As Covid ravaged the country, Los Angeles Times opinion writer Jean Guerrero saw firsthand how outrageous claims of cures on social media were being passed around Latino families by relatives. Her father had sent her one on YouTube.
Guerrero used the experience with her father to blast the spread of Covid disinformation among Latinos in a May 2021 column in the prominent national newspaper.
But on Tuesday, Guerrero, the newspaper’s only Latina opinion columnist, got a layoff notice, one of the many Hispanic and other journalists of color among the 115 newsroom staffers that the outlet chopped.
Guerrero said she’s unhappy that she and others have lost their jobs. But she’s also concerned about the timing.
The layoffs, along with thousands of others at news outlets last year and the beginning of this year, are happening in an election year full of red flags on the precarious state of democratic norms and amid warnings of a rise in disinformation.
Latino journalists have often been the first to point out false rumors circulating in their own communities. In recent years, experts have flagged misinformation and disinformation specifically targeting Latinos and Spanish speakers on topics such as Covid as well as climate-related issues and politics, including immigration. A 2021 Nielsen study found Latinos are more likely to consume and share misinformation.
Former President Donald Trump, who has dominated the GOP primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire, has continued to falsely claim that the 2020 election was stolen and promoted a false conspiracy theory that Nikki Haley, who is Indian American, was not born in the U.S. She was born in South Carolina.
Trump said migrants coming to the U.S. are “poisoning the blood” of the country, echoing the rhetoric of Adolf Hitler. This kind of language has been decried by those who point out that the gunman who killed 23 people at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart in 2019 cited an “invasion” of immigrants and said he was targeting “Mexicans,” according to authorities.
“Trump is riding anti-Latino hate back into the White House and instead of fighting back, news organizations across the country are eliminating some of the only Latino voices in the national media landscape,” Guerrero told NBC News.
Latino journalists have long been few in major American newsrooms. As Hispanics’ numbers have grown to 62 million nationally, influencing everything from culture to religion to politics, the industry had seemed to recognize their exclusion.
But the layoff of dozens of Latino journalists by the Los Angeles Times appeared to be a profound reversal. Before that, there were staff cuts at Univision, CNN, NBC News, Telemundo, NPR and other outlets.
According to a statement issued by the L.A. Times caucuses, or in-house groups for Latinos and other journalists of color, the layoffs mean the Times is cutting 38% of its Latino caucus members and gutting the staff of De Los, the newspaper’s digital vertical dedicated to covering Latinos.
Eliminating ‘trusted voices’
Maria Teresa Kumar, who helped create the Anti-Latino Disinformation Lab to counter disinformation in 2021, said what the Times has done is eliminate many “cultural experts” that it needs in a city like Los Angeles, which is almost half Latino. Such journalists come from the community where the impact of disinformation is forceful, setting up vulnerability in the nation’s democracy.
“That is a loss in an election that is not going to be a policy discussion. This election season is all going to be framed on communications and trust and who we trust to carry those messages to us,” said Kumar, who is also an MSNBC contributor. “With the rabid disinformation and deepfakes that we anticipate, having those trusted voices absent from newsrooms can really tilt the scales against democracy and democratic norms.”
This year, 22% of Latinos will be voting in their first presidential election, according to a survey by UnidosUS. Three-quarters of them are U.S.-born and will have turned 18.
Because the L.A. Times laid off journalists with less seniority, that meant many young Latinos, some hired amid the push for diversity following the murder of George Floyd, got layoff notices.
The L.A. Times’ De Los vertical capitalized on young journalists’ insight into social media and technology and got traction, said Robert Hernandez, a journalism professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
“Aging older audiences are dying, and if you want to stay relevant, you have to connect with these demographics and these audiences,” Hernandez said. “If you want to be here for the long haul, you have to play the long game and you have to get them while they are young and build a relationship with them.”
The L.A. Times isn’t the first to lay off election writers during an election, Hernandez said. But it’s chosen a precarious time to do so, he said. Politicians are not resonating with voters, and one of the presidential candidates, Trump, is facing multiple indictments and criminal charges. President Joe Biden also is contending with tax-related charges against his son.
“We’re at an important intersection for democracy and our country,” Hernandez said, “and we need quality reporters that look at different perspectives and represent the multicultural reality of our communities to be reporting on the elections and everyday topics.”
There will always be a need for journalism, he added, because people will always have questions “and it’s a full-time job to get those answers.”
“But you’re not going to know what the need is if you lay off staff that looks more like the community,” Hernandez said. “That’s just the realistic, obvious disconnect.”