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Sure, a lot of newspaper coverage of Latinos is negative — but not when it comes to cultural achievements

- January 23, 2019
Miguel Saavedra, left, and his friend Oswaldo Hernandez watch President Trump on TV from their home in Miami on Jan. 8 as the president discusses the border wall. (EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

In President Trump’s Oval Office address on Jan. 8, he argued that “thousands of Americans have been brutally killed by those who illegally entered our country” and that “uncontrolled, illegal migration … strains public resources and drives down wages,” particularly for “African Americans and Hispanic Americans.”

These statements link Latinos to illegality, criminality and economic threat. Many researchers have found that when the U.S. news media discusses Latinos, it often emphasizes such highly negative themes.

But is that usually true? Is most media coverage of Latinos negative?

When we examined this question, the results surprised us. As we expected, some U.S. newspaper coverage of Latinos is highly negative. But not all. In fact, most articles aren’t negative. Many, in fact, are full of positive references to Latino achievements and culture.

Here’s how we did our research

To gauge newspaper coverage, we used dictionaries of positive and negative words (such as “beautiful” or “attack”) to calculate the tone of individual articles. Roughly speaking, the more positive words in an article, the more positive we rate the article, and vice versa. We established a baseline for “neutrality” in the U.S. print media by finding the average tone of a representative sample of more than 48,000 articles drawn from a range of U.S. newspapers between 1996 and 2016.

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We then collected more than 185,000 articles published in those same years by searching for variations on the root words “Latino” and “Hispanic” in 17 U.S. newspapers. Our newspapers included nationally circulating publications such as The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, regional papers like the San Jose Mercury News and Minneapolis Star Tribune, and tabloids like the New York Post and Philadelphia Daily News.

To understand how often these articles mentioned a particular theme, we tagged each article that contained words related to a topic. For example, any article that mentioned “illegal immigrant” or “illegal immigration” was tagged for that theme. Articles containing root words such as “unemployment,” “welfare,” or “poverty” were tagged for economic threat, and so on.

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The negative newspaper coverage of Latinos

We first examined how often articles mention different topics. We found that 53 percent of the articles contained words related to the three prominent negative themes, with some touching on more than just one. Criminality is mentioned in 37 percent of the articles; economic threat in 21 percent; and illegal immigration in just 12 percent of articles about Latinos.

As you can see in the graph below, two-thirds of all articles tagged for criminality are negative — and more than a third of the articles mention criminality. Moreover, the average negative article mentioning Latino crime is highly negative — more negative than 7 out of 8 randomly selected newspaper articles.

Articles about Latinos that were positive or negative, by theme. Figure by the authors.

The upbeat coverage of Latinos

At the same time, more than half of our 185,000 articles were positive.

Two topics stood out as sources of positive media coverage of Latinos. We tagged articles that mentioned “achievement,” which note excellence and social contributions; grouped in that category were articles that included the words “achievement,” “contribution,” “award,” “excellence,” “qualified,” “nominated,” “scored,” “talent,” “wise” and “stride.” We tagged another category “culture,” for pieces about group culture or Latino communities; in that category were articles including the words “flair,” “pride,” “quinceañera,” “flavor,” “fest,” “tradition,” “culture,” “heritage” and “authentically.” One culture article, for example, discusses the Denver Film Society’s second annual CineLatino festival, describing it as a “small but energetic event celebrating Latino filmmakers.”

Many articles that mentioned Latinos had one of these two positive themes. We found words noting achievements in 23 percent of all articles and words about culture in 32 percent.

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Moreover, articles using these words were especially positive. As the figure below shows, 70 percent of articles tagged for culture and 73 percent of those tagged for achievement are positive. The difference between positive and negative topics is striking.

Articles about Latinos that were positive or negative, by theme. Figure by the authors.

Overall, which tone dominates?

While U.S. newspapers offer a noteworthy amount of positive coverage of Latinos and Hispanics, it may not fully offset the negative coverage. The front pages probably include much of the negative coverage, in keeping with the television news slogan “If it bleeds, it leads”; the sports, arts and features inside sections are a more natural home for much of the positive cultural coverage. Research has also shown that negative information has a greater impact on attitudes than positive ones.

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In the end, while the news about Latinos is not all bad, pronouncements like Trump’s — and stories about criminality in particular — are likely to continue to color readers’ perspectives on Latinos for years to come.

Erik Bleich is Charles A. Dana Professor of Political Science and chair of the department of political science at Middlebury College, where he directs the Media Portrayals of Minorities Project.

A. Maurits van der Veen is associate professor of government at William & Mary, where he directs the STAIR lab.