The mass media plays a significant role in forming public opinion. The hours spent watching television, reading the newspaper and flipping through magazines shape people’s views of the world outside the community and shape how each person relates to that world. Latinos are the largest minority group in the United States, yet their representation in mass media networks is stereotyped and often times negatively portrayed.
To understand the Latinos portrayal in mass media nowadays we have to take a look at the concept of race itself, and how this concept is introduced into society. Race is a socially constructed concept (Crouteau, Hoynes, Milan), meaning that we are not born with the knowledge of social and race difference, we socially acquire that knowledge through our parents, television programs, news, etc. For kids, a person is a person, no matter what is their skin color, their eyes color, or their background -which children usually do not even know that concept-. In fact, there is no biologically valid difference in the genetic makeup of different races (Crouteau, Hoynes, Milan). Parents and society in general are the ones who teach kids the meaning of race, and social difference.
The racial discrimination in mass media in the United states comes from the early 1920’s and 1930’s, time when the minority groups such as African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and other racial and ethnic minorities were of little consideration to the media industry. Because these minorities comprised a small part of the population, mainstream media like radio, television, newspapers and magazines and specially the films industry did not see them as an important segment of the mass audience (Crouteau, Hoynes, Milan). The Latino community specifically has been ignored by these mass media outlets. Coverage of Latino-oriented news events and stories was generally left to Spanish-language media and smaller, community-oriented newspapers (summer 1997).
Since World War II, the trend has been toward more exclusiveness and growing sensitivity in media of all types, Latinos have appeared more often in television and print news, however, they have been negatively stereotyped, relating them to news such as immigration, vandalism, criminal activity and other sorts of negative aspects. The question that arises from this issue is: Who is responsible for this negative stereotype, and how does this affect the Latino minority group? Lamentably, mass media is constantly depicting and making stereotypes of groups, and the less familiar the people are with the group depicted, the more likely they are to believe the stereotype. What did North Americans know about Latinos a century ago? Not much if they were not in contact with them. The mass media gave them an identity, they presented this ethnic group to the North American society, but not surprisingly, it was not accurate to represent all Latinos. This kind of negative exposure produced a skewed perception of Latinos as a “problem population” in the eyes of mainstream society -which is basically what happened with African Americans-. Young Latinos in particular are the victims of this type of portrayal: Most English-language news stories featuring Latino youth involve them as drug dealers or users, gang members, teen mothers and high school dropouts (summer 1997). This is not fair for Latinos, the problem with stereotyping and generally depicting a certain ethnicity group does actually not represent that group at all, since there are infinite different types of people among that particular culture or ethnicity.
Television has had the most influence on this type of depiction. When Latinos started appearing in TV commercials or films, they portrayed as villains opposing the white hero in movies like Tony the Greaser (1911) and The Greaser’s Revenge (1914). Hollywood came up with the “Latin Lover” roles which portrayed Latinos as extremely passionate and sexual compared to their Anglo-Saxon counterparts (Gonzalez, 2010). On the other hand, Latina women were -and still are sometimes- portrayed in the media as sexual, sensual women, mothers or domestic workers.
Luckily, nowadays Latinos are breaking down the molds with the main help of famous actors and actresses and representing different roles in movies and commercials. Nevertheless, Dana E. Mastro and Susannah R. Stern’s study “Representations of Race in Television Commercials: A content Analysis of Prime-Time advertising”, Latinos are still primarily located in banking/finance ads or ads for food an entertainment, while whites -the mainstream race or ethnicity- appear in advertisements for cosmetics and were most frequently found at home.