January 31, 2017
By Hugo Balta
Diversity and Inclusion challenges and opportunities are not exclusive to English language media. The lack of people of color in news organizations who produce and/or present content is as absent at Spanish language networks as it is at English language networks. But there's a biased practice which sets Spanish language apart...the Mexicanization of U.S. media.
I've worked for Spanish language media in the United States for most of my more than 25 year career. I remember learning as far back as an intern the importance that local on-air television journalists reflect the community they covered. For me working in New York City, news management had a preference for Puerto Rican, Dominican and Colombian journalists due to the number of residents from those countries in the market. In South Florida the preference was for Cubans. In Los Angeles it was Mexicans.
The belief was that audiences wouldn't trust someone who wasn't from their community presenting the news. And in the occasion in-which a journalist managed to break from that established strategy; they were encouraged to neutralize their accents in order to disguise their background. For example Argentines and Spaniards who have very distinct ways of speaking Spanish would need to eliminate their accents if they hoped to have any chance at a reporting or anchoring job.
This favoritism was compounded at the national news level where the preference was for Mexican journalists given the dwarfing number of people from that community across the country versus other Latinos.
Despite any concrete evidence to support it, that same hiring strategy used by news executives back then is still being used today. It is a policy based on a gut feeling which reflects management’s own limited experience rather than what audiences actually prefer.
Now, I’m not dismissing (for example) that a journalist who is Mexican might have a better understanding about the dynamics of border communities like Ciudad Juarez and El Paso than other journalists who don’t have the same experience or background. But those are specific situations and local and national news programs primarily focus on storytelling from a shared experience of Latinos living in the U.S.
The facts are the facts are the facts, no matter who is presenting the information. News managers should not place so much emphasis on who is presenting the news, rather they should be concerned with how they’re doing it. After all, that’s what audiences are expecting: news, information and entertainment which is fair and accurate.
While a Pew Research Center study last year found that the two main Spanish language news networks (Univision and Telemundo) struggled with ratings at the local and national level; something interesting happened with prime time programming…David started beating Goliath.
Telemundo beats Univision in primetime 7 weeks in a row
This ratings win represents the first time the one size fits all “made in Mexico” formula failed. A Telemundo executive recently credited the audience shift to changing demographics where the majority of Hispanics in the country are U.S. born, speak English and are bilingual.
The Shift of Spanish TV Audience to Telemundo, Explained
“Univision has been largely limited to offering Mexican novela programming through its partnership with Televisa in Mexico, a formula that had dominated US Hispanic viewing for years. Looking for ways to compete, Telemundo’s programming execs reacted to this acculturation trend and made an important decision to create programming built for US Hispanics, tailor-made to fit that US Hispanic culture, rather than the Mexican audience. The network invested in the strategy, building programming that weaves between Mexico and US, features characters that more closely reflect the Hispanic audiences, north of the border, and better reminds viewers of their own bicultural lives.”
So, if the formula to win the hearts and minds of primetime viewers has changed (with measurable success) to better reflect the experience of the young, bicultural and bilingual U.S. Hispanics; so should news operations.
A recent study produced by ESPN found that U.S. Hispanics gave as much emphasis on the group as they did to the individual. That is to say their cultural values are based on collectivism and individualism. Their extended community of friends with shared experiences is as important as respecting the past; tracing family roots back to their country of origin.
In a nutshell, there is as much pride in being, say American as there is in being Peruvian (which happens to be my case, I’m a Peruvina-American). And by extension, common experiences of immigrants and U.S. born Hispanics living in this country binds them and helps them see more clearly what they have in common instead of what separates them. If Mexicans, Venezuelans, Chileans, etc. can celebrate their nationalities and still see each other as part of the same community in the U.S. why then should media seek to segregate them?
To believe that an audience will think less of a news report because of the nationality of a journalist is ignorant and represents the social and political divide of Latin American countries...U.S. Spanish language news organizations should not force feed that baggage to its audiences.
The messenger while important is never as important as the message.