New federal study on Latinos in the media could be rosier than reality

Despite overindexing in movie ticket purchases and accounting for nearly a fifth of the US population, Latinos are underrepresented as employees in almost all major media and entertainment industries, according to preliminary results of a federal study published Tuesday.

US Latinos appeared to be overrepresented as service workers in one media sector alone, the data showed. Directors, editors, and decision-making officers were the least representative of Hispanics working in Hollywood, the news media, and publishing. The study, conducted by the US Government Accountability Office, is the first of its kind to focus on the employment of Latinos in the media.

Overall, Latinos in the United States made up about 12% of the media and entertainment workforce, compared to the Hispanic population as a whole, which was about 18% in 2019.

The first results of the study were well anticipated in Hispanic watchdog and media circles. For the past several years, Washington politicians and Hollywood heavyweights have persistently urged industry leaders to fill the representation deficit for the nation’s fastest-growing, and now largest, minority subgroup.

On Tuesday, Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-San Antonio), who took up the issue as a political cause, announced the numbers during a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. Castro and other members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus had asked GAO to review the available data on Hispanic employment in media and entertainment in October 2020.

“The media industry, and Hollywood in particular, is still the most important image-defining and narrative institution in American society,” Castro told the club. “This lack of narrative, this systemic exclusion, is not only dangerous for Latinos, but also for everyone.”

Castro called on major newspapers like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times because, compared to the demographics of their cities, they have particularly poor rates of journalists who are Latinos or Hispanic.

“The fact is, some of America’s most prestigious media institutions are the biggest and longest-running perpetrators of cultural exclusion,” said the congressman. “As of today’s GAO report, it is now public knowledge that Latinos are underrepresented in the media industry.”

However, GAO’s initial raw employment rate is not as bad as previously thought, surprising some analysts and advocates. Researchers at UCLA and USC have continuously tracked in front of and behind the camera visibility of US Latinos in large studio productions, usually only finding single-digit percentages last week.

Unrelated to the study, Professor Chon Noriega, who is the former director of UCLA’s Chicano Studies Research Center, warned that GAO numbers may look rosier than the reality of where Latinos are in the media.

Significantly, on the basis of its data sets, GAO did not differentiate between positions in English or mainstream-oriented media and positions in Spanish-language media. Spanish-language media generally make greater use of Hispanics, and in some markets – such as Los Angeles – they tend to dominate the tops of ratings.

Media activists have specifically called for better representation within mainstream targeting storytelling in English, arguing that Spanish-language media does not readily reach the larger US population. In the past, proponents have criticized large entertainment companies for replenishing their diversity numbers by incorporating Spanish-language programs and attitudes into their internal analysis.

Spanish-language media “is doing some of the balancing work, and it should be there because it is generally not really treated as part of American broadcasting culture,” Noriega said. “The same with music, right? But you have to analyze the difference between English and Spanish. “

GAO examined the responses to the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, a random sample of households, from 2014 to 2019. The office compared these numbers to data collected by the US Equal Opportunities Commission between 2014 and 2018 from all of them related companies with four or more employees. (The study excluded employees from technology, social media, and telecommunications companies.)

“When four Latinos get together and start a production company, it doesn’t matter whether the film ends up on television or in the cinema,” says Noriega. “Their presence in the industry was duly noted, but not their marginality.”

Other data points jumped out on observers who responded to the report. Senior and executive managers were only 4% Latinos or Hispanic Americans in 2018, while college graduates, including producers, directors, actors, and journalists, made up around 8% Latinos. According to GAO, 22% of those employed in the service sector in 2018 were Latinos.

Also noteworthy is the racial segregation among Latinos (who can be of any race).

GAO found that Latinos “alone white” made up 67% of the Hispanic workforce in the media in 2019. Black or Afro-Latinos made up 3% of the group; Asian Latinos made up 1%; Latinos who identified themselves as Indians (often a standard for Indigenous people like actress Yalitza Aparicio) were 2%; and Latinos who identified themselves as “another race” or “two or more races” made up 27% of the total. This last subgroup is usually made up of mestizo Latinos who list their heritage as partly indigenous and partly European.

Brenda Castillo, president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, said Monday that the new numbers disprove a more complex landscape at the industry level. The day after the 2021 Emmys show, in which no non-white actor won a performance award, the early spread of GAO numbers felt dissonant, she said.

“I mean, did you check out the Emmys last night?” Castillo said. “We’re turning around [close to] 20% of the US population, and we’re definitely not a 20% of the publishing, television, and entertainment employees.

“Hollywood and the media company, most of it is in California, which is 40% of the population is Latinos, and then the Emmys was in LA, which is 50% Latino,” added Castillo. “It’s just not going fast enough.”

The GAO study came about in part in response to the 2019 anti-Latino massacre in El Paso, which prompted political leaders to question whether Trump-era sentiments toward immigrants were hateful or stereotypical portrayals of Latinos in public stir up. Castro also noted Tuesday that states with large Hispanic populations like California and Texas shouldn’t “subsidize marginalization” by providing tax incentives to media industries that don’t employ enough Latinos.

GAO’s studies on Hispanic representation in media and entertainment are ongoing. A second study is expected next year.

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