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May 4, 2020, 12:56 p.m.

Spanish-language media initially required a learning curve for coronavirus coverage

“Nothing is going to be the same as before. It’s hard to think about the long term right now, but this has been a starting point to try new things.”

Spanish-language news media in the United States has been following the coronavirus story like every other news outlet around the world.

And at least at the beginning of the pandemic, its coverage style wasn’t so different from English-language media either: It largely left Latinos out of the story.

A new analysis from the Center for Community Media at CUNY’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism shows that when Spanish-language media did start covering the pandemic story through a Latino lens, stories focused primarily on undocumented people and farm workers, both of whom are considered some of the most vulnerable parts of the population.

Ronny Rojas, a professor in CUNY’s Spanish-language journalism program, conducted the study using Media Cloud, an open-source platform for media analysis by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard.

In a virtual panel Thursday, Rojas said the study analyzed stories published between January 1 and April 12, 2020. Of the 476 Spanish-language publications studied (including magazines, online-only sites, local newspapers, weeklies, and local radio and television programs), 301 published stories about coronavirus. 127,834 stories were examined in total.

“During the first weeks of the emergency, relatively few articles in the Hispanic media focused on the immigrant community,” Rojas wrote. “The data suggests that Spanish-language media initially covered the issue for the general public. Stories about the virus that contain words like ‘immigrants,’ ‘immigration,’ ‘Hispanics,’ ‘Latinos,’ ‘Latinas,’ or ‘undocumented’ do not exceed 2% of all published content on the pandemic in the period analyzed.”

More from Rojas:

Among the most repeated words in the news about COVID-19 that mention the immigrant community are: “coronavirus,” “immigrants,” “workers,” and “undocumented.” This focus on workers makes sense, considering that approximately 17% of the U.S. civilian workforce was born abroad. A recent study by the Migration Policy Institute notes that some 6.2 million immigrants hold key jobs in the battle against coronavirus, including health and social services, food processing plants, pharmacies, agriculture, public transportation, the postal service. and scientific research.

When analyzing the context in which the Hispanic media use the word “immigrant” within the articles about coronavirus, it is observed that the mention is directly associated with the status of undocumented immigrants. In the same way, the data suggests that the word “workers,” the fourth most used by the media, is used to speak mainly of the health personnel — doctors, nurses, nurses, response teams — who attend to the emergency and agricultural laborers, who are at risk of contagion when leaving for work.

María Luisa Tabares, director of digital content for Telemundo, said that part of the reason why it took longer to cover the story from a Latino angle was because at the American crisis began in a part of Washington state with relatively few Latinos. (Kirkland, home to the first known major outbreak, is about 7 percent Latino.)

“Because of limited resources, we focused on the general story to inform people about what was known at the time about the epidemic,” Tabares said. “At that time, it wasn’t clear how it was going to affect the Latino community.”

On February 28, stories about the virus in general made up 28 percent of all the daily content published. That was the day that the World Health Organization increased its risk assessment of coronavirus to “very high.”

The number of daily stories that mentioned Hispanics or immigrants started to increase on March 11, and peaking at 3.75 percent on April 8, the day that it was revealed in New York and Latinos and black people were dying of the virus at higher rates. In terms of overall coverage, Rojas observed that coronavirus coverage made up 30 percent of all stories starting on March 8. Coverage has only increased since then: On average, 7 out of 10 stories by the outlets analyzed have to do with coronavirus in some way.

Along the way, of all the stories analyzed in the study, only 75 were related to misinformation and dispelling it. Most of those were published by Telemundo, Univision, and their affiliate stations.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Center for Community Media has been tracking how community media outlets are covering the story. The Immigrant Media Report presents five case studies of five different ethnic media outlets across the country.

José Neil Donis, editor of the newspaper Al Día en América, said that in Kentucky, it was crucial to find cases of Latinos infected with the virus.

“On social media, people’s disbelief was incredible,” he said. “They didn’t think it was real and we had to find a local case to make them understand.”

The challenges are not so different from those of English-language news. Increased traffic, but diminishing advertising revenue. Dispelling misinformation while information was scarce. And Al Día en América has suffered the same consequences as most newspapers; Donis said the paper has lost about 70 percent of its advertising revenue for its print edition. Distribution of the print issue has also decreased as the local businesses they once delivered to are now closed.

But Al Día en América will keep publishing, Donis said. “We have a mission as a business. We were born from a passion to inform people, even when we had zero advertisements.”

At the same time, the pandemic has pushed news experiments to the forefront. Donis said he’s working on collaborating with a public radio station in Louisville and that the paper accepted questions from readers through WhatsApp for the first time. While things are uncertain right now, he wants to bring focus back to the presidential election as well.

“Nothing is going to be the same as before,” Donis said. “It’s hard to think about the long term right now, but this has been a starting point to try new things.”

Josue Moreno (right) and his brother Javier wait to pick up free food from Washington National Guard soldiers in Toppenish, Washington April 29. Photo by AP/Terray Sylvester.

Hanaa' Tameez is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@HanaaTameez).
POSTED     May 4, 2020, 12:56 p.m.
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