OPINION

Opinion: With media mergers, Latino roles drop and stereotypes skyrocket on TV

Alexandra Rodriguez and Carlito Olivero on the set of East Los High 3.

Alexandra Rodriguez and Carlito Olivero on the set of East Los High 3.  (Todd Williamson)

More than a third of Americans believe that most Latinos are undocumented immigrants. The actual number is 16 percent. Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump paints a picture of a massive wave of Mexican illegals overwhelming America. But with an improved Mexican economy and greater hostility toward Latinos in the U.S., there are now more Mexicans leaving than entering our country. 

How can we explain this divide?

In our recently released report The Latino Disconnect: Latinos in the Age of Media Mergers, we examine one of the root reasons: the media representation of Latinos, including through the offerings of merged corporations like Comcast NBCUniversal, the largest media conglomerate by revenue in the world. 

The main way that we can build on current gains is if consumers and advocates keep a watchful eye on media merger activity, holding companies accountable for the money we pay them. Otherwise, we will be paying not only more money for cable, but also a high price for allowing others to narrowly represent who we are.

- Frances Negrón-Muntaner and Chelsea Abbas

Overall, we found that even with a slight rise in the percentage of Latinos on screen, the number of stereotypes skyrocketed after the merger. Although Latinos – who are currently 55 million strong, contribute to every field and profession, and comprise 18 percent of the U.S. population – are extraordinarily diverse, they are increasingly playing four kinds of roles: criminals, police officers, blue-collar workers or “sexy” Latinas.

At NBCUniversal, the Latino presence expanded by just 0.7 points, from an average of 6.6 percent three years before the merger to 7.3 percent three years after. Yet, the percentage of Latinos playing stereotypes, including the cliché role of bad guys, rose by 54 percent, from 34.1 percent in the 2008-2009 season to 52.5 percent in the 2014-2105 season. 

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In film, the average increase through 2015 was even less, 0.2 points. But as in television, Latinos in stereotypical roles grew from 54.5 percent in 2008, reaching an all-time high of 66 percent of all roles in 2013 before settling to 58.7 percent in 2015. 

Whereas not all portrayals are equally unidimensional, relentless stereotyping pigeonholes Latino talent into a very limited range of genres such as crime dramas and defines Latinos almost exclusively in relationship to the law as good or bad.

Even more stunning, news is worse than fiction. Our analysis of the influential NBC Nightly News show from 2012 to 2014 revealed that U.S. Latino stories accounted for a dismal 1.8 percent of over 9,000 broadcast segments, and the combination of U.S. Latino and Latin American stories together was only marginally better at 3 percent. 

Likewise, while 4.3 percent of non-Latino U.S. news related to crime, a whopping 64 percent of the Latino-themed segments were about criminal activity and illegal immigration. In this sample, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans were the two groups most associated with lawlessness: 64.3 percent of Mexican stories and 88.9 percent of Puerto Rican reports were, respectively, about crime, particularly drug smuggling, human trafficking, and sexual violence. This slanted view of Latinos is succinctly captured in headlines such as: “Drug cartels descend on Puerto Rico,” “Arizona ranchers fear armed Mexican drug smugglers,” “Mutilated bodies found in Mexico near U.S. border.”  

Significantly, although the Cold War ended decades ago, reports about Latin America continued to use a “red” lens: almost 40 percent of coverage focused on leftist governments or leaders in Cuba and Venezuela. The result is that nearly two thirds of news stories portrayed Latinos and Latin Americans as a potential threat to the United States in one of three ways: as criminals, “illegals,” or communists. Given the view of Latinos as “bad news” for America, it is then not surprising that a viable 2016 presidential candidate can mobilize significant support by scapegoating Mexican undocumented immigrants and that we are not any closer to immigration reform today than we were in 2008, when President Obama promised that he would move forward a bill during the first year of his administration.

Part of the reason why stereotypes rule in both traditional and global online media is the staggeringly low number of Latino decision-makers and behind-the-camera talent. In the new study, we found that even though merging media companies routinely promise more diversity in signed memoranda of understanding with community leaders and advocacy organizations, in NBCUniversal programming, news, and movies, on average, there were actually fewer Latinos working behind the scenes in most categories after the merger took place. 

In addition, whereas Comcast acquired Telemundo, a major Spanish-language network, the company’s principal leadership diversified slightly, adding only one Latino board member and one Latino executive not involved with Spanish-language television.

There are, however, a few bright spots: to the extent that Latinos are 18 percent of the population, 26 percent of the coveted 18-34 advertisement demographic in the nation’s top 10 markets and buy 26 percent of all domestic movie tickets, consumer demand and mobilization by media advocates can make a difference. In large part as a result of pressure to Comcast by Latino government officials, activists, guild members, independent producers, and consumers during the company’s unsuccessful bid to acquire Time Warner Cable, there was a considerable spike in NBCUniversal pilots featuring Latinos, particularly Latinas. The percentage surged from 0 percent in 2014 to an unprecedented 30 percent in 2016, with shows such as Superstore with America Ferrera, Shades of Blue starring Jennifer Lopez, and Telenovela featuring Eva Longoria.

Also significant is the low percentage of stereotypical representation and substantial diversity of Hulu, a streaming service with 6 million subscribers that is owned by several television networks, including Disney-ABC, Fox, and NBCUniversal, although the latter company does not participate in decision-making due to merger conditions. In Hulu, as a result of innovative programs like East Lost High, about a group of Latino students navigating life in an East Los Angeles high school, Latino presence was notably higher, comprising 33.3 percent of writers and 31.5 percent of actors. Even further, their characterizations were the less stereotypical of any content provider that we examined.

Yet, as East Los High is largely an exception, the new NBCUniversal series still deal in familiar stereotypes, and past boosts in inclusion have not translated into long-term change, the drive for media diversity continues. The main way that we can build on current gains is if consumers and advocates keep a watchful eye on media merger activity, holding companies accountable for the money we pay them. Otherwise, we will be paying not only more money for cable, but also a very high price for allowing others to narrowly represent who we are.

Frances Negrón-Muntaner is the director of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University.

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