Hispanics in Politics

[February 2, 2010]

Within the past four years, Hispanics have become the largest minority in the United States, but their roles in both American and international politics remains limited.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, in the 2006 U.S. midterm elections, Latinos only comprised 8.6% of all votes cast. Two studies published in the journal Mass Communication and Society indicate that political participation among Hispanics is not proportional to their ever growing population. The findings for these studies were based on research and statistics from the 2004 Presidential election, since research from the recent 2008 election is yet to be examined and analyzed.

Spanish language media is culturally more important and relevant to Latinos in the United States, and they have the ability to shape the audience’s attitudes and political opinions.  Results from the article A Matter of Language or Culture: Coverage of the 2004 U.S. Elections on Spanish and English Language Television, written by Matthew Hale from Seton Hall University, Tricia Olsen from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Erika Fowler from the University of Michigan, show that Spanish language media is doing very little to close the gap between Latino political participation and Latino population growth.

The study emphasized that Spanish language media are keeping their distance from the traditional political sphere. This apparent avoidance of politics may be the key reason why a lack of participation exists among the Latino population, the researchers suggest. While Latino news coverage is more likely to depict Latino issues or concerns than English stations, political candidates are not shown speaking as often and much of the news coverage entails the election horse race without relating where candidates stand on policies.

Since many Latinos are still citizens of their home country and ineligible to vote in America, the study Mexican Expatriates Vote? Framing and Agenda Setting in U.S. News Coverage about Mexico explored how Hispanic media provided information about politics for those able to vote by absentee ballot in the 2006 Mexican Presidential election.

Researchers Melissa Johnson, John Davis, and Sean Cronin from North Carolina State University found that big-circulation newspapers in cities with large Latino populations most often featured Mexican pre-election news. This shows the media recognized the importance of this Hispanic minority. They also pointed out that U.S. newspapers covering Mexican political candidates again focused mainly on the horse race along with political candidate attributes as opposed to policy. Other factors that this article suggests contributed to poor political participation from Mexicans included news coverage that depicted Mexicans as: corrupt, irrelevant to the absentee ballot process, and passive about key policy issues.

Overall, both of these studies describe how the media has a way of broadening the gap among Hispanics in politics. Although, Hispanics prefer media that caters to their needs, the research indicates that different measures need to be taken in order to increase Hispanic engagement in the political process.

CONTACT: Matthew Hale, Seton Hall University, halematt@shu.edu, (973) 275-2013; Melissa Johnson, Department of Communication, NC State University, melissa_johnson@ncsu.edu, (919) 515-9757.


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