2008 Presidential Election, Race and Racism
Professor Vernellia Randall
Speaking Truth to Power!

The Media and The (Limited) Latino Vote


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Federico Subervi
Issue Date: Volume 2, Issue 5 - 02/04/08


The potential impact that Latino voters might have on the outcome of the 2008 presidential campaign has become a topic of heightened media attention. In fact, discussions of Latino electoral influence date back many years as multiple studies show increasing numbers of Latinos are becoming U.S. citizens, registering to vote, and voting. The power of Latino voters has been particularly felt in the victories of Latinos vying for the U.S. Senate, House of Representatives, and especially the election of Antonio Villaraigosa as mayor of Los Angeles.

Analysts have also focused on the low Latino voter turnout; less than half of those who could register and vote actually do so, consistently passing up that opportunity and civic duty. Scholars, journalists and pundits have articulated many explanations for that limited participation, ranging from structural factors that interfere with easy registration and voting, to Latinos' apathy or alienation from political action that may be considered irrelevant to improving their daily lives.

Missing from those discussions has been a detailed focus on the media. Specifically, how have the U.S. Spanish-language and English-language newspapers and television newscasts covered Latinos and Latino aspects of electoral campaigns? Also, how have the Democratic and the Republican Party used the media to reach out to and win Latino votes? And, what influence have the media actually had on informing and mobilizing Latinos?

My recently published book, The Mass Media and Latino Politics provides the first systematic analysis of all three of those questions. It also helps readers understand the role the media are playing regarding the Latino electorate.

Among its many findings, the book shows that with a couple of exceptions, Spanish-language daily newspapers have historically not done that great of a job in covering presidential campaigns, at least not in terms of informing their readers about the specific issues most important to Latino voters. The coverage has for the most part mirrored how English-language newspapers cover those elections and politics, i.e., with an emphasis on the routine campaign activities and who is ahead in the electoral horserace, especially among Latino voters. In-depth news analyses and opinion columns specifically related to Latino issues or concerns have also been lacking in most print media.

Spanish-language television news programs have followed a comparable pattern with their emphasis on campaign activities and the electoral horserace. And while networks and their affiliates can be commended for promoting the importance of registration and voting, as well as trying to bring a Latino angle to some of the stories being covered, they have also failed to provide in-depth analyses and explanations of where the candidates stand and how their party's platforms might impact different segments of the Latino communities.

English-language media have been much worse. Year after year, during election campaigns, occasional stories in newspapers and on TV news superficially emphasize how candidates are wooing Latino voters, that the Latino vote could be important, or which candidate Latinos are favoring. A common pattern is the focus on presidential candidates' visits to Latino communities, which provide colorful images of Hispanic dancers and musicians as backdrops to the brief whistle-stops that can be summarized with the cliché "hey amigo, vota por mi."

Meanwhile, the Democratic and Republican Parties have each reached out via the media in Spanish and in English. Part of that outreach has been paid political announcements on Spanish-language television, and sporadic radio spots, too. The Democrats' main theme has been that a vote for their party or candidate will help solve [immigration, education, drug, etc.] problems. On the other hand, the Republicans repeatedly claim that voting for their party is the path to reach the "American Dream." Another form of outreach, especially by the GOP, has been the creation and dissemination (or more accurately planting) of "news" and "opinion columns" that get printed word for word but with different bylines as "objective" or "impartial" information by either unsuspecting or surrogate local Latino media.

Has exposure to the media in Spanish and/or English influenced Latinos to increase their knowledge about politics and vote? Yes, albeit the data and conclusiveness of the findings are limited. On the other hand, the aforementioned patterns of media coverage may simultaneously be hindering mobilization and turnout among even larger segments of the Latino population who lack news and information that is ethnically relevant and thus serve as an incentive to register and actually vote.

As the 2008 campaign continues, it will be interesting to see if, for a change, the media in Spanish and English offer more than occasional cursory stories about the potential influence of the Latino vote and how the immigration reform (or lack thereof) might mobilize Latinos (and non-Latino) voters.

I believe that if and when the Latino-oriented and general market media provide Latino audiences more in-depth coverage of issues that are relevant and also convey messages that are truly " incentivating " for political participation, Latino voter turnout will increase and become a much more powerful electoral force.

The author is Professor and Director of the Center for the Study of Latino Media and Markets at the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at Texas State University-San Marcos, Director of the Latinos and Media Project , and author and editor of the book The Mass Media and Latino Politics: Studies of U.S. Media Content, Campaign Strategies and Survey Research: 1984-2004 , published in 2008 by Routledge.


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