Research is just one of the initiatives in the three-pronged approach of UNT's Center for Spanish Language Media. The other two are education and professional development.
The center offers a 15-hour certificate in Spanish language media for electronic news majors and radio, television and film majors. The interdisciplinary program, which includes offerings from the Spanish, anthropology, history, English, political science, women's studies and RTVF programs, is geared toward students proficient in — or working toward fluency in — Spanish.
Alan Albarran, the center's director, says the program emphasizes aspects of Latino history and culture that students will need to understand to better relate to their audience.
"The advantage really is something simple — to give students an added credential in addition to their degree," Albarran says.
The center also offers an annual Media Sales Institute, an intensive 10-day "boot camp" in sales techniques for students considering working for Spanish language publications. Earlier this spring, the center conducted its first professional development workshop, offering Dallas-area Hispanic business professionals strategies for handling media interviews and achieving favorable coverage.
Lightning flashed outside the window of Abraham Benavides' home, scaring his daughters. But his children's nerves were eased a bit by a weather bulletin that scrolled across the bottom of the television screen.
The alert, which indicated where the severe storms were occurring and when they might subside, was in English. This posed no problem for the bilingual family, but it got Benavides, assistant professor of public administration at the University of North Texas, thinking about the millions of Spanish speakers in the United States.
"Do they receive similar emergency warnings from Spanish language television and radio stations?" he wondered.
Benavides was able to research the issue thanks to a grant provided by UNT's Center for Spanish Language Media. The center, established in fall 2006 with $1.25 million from the UNT System Board of Regents, recognizes the growing role of Spanish language media in the North Texas region and beyond.
Moreover, the center, housed in the Department of Radio, Television and Film, positions UNT in the United States and throughout the Spanish-speaking world as a leader in research on Spanish language media and communication.
"Ultimately, I want the center to be recognized as one of the first places to go to get more information on Spanish language media, whether you are in Denton, in Texas or anywhere else in the nation," says Alan Albarran, professor of radio, television and film and the center's director.
The emphasis of the center remains squarely on the country with the fourth-largest Spanish-speaking population in the world — the United States.
The center has allowed UNT scholars from multiple disciplines to examine topics related to Spanish language media. In 2007, the center awarded a total of $10,000 in internal grants to six professors. Another round of grants was awarded this spring.
Recipients of last year's grants, which included faculty members from the departments of anthropology, foreign languages, marketing and logistics, public administration and RTVF, performed research ranging from creating a pilot for a Spanish language telenovela series to gauging the media perceptions of school-age Latinos.
The grant-funded research has uncovered important findings about Spanish language media companies that disseminate their content across national borders. For example, Francisco Guzman, assistant professor of marketing and logistics in the College of Business Administration, surveyed people in Mexico and Latinos in the United States to compare their perceptions of the two largest broadcasters in Mexico, Televisa and TV Azteca.
A factor analysis indicated Hispanics in the United States perceived the networks, which are content providers for local Latino channels in this country, differently than did television viewers in Mexico. Whereas other studies have examined how popular products such as Coke or Gatorade are perceived in one country versus another, Guzman's study indicates the Mexican networks themselves are brands that conjure different associations for audiences living in different countries.
"Media companies shouldn't assume when they're expanding out of their original territory that people abroad will perceive their brands the same way," Guzman says.
Albarran says the center is not trying to influence media practices in Latin America, where countries such as Colombia have long-established media traditions. Rather, it is seeking to create a greater understanding outside of those countries about the media traditions of Latino culture.
And the center is actively pursuing research partnerships with media scholars in South America, Spain and Mexico. In addition to supporting research initiatives, the center funds a guest speaker series featuring media experts from five Spanish-speaking countries.
Such partnerships, Albarran says, will help expand understanding about the Spanish language audience in the United States and about issues affecting Spanish language media regardless of national borders.
"Each country has different stories to tell," Albarran says. "We can look at where there are differences and similarities that we can learn from."
Still, the emphasis of the center remains squarely on the country with the fourth-largest Spanish-speaking population in the world — the United States.
"Unquestionably, the focus of our program is on Spanish language media in the United States. That's our base, our core," says Albarran, adding that if undocumented residents were figured in, the United States would likely have the second-largest Spanish-speaking populace behind Mexico.
Albarran and his staff are conducting studies about the impact of Hispanic voters on the 2008 presidential election and also are examining media coverage about immigration. In addition, in January the center released an online study that details the state of Spanish language media in the United States and highlights the rapid proliferation of electronic and print media.
According to the study, Univision, the top-rated Spanish language television network, has become the fifth most watched network, just behind Fox and ahead of the CW, in key demographics.
And the combined circulation of Spanish language daily newspapers has grown in recent years to nearly 2 million. This is compared to 140,000 in total circulation just 30 years ago.
Albarran says the growth in Spanish language media isn't hard to explain. With the growth of consumers has come a growth in advertising. And advertising, in turn, drives media revenue.
"This segment of the population is too big and is growing too fast for you to ignore if you're marketing goods or services," Albarran says. "They're consumers and they're active consumers."
The young industry is still undergoing some growing pains, though. And the research sparked by the lightning strike that scared Benavides' children explored one such issue facing the Spanish language media in America.
Benavides examined the federal government's policies on non-English language emergency warnings. His content analysis of Federal Communications Commission documents revealed that weather warnings and other alerts are made available in Spanish, but it is up to the operators of the radio and television stations to determine whether to air the alerts.
And that doesn't always happen. During several recent natural disasters, including the San Diego County wildfires in 2003 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, some non-English language broadcasters provided minimal news coverage of the disasters and failed to air evacuation notices and other warnings, Benavides says.
"There is a lack of tradition among the Spanish language media of providing public service announcements that are critical to the safety and well-being of the people they serve," Benavides says. "As the industry matures, this practice should become more widespread."
Rafael Olmeda, president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, says he's not certain whether not airing emergency warnings is a widespread issue among Spanish language media. But, he says, it is the responsibility of the media, no matter what language they broadcast in, to adequately perform a public service role in the communities they serve.
"The need to relay information to all communities regardless of what language they're speaking is imperative," says Olmeda, the assistant city editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. "As media, we pride ourselves on being a public service and providing the public with information they need."
Growing pains and all, Spanish language media are coming into their own in the United States and a large swath of the western hemisphere. For UNT to be at the forefront of studying this social-landscape-altering phenomenon is "super cool," says Guzman.
"Media are such a powerful conduit to acculturation and communication. Just imagine all the people in the United States who don't speak any English" he says.
"Given this trend, the Center for Spanish Language Media has huge implications. It's providing a lot of interesting data for a lot of different disciplines."
Since its founding in fall 2006, UNT's Center for Spanish Language Media has awarded grants for campus projects as part of its mission to sponsor and disseminate research on Spanish language media industries, companies and audiences.
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