedy.
Yes, covering the Trump administration’s concentration-camp like detainment facilities and ICE’s institutionalized separation of families matters. But doing so with acknowledging the other side of the Latinx experience — the side steeped in family, in collective action, in vibrant arts and innovation — is to treat us as a monolith of victims. Nobody wants to open a newspaper and see a reflection of their struggles thrown back at them on a daily basis. It’s hurtful and speaks to a larger issue within journalism. If reporters only listen to marginalized communities when they’re crying for justice, does that mean our shouts of joy are worth nothing?
As journalists it is our responsibility to be impartial, to be objective, to be balanced — that involves expanding your beat to cover the upsides of life in 2020, too. Profile the Dominican entrepreneur who is disrupting the local tech sphere. Follow the Puerto Rican nonprofit that’s trying to end homelessness. Look around for stories of unbridled Latinx joy and commit to them with fervor. I promise it’ll be rewarding.