I’ve been a professional journalist for 20 years. But this week, the media failed Latinos in America during what was perhaps our darkest hour in my lifetime.
On Monday, days after a deadly attack on Latino shoppers at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, President Donald Trump gave a statement calling for unity and condemning white supremacy, a message he’s delivered after other mass-casualty gun massacres. On the same day, the El Paso police identified the dead.
Rodriguez. Anchondo. Benavides. Garcia. Velazquez. Regalado. Hernández. De Alba. Campos. Flores. Juarez. Marquez. Legarrega. Loya. Manzano. Moriel. Silva-Elisbee. Sanchez.
Those are some of the names, some of the lives, behind a macabre day in El Paso—the deadliest attack targeting Latinos in recent American history.
Latinos make up 18 percent of the population of the United States. Our roots here extend far back before the nation’s founding. We have fought in every American war. Our food, our language, and our culture have shaped every aspect of American life, going back centuries. And yet the headlines in our largest papers and the cable-news chyrons omitted or downplayed the historic nature of the carnage in El Paso. Instead, they gave top billing to calls for unity by a president who has for years used angry rhetoric that dehumanizes and maligns Latinos.
On Tuesday morning, I happened to walk by the Newseum, the news museum in Washington, D.C., that displays front pages from across the country in its windows. They almost all looked the same—from the Portland Press Herald in Maine to The Arizona Republic to The Washington Post. The word the headlines shared in common was Trump, as they offered a variety of takes on his speech. Much of the broadcast coverage offered a similar emphasis on the president, with a few notable exceptions.
The attack in El Paso left 22 dead. Most were Latinos, some of whom were Mexican citizens. It followed a sustained and deliberate campaign by the Trump administration to demonize immigrants. Journalists should report on that. We should contextualize it. But that is only the beginning of our work.
There have been hundreds of articles and broadcast stories since the attack in El Paso, reporting with depth and compassion about this moment. But the banner headlines and the segments at the top of newscasts reflect the value editors assign to aspects of a story. The front page still speaks volumes. The top story in a broadcast signals to the audience which topics matter most. And despite the fact that the attacker purposefully targeted Latinos, that is not what most outlets chose to emphasize.
This erasure of Latinos by the national media is nothing new. For years, the marquee Sunday political talk shows have rarely featured Latinos. There is only one Latino on The New York Times’ editorial board, and there is none on The Washington Post’s (although at least one Latino editor regularly takes part in its editorial-board discussions). NPR, where I work, recently had a period of time with no Latino reporters on its politics team, before it made two hires.
Meanwhile, verticals and publications courting Latino readers, such as The New York Times’ Spanish-language site, have proliferated. That might seem like progress, but in practice, it often means that outreach to Latino audiences is walled off. The pinnacles of elite journalism remain mostly white.
Why does that matter? Latin American children are being separated from their parents at the border, and hate crimes against Latinos are on the rise. The media have an important role in framing these conversations, and the lack of diversity in newsrooms hobbles their ability to do so.
Instead, one leading Sunday show featured Tom Brokaw in January saying that Latinos “need to work harder on assimilation.” In fact, studies have shown that Latinos assimilate at rates similar to other groups. Thomas A. Saenz, the president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, recently told NBC’s Suzanne Gamboa that the absence of Latinos from journalistic institutions leaves a void that can be filled with “false, negative images and rhetoric.”
News organizations failed after El Paso because, for years, we’ve marginalized voices of Latinos in our coverage—and in our own newsrooms. When words such as infestation are used by the powerful to describe immigrants and the media fail to treat that as a major story, it brings that absence into sharp focus.
In the days since the El Paso shooting, we have seen more Latino journalists writing and appearing on television. That’s progress.
But it took a massacre. And I’m worried that this improved representation will not persist when this awful news cycle comes to an end.
Lasting change will require a sustained commitment by newsroom leaders to recruit, train, value, and empower Latino journalists. This is no easy feat in a struggling industry beset by dwindling advertising revenue, layoffs, and hostility from elected officials who attack our collective integrity and impartiality.
But none of these challenges can justify accepting the muted voice and reach of Latinos in newsrooms in America. It’s incumbent upon senior editors to reflect deeply about how they failed in covering this monumental story. That reckoning should be followed by an ambitious, detailed plan to be better equipped if—God forbid—we are called upon to cover a story like this again.
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