Expert Commentary

How the news media portray Latinos in stories and images: 5 studies to know

Reading research on how the news media portray Latinos can help journalists improve their coverage. Here are five studies to know about.

Latinos news media portray research
An Aztec heritage dancer wears traditional regalia at a Latino Heritage Festival in Iowa, 2015. (U.S. Department of Defense)

Academic studies in recent decades have repeatedly shown that how the news media portray Latinos and other minority groups influences how the public feels about them and whether voters support policies designed to help them.

Research also indicates media coverage can affect how individuals see themselves and their place in society.

As journalists take on contentious national issues such as immigration, public education reform and neighborhood policing — issues that have a tremendous impact on Latinos, America’s largest minority group — it’s important they understand how their coverage can impact local communities.

Nearly one-fifth of people who live in the U.S. — 18.5% — identify as Latino or Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Meanwhile, more than half of the nation’s foreign-born population is from Latin America, Census Bureau estimates from 2018 show.

“The media’s choice of words and images shapes the way that people perceive and evaluate policies, particularly with respect to racialized issues,” write researchers Emily M. Farris of Texas Christian University and Heather Silber Mohamed of Clark University in an academic paper published in 2018. “The quantity and quality of press coverage also can influence the extent to which individuals both interpret and prioritize a given policy issue.”

In the months leading up to the 2020 presidential election, journalists can also turn to academic literature for ideas on improving their coverage of Latino voters, a voting bloc that grew by 121% from 2000 to 2020, according to the Pew Research Center. A Pew survey conducted earlier this year finds that many Latinos and others living in the U.S. believe the news media misunderstand them.

To get you started, here are five studies we think you’ll want to know about.



Latinos in news images

Picturing Immigration: How the Media Criminalizes Immigrants
Emily M. Farris and Heather Silber Mohamed. Politics, Groups, and Identities, 2018.

This study looks at whether images accompanying news stories about immigrants or immigration policy disproportionately show immigrants working low-wage jobs or focus on their legal status. The two researchers analyzed a total of 338 images that appeared in three national news magazines — Newsweek, Time and U.S. News & World Report — between 2000 and 2010.

Among the main takeaways:

  • More than 54% of the images studied that depicted immigrants portrayed them as unauthorized to be in the U.S. But less than 25% of the nation’s foreign-born population is unauthorized, note the researchers, Emily M. Farris, an assistant professor in political science at Texas Christian University, and Heather Silber Mohamed, an associate professor in the political science department at Clark University.
  • About 40% of all images associated with coverage of immigrants or immigration policy show the U.S.-Mexico border or law enforcement officials, including border enforcement agents. News outlets included border walls and fencing in 19% of images.
  • Of the 202 images depicting immigrants, about a quarter depict immigrants working. The researchers estimate that 73.1% of these images show immigrants engaged in low-skilled jobs such as day laborer and 26.9% show them in high-skilled jobs such as computer programmer.

The researchers write: “Both the text and the images of the media often frame immigrants in a negative light and one that is inconsistent with actual immigrant demographics. Given the power of framing in shaping attitudes toward immigrants and immigration policy, these results are troubling in their inaccuracy.”

‘Bad Hombres’? An Examination of Identities in U.S. Media Coverage of Immigration
Heather Silber Mohamed and Emily M. Farris. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 2020. 

Mohamed and Farris teamed up again, this time to look at how news images depict immigrants in terms of race, ethnicity and gender. They analyzed the same database of images used for the last study and discovered that immigrants who appear in the three news magazines between 2000 and 2010 are disproportionately Latino and male — a trend, they write, that arguably helped “pave the way for rhetoric about ‘bad hombres’ used by President Trump.”

Of the images studied, 75.9% depict Latino immigrants, who comprise 53.5% of immigrants nationally, according to the paper. In comparison, 13.3% of immigrants in the images are Asian, and Asians make up 26.7% of all U.S. immigrants. Europeans are the next largest group of immigrants in the U.S., comprising 13.6% of all immigrants nationwide. European immigrants appear in 3.7% of the images studied.

Overall, immigrant men greatly outnumber immigrant women in the images. The researchers point out that 76.5% of immigrants featured in the magazine images are men and 23.5% are women, even though the U.S. immigrant population is about evenly split between men and women.

“The gender bias in images of immigrants is prevalent across nearly all racial/ ethnic groups, and is particularly distorted among Latinos, for which Latinas comprised just 21.5 percent of the images of all Latinos, as well as immigrants from the Middle East, for which women constituted only 16.7 percent of all images from that group,” the researchers write. “In contrast, women represented nearly 30 percent of Asian immigrants, 33 percent of African immigrants, and 53 percent of European immigrants.”


Depictions of Latinos in print stories

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: A Corpus Linguistics Analysis of US Newspaper Coverage of Latinx, 1996–2016
Erik Bleich, et al. Journalism, 2018.

A team of researchers used computer-assisted coding to analyze a swath of print news articles to gauge how often negative themes about Latinos — criminality, unauthorized immigration and economic threat, for instance — appear in U.S. news coverage. The researchers found that “U.S. newspaper coverage of Latinx is not overwhelmingly negative on the whole. In fact, articles about Latinx are no more negative than a representative corpus of randomly selected articles.”

Another key finding: Negative coverage of Latinos during the 21-year study period ending in 2016 is counterbalanced by what the researchers categorize as positive coverage, which includes themes such as achievement, culture and growth.

“Positive coverage matters, and it is important to know that there has been a significant amount of positivity in coverage of Latinx in a broad cross-section of U.S. newspapers over the past two decades,” write the authors, led by Erik Bleich, the Charles A. Dana Professor of Political Science at Middlebury College.

The researchers analyzed 185,244 articles published in 17 newspapers between Jan. 1, 1996 and Dec. 31, 2016. The sample included national news outlets, such as the New York Times and Washington Post, and regional publications, such as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Boston Globe are included.

To assess articles, Bleich and his colleagues searched for root words associated with certain themes. For example, an article containing the root words “unemployment,” “welfare,” “poverty,” “poor” or “homeless” was coded as reflecting the theme of economic threat.

The researchers write that “criminality is the most powerful theme within our corpus of newspapers, and that illegal immigration is another potent source of negativity. However, our analysis also suggests that immigration on its own as well as economic factors such as poverty, unemployment, and welfare use are not associated with as much negativity as is often assumed.”

Bleich and his colleagues identified achievement and culture as the two most influential positive themes in coverage of Latinos. They note that articles containing words associated with those two themes “constitute over 10 percent of all Latinx articles, and are, on average, more positive than over 80 percent of articles in our representative corpus.”


How Latinos respond to news coverage

Does Watching This Make Me Feel Ashamed or Angry? An Examination of Latino Americans’ Responses to Immigration Coverage
Andrea Figueroa-Caballero and Dana Mastro. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 2019.

This study looks at how U.S. Latinos who aren’t immigrants process and interpret news stories about immigration, which tend to focus on immigration from Mexico. The Latinos surveyed for this study differ in their responses. Some felt shame while others felt anger. Mexican Americans were affected most strongly.

The authors explain that non-immigrant Latinos — especially Mexican Americans — who read and watch news coverage of immigration “might experience undue and damaging effects pertaining to their ethnic identity.”

“When reflecting on how immigration coverage typically portrays Latino immigrants, Mexican Americans evaluate such coverage as perpetuating negative preconceptions about their ethnic group whereas non-Mexican Latinos are less likely to do so,” write the authors, Andrea Figueroa-Caballero, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Missouri, and Dana Mastro, a professor in the Department of Communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

To recruit people to complete the survey, conducted in February 2018, researchers used Amazon Mechanical Turk, an online crowdsourcing marketplace many scholars use to find people for surveys and studies. A total of 139 non-immigrant Latinos participated.

The findings indicate that “Mexican Americans (vs. non-Mexican Latinos) not only experience greater desire to distance themselves from the messages about immigration in the news, but that experiencing this distancing motivation for Mexicans was largely influenced by the different emotional reactions elicited from viewing immigration news,” Figueroa-Caballero and Mastro explain. “Whereas shame can function to drive Mexican Americans further way from their shared ethnic identity with Latino immigrants depicted in the news, experiencing anger in response to negative group depictions has the potential to manifest in feelings of greater affiliation.”


When news is offered in English and Spanish

Seeing Spanish: The Effects of Language-Based Media Choices on Resentment and Belonging
Joshua P. Darr, Brittany N. Perry, Johanna L. Dunaway and Mingxiao Sui. Political Communication, 2020. 

When U.S. news outlets run stories in Spanish and in English, how do audience members who don’t speak Spanish feel about it? What about Spanish speakers? The authors of this study set out to answer those questions. Here’s what they learned: “Seeing online news articles about politics in Spanish — even those that do not mention immigration — significantly raises Hispanic racial resentment scores among Whites, while increasing feelings of inclusion and belonging among Spanish-speaking respondents.”

The researchers, led by Joshua P. Darr, an assistant professor in the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University, performed two experiments. They recruited 620 people to participate using Amazon Mechanical Turk.

For the first experiment, researchers recruited 620 people using Amazon Mechanical Turk, an online crowdsourcing marketplace many scholars use to find people for surveys and studies. The 495 individuals who identified as non-Hispanic and white participated in the experiment, administered in April 2018.

Participants were shown headlines and short blurbs drawn from articles about politics, sports or entertainment news that appeared on popular news websites. For some people, the headlines and blurbs for stories about politics and entertainment were written in Spanish. After viewing the news items, participants answered a series of questions, including questions aimed at gauging their attitudes toward the perceived criminality of Latinos.

The second experiment, conducted in March 2018, mirrored the first but engaged a different group of people — 362 Spanish-speaking adults, recruited using the survey firm Qualtrics. Once these individuals viewed the news blurbs and headlines, they responded to questions designed to measure their sense of belonging in the U.S. 

The researchers discovered that white, non-Hispanic participants who saw a politics article blurb in Spanish scored 5.3% higher on an index measuring Hispanic racial resentment than those who viewed the same blurb in English. Meanwhile, Spanish speakers who saw the politics article blurb in Spanish had stronger feelings of belonging in the U.S. — their sense of belonging rated 9.6% higher than Spanish speakers who viewed the English blurb.

Looking for more research on Latinos and immigrants? Check out our write-up on how printing election materials in Spanish affects Latinos’ chances of being elected. We’ve also highlighted research on the effectiveness of border walls, mental health among immigrants and how the DACA program has impacted unauthorized immigrants’ health, high school graduation rates and labor market outcomes.      

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