Do people get news in their preferred language or from their preferred source? This chicken-or-egg question (to which there likely isn’t one correct answer) came up many times during The Center for Investigative Reporting and Open Society Foundations’ daylong event, Investiguemos: Opportunities and challenges in bilingual and Spanish journalism.

While the conversation was far-reaching, there were three main themes that emerged from the day. First, Spanish-language journalism education is necessary in order to address the lack of highly qualified native Spanish-speaking and bilingual reporters serving Spanish-speaking and bilingual communities in the U.S., as well as for including a diverse pool of potential journalists in environments in which they can contribute to journalistic innovation.

Second, native Spanish speakers and bilingual English-Spanish speakers in the U.S. are diverse groups, and these communities access and use news platforms and technologies differently.

And finally, the potential for impact is great, especially for investigative stories coming from Spanish and bilingual communities in the U.S. that can be broadcast and shared with English-speaking audiences.

Education

Participants emphasized that there are many different Spanish-speaking and bilingual communities in the U.S., and that content should reflect this diversity and the differing needs of these populations.

“There is a lack of highly qualified, fully bilingual investigative reporters serving Spanish-speaking and bilingual communities in the U.S.,” said CIR senior editor Fernando Diaz.

This point was echoed by educators involved in Spanish and bilingual journalism programs, who said that mastering formal Spanish-language skills is important for students in order to report effectively on communities, regardless of the language in which the journalism will be produced.

“Spanish is an asset for getting a job – but it is also a tool that allows reporters to gain access to communities,” said Maria Sanchez Diez, a Fulbright scholar and CUNY Graduate School of Journalism student.  

In addition to linguistic skills, educators explained that it is necessary for students to gain cultural competency in order to effectively report on and with diverse communities. For example, Jose Luis Benavides, a journalism professor at California State University, Northridge, said that in addition to language skills, students at the university minoring in bilingual journalism also are required to take courses in the Chicana and Chicano studies department to better understand the community context of greater Los Angeles.

Students also are important for journalistic innovation. Northwestern University journalism professor Mei-Ling Hopgood and Univision Vice President of Digital Borja Echevarria emphasized the importance of having young, bilingual, technologically savvy journalists to participate in designing new and innovative journalistic platforms and products.

Platforms and technology

Amy Mitchell, director of journalism research at Pew Research Center, said the organization’s research shows that young people who are bilingual Spanish-English speakers are consuming more content in English. However, Echevarria wondered if the trend is actually proof that young people are increasingly preferring to consume news in English, or if it instead is evidence that there is simply more content and of greater variety – and possibly quality – in English than in Spanish?

Of the supposed English-Spanish divide, Maria Hinojosa, founder of Futuro Media Group and host of “Latino USA,” said she feels less and less confined to speak exclusively in English on air.

“If I say, ‘O que?’, my audience doesn’t care. I go back and forth and they don’t care,” she said.

According to Hinojosa and Julio Ricardo Varela, digital media director for Futuro Media Group, “Latino USA” has experienced a 300 percent spike in listenership since 2013 and has the largest number of Latino and African American listeners of any NPR program. And the advent of podcasting has only increased these audiences.

At Univision, Echevarria has undertaken a project to redesign the digital team to be user-centric, providing content to the company’s audiences – and potential audiences – that they want and need on the platforms they already are using.

“We don’t want to serve our audiences. We want to overserve Spanish speakers in the U.S. and Latin America,” he said. He said the digital strategy is not about replacing on-air broadcast, but instead creating different kinds of content on different platforms.

The opportunity seems ripe for Spanish-language audio production, with communities that are comfortable with the radio and have some of the highest rates of news consumption on smartphones, according to Pew.

However, journalist Ana Ormaechea and technologist Angel Jimenez de Luis found that most Spanish-language “audio blogging” does not have high production values. In an attempt to help professionalize the space, they founded Cuonda, a startup that brings together Spanish-language podcasts and audiences to facilitate discovery.

Content and impact

Different reporters have expertise and familiarity with different communities – both linguistically and culturally – and collaboration is an effective way to reach audiences with important information. We heard about collaborations between CIR, Univision, FRONTLINE, the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley, and KQED; the Toronto Star and El Nuevo Herald; Telemundo and The Weather Channel; and more than 20 international outlets for an International Consortium of Investigative Journalists investigation into displacement of millions of people by the World Bank. In addition to reaching audiences of thousands, if not millions, these projects resulted in real change.

However, independent reporter John Carlos Frey said that finding English media outlets to partner with on stories that don’t fit the dominant narratives around Latinos and Hispanics in the U.S. can be difficult.

El futuro

Participants shared visions for a future where Spanish and English are not relegated to separate media spaces, but instead are brought together by innovation in new and creative ways that reflect the reality of bilingual audiences.
Furthermore, participants imagined a future where Latinos and Hispanics in the U.S. can tell their own story, both in ethnic and mainstream media outlets alike, breaking stereotypes and introducing new narratives and where important investigative reporting reaches all affected individuals, regardless of their linguistic preferences and dominance. In the words of Univision’s Borja Echevarria, “The future is realizing that there is an audience that has an appetite for high-quality journalism.”

Lindsay Green-Barber

Green-Barber is the director of strategic research at The Center for Investigative reporting. She works to identify, assess and rigorously test areas of programmatic work where CIR can have catalytic impact through its content distribution and engagement. She leads research and analysis and serves as an expert both internally and for external partnerships.
Previously, Green-Barber was an American Council for Learned Societies public fellow and served as media impact analyst at CIR. She earned a Ph.D. in political science from the City University of New York Graduate Center. Her doctoral research, conducted from 2011 through 2013 in Ecuador, focused on indigenous organizations’ use of new information and communications technologies for social mobilization. She also taught political science courses at Hunter College.