On the Shortage of Spanish-Language Science Journalism in U.S. Media

 

 

A long list of problems afflicts journalism these days, including frequent layoffs and expanding news deserts. Another major deficiency, particularly apparent in U.S. science journalism, often goes widely unacknowledged: Science news that airs or is published in the United States’ second most commonly spoken language, Spanish, is rare—and where it exists, is often at risk of elimination.

The United States is home to roughly 40 million people who speak Spanish at home, and Hispanics make up about 18 percent of the country’s population, according to census figures recently published by the Pew Research Center. By 2060, the Census Bureau projects, the latter figure will climb to nearly 29 percent, or about 119 million people. The majority of U.S. Spanish-speakers are bilingual in English, but about 41 percent of U.S. Spanish-speakers report that they speak English less than very well. Presumably, many of these people would prefer news in Spanish. That’s particularly likely to be the case for those who are foreign born, which describes approximately a third of the U.S. Latinx population.

Despite the increasing influence of Latinx and Hispanic (see box) people in the United States, the nation’s science news coverage tends to serve people who primarily communicate in English. That bias leaves Spanish-speaking people in the U.S., including those who speak but do not easily read English, underinformed about scientific, environmental, and health issues that affect their lives, families, and communities.

For example, Latinx and Hispanic people in the United States are disproportionately influenced by various environmental and health issues. Air pollution affects significantly more people of color, including Latinx people in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic area of the United States, than it does white people, according to a June 2019 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists. And 78 percent of Latinx people report having experienced the effects of climate change, according to a Latino Decisions poll published in November 2018. (A recent representative poll of all U.S. residents put the same figure at 46 percent.) Climate change is particularly threatening to agricultural workers, who typically work outdoors; more than half of this labor force is Hispanic, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. Latinx and Hispanic people in the U.S. need to be well informed on these and other science topics that affect their lives and communities.

Several approaches could increase the quantity, stability, and reach of Spanish-language science journalism. Those approaches include efforts to train and hire more science journalists who are fluent in Spanish, as well as broadening newsrooms’ awareness of the size and diversity of the population of Spanish-speakers in the U.S. Fully addressing the problem goes to the heart of a long-term issue in the journalism industry—systemic barriers to the entry of Latinx reporters and other marginalized groups, accompanied by newsroom cultures that are insensitive to issues relevant to marginalized or vulnerable racial and ethnic communities.

 

The U.S. Spanish-Language Science-Media Landscape

At first glance, the landscape for Spanish-language science journalism might appear healthier than it is. After all, 624 news outlets—including audio, TV, online, wire service, and print platforms—serve U.S. Latinx audiences. And 484 of these offer content exclusively in Spanish, according to “The State of the Latino News Media,” a report published in June 2019 by the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York (CUNY). By comparison, about 8,400 daily and non-daily newspapers alone serve the general U.S. population, according to the National Newspaper Association.

Many of the Latinx-serving and Spanish-language outlets publish or broadcast pieces that could be considered science news. That includes Univision and Telemundo, two Spanish-language media networks with a significant presence in the U.S. But the commitment to science coverage at all these outlets fluctuates.

Univision, for example, in 2017 won an Ortega y Gasset Journalism Award for a five-part investigation published online in Spanish and in English that revealed how the cruise ship industry evades environmental controls, taxes, and labor laws. But in 2018, Univision eliminated the jobs of staffers in the environmental science news unit that developed the package. Univision representatives did not respond to several requests to discuss the specifics of the decision. “We have made a concerted effort to ensure that health and science are covered in all of our platforms, including TV, digital and social media,” says Jose Zamora, senior vice president of communications at Univision. “There is no other Spanish-language news organization with our reach on TV, radio, and digital.”

Among science-niche publications in the U.S., at least a few offer Spanish-language content. One that does is Audubon magazine, which specializes in news and research about birds and nature. All stories in the print magazine and some online-only stories are translated into Spanish when each issue of the magazine goes online. Jillian Mock, who manages Audubon’s Spanish-language content on a freelance basis, says development of Audubon content that is originally written in Spanish is also in the planning stages. “Birds really do connect this entire hemisphere, because they spend time in South America, and in North America, and Canada, and the Arctic,” Mock says. “No matter where you come from in the Americas … you probably have some birds in common.”

National Geographic, also well-known for its coverage of the natural world, publishes Spanish-language editions of the print magazine internationally. But none of these targets the U.S audience. On rare occasions, the web site publishes Spanish translations of stories initially reported and written in English.

A prominent effort to produce daily Spanish-language science news came in 2014 with the launch of Scientific American en Español. The site was headed up by Debbie Ponchner, formerly managing editor of La Nación, one of the primary newspapers of Costa Rica. But in 2017, Springer Nature, Scientific American’s parent company, laid off Ponchner and stopped publishing new content, citing the “severe economic headwinds” facing publishers.

 

What’s Lost in Translation

The landscape for Spanish-language science journalism in the U.S. has its bright spots. In recent years, several primarily English-language newspapers in the U.S. that regularly cover science have added Spanish-language content or sections. Some of that content, in publications including The Dallas Morning News, the Los Angeles Times, and the Miami Herald, is science news. The New York Times en Español, which launched in 2016, also published some science news, but was shut down as an independent website in September.

Editors for these platforms typically publish some combination of “Spanish-first” stories—ones that are written in Spanish—and Spanish translations of “English-first” stories.

But translations can carry with them a deficiency found in many English-first science news stories—the marginalization or absence of science done by Latin American scientists and research institutions. This practice diminishes or renders invisible the contributions of scientists from the countries of origin of millions of people in the U.S. Fundamentally, these stories are incomplete, for all readers.

Buenos Aires–based science journalist Federico Kukso detailed this problem in a 2016 piece for Undark. In July of that year, a team of four researchers reported the discovery of a new type of dinosaur in Argentina. Yet when many English-language media outlets covered the news, stories omitted the names of the Argentinian scientists who co-authored the paper, as well as their institutional affiliations, noted Kukso, who serves on the board of the World Federation of Science Journalists.

This bias can lead to a false perception that no significant scientific activity occurs in Latin America, Kukso notes. That thinking can then compound the problem and result in further under-coverage of science.

The reasons for so many newsrooms’ lack of Spanish-language coverage likely include both financial considerations and inertia. Mock, the freelancer at Audubon, suggests that in some cases, editorial leaders might not have done any research to determine the interests of Latinx and Spanish-language readers and their appetite for science topics. Or they might find the prospect of dedicating resources to Spanish-language coverage daunting. “People just aren’t thinking about it or they think they have bigger fish to fry and are not taking this community into consideration in a way that I think that they should, just for the sake of being good stewards and science journalists,” she says (and she notes that she’s speaking only for herself and not for Audubon).

When Spanish-language news efforts do launch at science-niche or general media outlets, leaders often fail to commit sufficient resources to ensure the project’s long-term success, says Emiliano Rodríguez Mega, a science journalist based in Mexico City who writes for many U.S. publications. “The reality is that there’s rarely a clear business model and a genuine revenue strategy laid out for the Spanish-language sites of U.S. media, science-oriented or not,” he says.

 

Representation of Latinx Journalists in U.S. Newsrooms and Classrooms

The racial and ethnic make-up of the U.S. journalism workforce also contributes to the shortage of science news in Spanish. Data on Latinx representation in newsrooms and in science journalism are limited and often superficial. Approximately 77 percent of newsroom employees are non-Hispanic whites, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census data collected from 2012 to 2016. The finding aligns with non-scientifically collected results from the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) in 2018 showing that nearly 23 percent of newsroom employees are people of color. A 2019 report by the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) and Hofstra University stated that Hispanics/Latinx people made up a total of about 12 percent of local TV newsrooms.

Details on newsroom employees’ language skills are not typically collected, but it seems clear that too little journalism in the U.S. is being carried out in Spanish. For a number of reasons, newsrooms should consider hiring more Spanish-English bilingual reporters and editors—in particular, Latinx journalists, whether staffers or freelancers, who are fluent in both languages. They not only bring their language skills to the job but are also likely to better understand cultural nuances when covering science that is especially relevant to U.S. Latinx communities, as well as science performed in Latin America or by Latin American and Latinx scientists.

Rodríguez Mega advocates for newsrooms to not only diversify their staff, but also to diversify “the mentality of the newsroom.” Doing so includes considering how an editorial team thinks of itself and of its audience. “I think science-oriented publications, like the ones that only cover science in English, should realize that we are not, [and] that their audience is not, a white male in his forties,” he says. “Their audience is probably much more diverse.”

Greater numbers of bilingual graduates from journalism schools could boost the number of Latinx journalists. That’s a major goal, for example, of the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY’s Spanish-language Journalism Program. Created in 2016 and directed by Graciela Mochkofsky, who also headed up the school’s recent report on Latino media, the program offers required classes in both English and Spanish.

CUNY’s bilingual training model is unusual among journalism schools in the U.S. Although some students who come out of the program may end up covering science, the program is not focused on science journalism—rather, the program primarily trains students to cover “the Latino experience.” Among U.S. science-focused training programs, bilingual training is rare. Directors of some science writing programs, such as those at MIT, New York University, and the University of California, Santa Cruz, note that they actively seek bilingual students and prioritize diversity in their recruiting and financial aid. Some programs also encourage students to publish in Spanish and offer editorial support for those efforts.

Even with scholarships and other financial aid, however, higher education is expensive in the U.S. Cost of attendance can be a barrier to entry for students throughout the post-secondary system, says Yvette Cabrera, a senior staff writer at Grist and a National Association of Hispanic Journalists board member. “When you come from especially low-income communities, just even getting into college is a hardship,” she says. While having a college degree is not essential to landing a job in journalism, most media outlets require one. And graduate training typically includes networking that opens doors, giving students who finish those programs a significant edge in landing internships, freelance assignments, and jobs.

With the financial decline of the media industry, some newsroom leaders might feel anxious about committing resources to recruiting and retaining journalists from marginalized groups, which could affect Latinx journalists, as well as journalists who can report and write in Spanish. But Cabrera says that increased diversity and inclusion are still possible in the current era of diminished revenue and tighter budgets for news. “It’s also a question of whether newsrooms continue to place diversity high on their agenda despite the financial difficulties,” Cabrera says. “Newsrooms that do continue to make diversity a priority, you’ll see in their numbers, in the percentage of journalists of color in their newsrooms.”

 

Diversity within the U.S. Spanish-Speaking Population

Ultimately, in thinking about serving Spanish-speaking readers, U.S. newsrooms need to think beyond checking off racial and ethnic group boxes on surveys. Latinx and Hispanic communities are not a monolith; there is diversity within them. “For me it’s a little bit difficult to say ‘the Spanish-speaking population of the U.S.’ I think you have to go region by region and see your population and see what they need,” says Ponchner, now a freelance journalist based in Costa Rica. “I don’t think you can put them all together in one basket. The U.S. is huge, and the needs are different.”

For instance, most Hispanics in the U.S. as well as in some major cities in California and Texas are of Mexican ancestry or origin, according to the Pew Research Center. But people of Dominican or Puerto Rican ancestry predominate among Hispanics in New York City and Newark, New Jersey. In southern and central Florida, people of Cuban or Puerto Rican ancestry or origin are the predominant Hispanic groups. Spanish-language science journalism might better serve readers, listeners, and viewers by covering topics of concern for local demographics of Latinx and Hispanic populations. The Spanish language can also vary regionally or by community, so editors and writers should use vocabulary and grammar that is most likely to be commonly understood.

Generational differences in U.S. Latinx and Hispanic populations present another challenge—and opportunity—for news outlets trying to reach Spanish speakers. The majority of Latinx residents are U.S.-born, according to the Pew Research Center. And many of them are young, bilingual, and interested in getting at least some, if not all, of their news in English. Some speak, read, and write only in English. Others understand Spanish spoken by family members at home but don’t read or write in Spanish. So Spanish-language radio, podcasts, and TV on science topics might be a way to engage both older audiences who primarily communicate in Spanish and younger audiences who understand spoken Spanish.

Clearly, the need for more Spanish-language science news in the U.S. is significant, and there is plenty of room for growth and creativity in this area of science journalism. Multimedia formats, as well as hiring and training practices that target recruiting bilingual reporters, could play a defining role in better serving Spanish-language and Latinx audiences with science news. A stronger commitment among newsrooms to identify and address the needs and interests of U.S. Latinx and other Spanish-language audiences must underpin such efforts. Exactly how the shortage of Spanish-language science journalism will be addressed in the context of broader shifts taking place in the media remains to be seen.

 

 

Courtesy of Mariela Santos-Muñiz

Mariela Santos-Muñiz

Mariela Santos-Muñiz is a freelance journalist and writer currently based in Puerto Rico, and her work has appeared in The Associated Press, Ensia, Nylon, The Daily Dot, and other publications. She is a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. Follow her on Twitter @mellamomariela.

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