February 1, 2002

Commentary

Despite Growing Latino Population, Representation on TV is Few and Far Between

By Ed Morales

Good luck finding new stories about Latinos.

In 2000, of the 16,000 news stories aired on ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN, only 84 were about Latinos, according to a recent report by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ). That's only 0.53 percent.

Even though Lat-inos are 12.5 percent of the U.S. population, and even though we've been a significant part of America's culture throughout its history, we still can't make the six o'clock news.

The NAHJ report has an important caveat: The 0.53 percent figure is based on numbers that don't include the 348 stories the networks carried on the Elian Gonzalez controversy, which accounted for 2.2 percent of all stories. It is not off-base for NAHJ to consider the Elian saga an "anom-aly." The story was less about Hispanics that it was about a child-custody case that involved two countries involved in a bitter 40-year political standoff.

But even if you counted the Elian stories, the number adds up to just 2.7 percent of all new stories, far off from a group that is 12.5 percent of the total U.S. population, and growing.

"Latinos are generally presente as crowds and brown human hordes coming down narrow corridors or streets," despite our growing middle-class, suburban presence, according to the NAHJ report. Salsa and mariachi music are often used in the news, regardless of the seriousness of the story. When networks focus on immigration and border-crossing issues, they often paint a picture of nomadic Latinos.

News broadcasts also tend to emphasize Latinos' predominant use of Spanish, the report shows, even though many U.S.-born Latinos are either bilingual or don't speak Spanish.

Misrepresentation and under-representation doesn't end with just the news.

Latinos received only 4.8 percent of the total roles cast for television in 2000, according to a recent Screen Actors Guild report. In prime time, the share of Lat-ino characters dropped from 3 percent between the 1999 and 2000 seasons, according to Children Now, an advocacy group that studies the media.

"American Family," the first Hispanic-themed weekly drama to appear on broadcast television in the United States, which was originally set to air on CBS, was dropped by the network and will now appear on PBS. With fewer viewers and a smaller budget, it's unlikely the show will have longevity.

It seems clear that the networks aren't really paying attention to us. They ignore the deep roots we have placed in communities across the country. We have grown in numbers, diversified and mixed with the mainstream American population. The number of Latinos is increasing rapidly in the professional classes and in government leadership.

It's time the networks took notice.

Ed Morales is a contributor to the Village Voice and Newsday in New York, and author of "Living in Spanglish" (St. Martin's Press, 2002). He can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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