NC Spanish-language news coverage expands amid COVID-19, and reveals gaps

Latino and English-language media and community leaders share lessons and challenges in producing journalism by, for, and about Spanish-speaking NC, where the pandemic hit early and hard

By Marco Quiroz-Gutierrez

Paola Jaramillo and Walter Gómez have spent several years building the digital Spanish-language news site Enlace Latino NC, and when COVID-19 hit, they knew they needed to do more than just report stories to serve their audience.

Enlace Latino, based in the Triangle, is engaging Latinos during the pandemic by going beyond reporting to learn what its audience wants to know about. Enlace’s WhatsApp group, where the founders listen and interact with their audience, has grown to 800 people from 50 when it first launched.

Jaramillo and Gómez were among more than 30 representatives from the English and Spanish-language media, along with leaders of organizations serving Latiino residents, who attended the NC Local News Workshop’s first knowledge-sharing gathering, held Aug. 5 via Zoom: “What are we learning from covering COVID-19 for NC’s Spanish speakers?”

The attendees discussed what is missing from COVID-19 coverage for and about Latino residents, and how information about the pandemic should be disseminated to this group, which has the highest portion of COVID-19 cases in North Carolina. Many reported extra efforts to deliver information, and big challenges in doing so — including finding funding to pay for reporting.

Jaramillo, the executive director of Enlace Latino, said during the gathering that vital news has to be put on a medium that Latinos use, such as WhatsApp, Facebook and podcasts.

“WhatsApp is a medium that has helped us listen to the community and know what the audience needs in terms of information,” said Jaramillo.

Enlace Latino NC, North Carolina’s first digital Spanish-language news nonprofit, publishes a newsletter, two podcasts and written stories on its website, all in Spanish. As they built their new organization, cofounders Jaramiillo and Gómez realized that writing for the Latino community means knowing your audience.

“We’ve realized that we don’t just have one audience, the Latino community isn’t one, it’s many communities that vary depending on county,” Jaramillo said. “The information needs are completely distinct.”

But, apart from digital media, news organizations also need to make sure they are reaching people who may not be online, said Hilda Gurdian, publisher of La Noticia in Charlotte.

“Not everyone is on the internet and we all know there is a digital divide in North Carolina so people who don’t have access to the internet have access to the newspaper,” Gurdian told the group.

In response to the pandemic, La Noticia created a special COVID-19 section in its print edition and on its website. They have also created step-by-step guides in Spanish on how to navigate the pandemic including a list of resources for small business owners, a guide on how to apply for unemployment insurance, and a list of COVID-19 test centers.

Collaborations bear fruit: ‘We have more to contribute beyond translating’

Although the media organizations who attended the workshop are used to competing against each other for stories, several attendees said the English and Spanish-language media can bring more value to their audiences by working together. Some have already started collaborating.

Aaron Sánchez-Guerra, a business reporter for The News & Observer, said working with Spanish-language outlets made it possible for him to tell more stories relevant to Latinos.

“What I’ve been able to do with the help of them is remarkable because I was able to publish stories from Enlace Latino and Qué Pasa in Spanish on the News & Observer website,” Sánchez-Guerra said. “Publishing stories in Spanish — we didn’t really do that before.”

Jaramillo said she was happy to collaborate with The N&O as well as with other English-language news organizations, such as NC Health News and Southerly magazine. But Jaramillo said she hopes these collaborations will do more than just widen Enlace Latino’s audience.

“It’s also a way for the English media to realize that we have much more to contribute beyond translating,” she said.

N&O/Enlace Latino NC collaboration
The News & Observer’s Aaron Sánchez-Guerra has collaborated with Spanish-language media outlets including Enlace Latino Nc

Translating is important work, said Berenice Malagón, a reporter at Univision 40, but the needs of the Latino community are different than the needs of other groups. The Spanish-language media understands this and needs to help the English media understand as well, she said.

“It’s not just about translating, we have to understand that the needs of the Hispanic community are distinct from a white community or an African American community,” Malagón said.

Seeking new audiences and ways to serve community

Several primarily English media at the conference said they are open to publishing news in Spanish, and some have started making strides toward publishing news for a Latino audience.

Up until the pandemic, Blue Ridge Public Radio, like many primarily English news organizations had not published any of its work in Spanish.

But when the pandemic picked up in the U.S. around March and it became clear that Latinos were being infected in large numbers, Immigration Reporter and local Morning Edition host Cass Herrington convinced her station to publish news in Spanish.

“I made a case to the president of the station and to my boss, the news director, and I said, ‘We need content in Spanish; we desperately need it,’” Herrington said.

With this push, Blue Ridge Public Radio created a page called BPR En Español on its website. Now, Spanish speakers can find weekly updates there as well as local news stories in Spanish.

CPP translation
Carolina Public Press offered updates in Spanish to broadcast partners this spring

The Chatham News + Record also launched a Facebook page this summer called “La Voz de Chatham” that focuses on Spanish news and Carolina Public Press, with help from JMPRO TV, published daily COVID-19 updates and two recent investigations in Spanish.


Battling ‘essential equaling expendable’

Latinos make up a large portion of essential workers in North Carolina, especially in the restaurant, hotel and construction industries. For this reason, many of them are being infected just by going to work, said Gurdian, the publisher of La Noticia.

“They have to go to work because they work in very essential businesses like food processing plants, the construction industry and the health care industry among others,” Gurdian said.

Robeson Facebook page
Local volunteers launched Facebook pages to provide COVID-19 information in Spanish, such as this one ini Robeson County

But even though many Latinos are essential workers, the media needs to understand that they are more than that, said Paul Cuadros, a UNC journalism professor and an award-winning investigative reporter who writes about race and poverty.

“I think we’ve all bought in to this idea of essential workers and this particular population being essential workers, and then this sort of frame of our news coverage, the frame of our stories, tends to be from that point of view,” Cuadros said. “And what we’ve seen with the pandemic is essential equaling expendable.”

Beyond language, journalists need to build trust and ‘a two-way street’

Switching this viewpoint will help build or repair bridges between journalists and Latino communities, said Lariza Garzón with the Episcopal Farmworkers Ministry in Sampson County. People in the community Garzón works with tend to have a negative view of journalists because of bad interactions.

“Journalists are seen as people who only come to take,” she said. “They take their stories, they take their pain and put it out there, they don’t offer context and they pay the consequences.”

“Journalists are seen as people who only come to take,” and need to build bridges, said Lariza Garzón of the Episcopal Farmworkers Ministry.

Garzón said she wants Latino residents to know that journalists can help them enact change in their workplace and communities. But Garzón said the reporters also need to give back to the people they interview and understand the effort required for small organizations liike hers to assist journalists.

“The relationship with the community needs to be a two-way street,” she said.

Giving back to the community you serve is something that goes beyond what traditional journalism is thought of, said Malagón from Univision. But interacting and helping the community you cover needs to become more common in journalism, she said.

“It’s being the link between the person making a complaint and the organization that will help them, being the link between the person that has a need and the consulate who is responsible for responding,” Malagón said.

Journalists can no longer afford to just send out information to Spanish speakers without input, said Malagón. News organizations need to interact personally with the community and find out what they need and what they think of the news being produced.

“It’s important to have that link between the community who is expecting not just information but answers or help,” Malagón said. “That’s taking journalism to another level.”

Some of the efforts by English and Spanish-language media to reach out to Latino residents in North Carolina:

  • WFDD Public Radio — Started a Spanish-language blog that gives lives updates about COVID-19 and includes state press conferences in Spanish.
  • La Noticia — Created a specific coronavirus page on their website
  • Enlace Latino NC — Created a WhatsApp group for the Latino community to join and suggest stories. They also send a weekly message with information on policy and immigration news.
  • Enlace Latino NC — Created a podcast called “Latinos en la pandemia” that talks about developments related to COVID-19 that affect the Latino community.
  • Chatham News + Record — Created a Facebook page called “La Voz de Chatham” and will be posting the stories and other media for free in both English and Spanish.
  • Blue Ridge Public Radio — Created a Spanish-language page on their website for local news stories. Invite the audience to reach out via email.

Next up, Aug. 26, noon, via Zoom: “What are we learning from 2020’s big stories about public records and access?” The Workshop will team up with the NC Open Government Coalition, also based at Elon, and the NC Press Association, for a session capturing lessons from public records challenges involving COVID-19 data, and considering issues related to coverage of protests and policing.


NC Local News Workshop