Latino and Spanish-language media fill information gap during the Covid-19 crisis

Former U.S. Surgeon General Antonia Novello once said, “Viruses and bacteria don’t ask for a green card.”

In 1990, she became the first woman and the first Hispanic to be named Surgeon General of the United States. George H. Bush was then president.

Now 30 years later, with the Covid-19 worldwide health pandemic, we are seeing this truth.

It’s important that all people in the U.S., including the 37 million people who speak Spanish at home, have complete and accurate information about the coronavirus.

Latino journalists and activists have criticized the Trump Administration for failing to act quickly enough to share information in Spanish about Covid-19.

Last Monday, the CDC released new coronavirus guidelines, “15 Days to Slow the Spread,” including asking people to avoid social gatherings of 10 more than people and for the elderly to stay at home. But it was only published in English. Under pressure from Latino journalists and activists, the administration translated and posted the guidelines in Spanish on the CDC website late Thursday of last week.

Journalist Julio Ricardo Varela, Latino Rebels founder/publisher and co-host of the “In The Thick” podcast, both part of Futuro Media, first reported that the new guidelines were not immediately released in Spanish.

“It didn’t exist. If it existed when I asked for it, I would’ve gotten it,” Varela said.

After he first reported on it, Latino leaders and activists increased pressure on the White House because the health of the Spanish-speaking community in the U.S. is at stake.

“Language access is directly linked to public health,” Varela said, explaining why he wrote the story. “It’s a public health service.”

Still most of the information coming out of the White House in English is not being translated into Spanish in real time. In fact, the website that is releasing daily news about the coronavirus is only available in English.

President Barack Obama had a Spanish-language page, but it disappeared after Trump took office. The Trump administration promised in early 2017 there would be a live page in Spanish, but it still hasn’t materialized.

The CDC and the White House do have Twitter feeds in Spanish, @CDCespanol and @LaCasaBlanca and they do post information in Spanish. But they sometimes retweet English content on them. The CDC also has a website in Spanish, but the updates are sometimes slower than the English-language page.

This information vacuum is more glaring in the face of a global health crisis, and it is up to Latino journalists and Spanish-language media to keep Spanish-speakers in the U.S. informed.

“It’s falling on Hispanic media to do a lot of the public service to educate the public about the risk, how to take care, how to access medical care if you fall ill,” said María Peña, a digital journalist with Telemundo News, who covers the nation’s capital and has covered the last four presidents.

But the issue is more than just a lack of timely information from the Trump Administration about Covid-19 in Spanish.

Peña said that there is currently only one Spanish-language journalist from Univision who has an assigned seat in the White House press room. And that journalist has to share the seat with another journalist so it amounts to half a seat for Spanish-language journalists.

These seats are assigned by White House Correspondents’ Association, Peña said.

“That is a huge setback for our community because a lot of the questions that we’re interested in for our community are not being asked,” Peña said.

Also, fewer journalists are being allowed into the press room as the White House is asking journalists to practice social distancing, which allows for about a third of the journalists to attend, Peña said.

Peña also said that she did have access to the White House and could attend briefings but not in an assigned seat. But due to the new social distancing policies she no longer has access to the White House grounds and has to watch the briefings on the television and do follow up interviews on the phone.

Having diversity in the press corp matters, because Latino and Spanish-language journalists may ask different questions, Peña said.

They might ask: 

Will migrants be turned back at the border?

What aid is available to local medical officials with immigrant populations?

How can you assist people with language barriers?

How do you help people who are undocumented and don’t have medical insurance?

“There are specific needs to the Latino community that I don’t feel are being addressed in those briefings,” Peña said.

Past administrations under Presidents Obama and George W. Bush worked more closely with Spanish-language media and also provided more information in Spanish, Peña said.

Jessica Retis, associate professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Arizona, said some mainstream media outlets are publishing content in Spanish, including the Washington Post and USA Today. Other mainstream media outlets such as The New York Times and Hoy, Tribune Publishing  have shut down their Spanish-language news sites citing profitability issues.

“There is a need for Spanish speakers to have this important health information,” said Retis, who recently published a report for the Democracy Fund called, “Hispanic Media Today.” 

The reach of this information in Spanish goes beyond the U.S., she explained.

“Spanish-language U.S. media is being consumed not only by Latinos in the U.S. but also by Latinos in Latin America due to the transnational configuration of families. Someone in El Salvador who wants to know what is happening to their family in Washington is going to look for Univision,” Retis said.

There also is a group of volunteers, called COVID-19 [en español]  translating articles into Spanish from credible sources to help bridge the information gap.

Some critics might tell Spanish-speakers to learn English. But it’s important to note that the U.S. doesn’t have an official language.

It’s time for the Trump Administration to step up as the health of the nation is at stake, no matter which language you speak.

Teresa Puente teaches bilingual journalism at California State University, Long Beach and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. 

Share our journalism