Don’t Blame Latino Digital Space for Calling Out The Economist for Stupid Cover

Who knew that a March 12 tweet from The Ecomonist’s Américas account would lead to this week’s hot (no pun intended) issue in the U.S. Latino media space?

Not many people online even had a clue about this tweet, until four days later. In the early morning hours of March 16, a few Twitter profiles started sharing image of the cover. One of those profiles, the very influential @yayayarndiva, tweeted this to my profile and to the Latino Rebels profile:

A few hours later on March 16, Latino Rebels shared it on its Facebook and Twitter because you know… chili peppers. In the contextless world of Twitter and just days after a national morning talk show reminded us all that Mexican stereotypes are still being perpetuated in front of the camera, the digital image from The Economist felt like yet another jab to the continuous punching bag that has become how English-language U.S. and international media continues to view this country’s U.S. Latino population. For those who live in the Twitter space, it is becoming too common to see these examples continue. Our group (an eclectic mix of boricuas, [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected] [email protected] and a few more [email protected]) instantly saw The Economist image (yes, images matter) and collectively shook our heads. So we shared it, gave it the #NoMames and went to work on other stories.

Not surprisingly and quite expectedly, other outlets and groups shared news of The Economist’s digital cover, which was the digital marketing front door to a very comprehensive report about the rise of U.S. Latinos in this country. HuffPost. Salon. Media Matters. Buzzfeed. Colorlines. And so on.

All these stories were a direct result of how people were reacting online, how this image led to a variety of opinions, mostly negative. Those reactions were honest, real, valid and authentic.

Nonetheless, lost in all the conversation is the simple fact that this magazine did an extremely poor job in launching its comprehensive report to the digital world. Because in the end, the report is so detailed that it really didn’t need to create such a ridiculous cover and write a ridiculous “How to fire up America” marketing preview piece (“Chilies in the mix?”) in the first place and promote it digitally without much context or explanation. In other words, there was very little integration between the special report and how the special report was being promoted on social media. And there’s the disconnect.

I mean, The Economist has a nine-minute video with the report, yet it felt like the video shouldn’t have been promoted more online?

Like my very smart friend tweeted to me today:

Or what my other very smart friend suggested yesterday:

So this is my first point: The Economist’s actual special report is a very important read. It digs deep into an issue that continues to gain more traction and attention. Why then didn’t the magazine lead with the report? Why did it feel like it needed to create promotional images that outside of the context of what the magazine published would just create confusion, frustration and yes, anger? And while we are it, why is the magazine using the cover image on its Twitter banner (h/t Colorlines)?

Cover

It just feels stupid, short-sighted, clueless and wrong.

Then there is the second point: this really troubling notion that Latino bloggers and people who raised this initial issue about the contextless cover image are missing the point and are doing more harm than good. One opinion piece from a really, really, really good and smart friend of mine (Stephen A. Nuño) said this: “Instead of a discussion on the state of our education system and its failure to prepare Latinos to be the backbone of this country’s economy, Latino intellectuals and advocates got lost in a discussion about the pictures.”

The column also added: “Maybe one can’t expect much from a group whose median age among American born Hispanics is 18 years old, compared to a median age of 42 years among whites. But if Latinos ever expect to be taken seriously, a better collective response is in order.”

Those phrases, plus the entire premise of the NBC piece, were disappointing to read.

The piece might have also added this: Latinos are not sophisticated or intelligent. Latinos are emotional and reactive, because they are young and don’t realize that The Economist is this really important publication.

So I left my friend know how I felt:

I need to respectfully disagree on this one since media images do matter and we have yet to get beyond basic understanding of that diversity. Remember that people found out in a contextless world which is Twitter. It speaks to a larger issue that needs to be addressed, it’s all about the pictures. It was just yet another typical example of a long list of media images that have done little to progress anything. The Economist could have been a bit more educated about commissioning an illustration where it had an actual editorial discussion about its cover. There was no one in the room who would raise the hand and say, maybe this is not the right idea? And yeah the China cover is lame as well but again, this speaks to the challenges traditional outlets are having in a digital world. And that is not to suggest that people don’t care about the serious issues. It is just jarring and yet another example of the same old same old and nothing has changed. Media needs to be more responsive to the digital response. It might lead to more teachable moments.

I also added this later:

My take is that the Economist screwed up in how it wanted to present this piece to the digital public without having a clue about that the Latino digital space is pretty savvy. It had a good report, not great, but good and all it needed to do is share the report. Did it need to create marketing pieces to get to the report? That is the magazine’s fault and mistake, not the fault of uppity bloggers, because that is characterization that the NBC column implies, which is really unfair given that if it weren’t for those bloggers, we wouldn’t have more outlets like the Econ paying more attention to U.S. Latinos. And I still see it as a continuation of specific examples that have been happening on a regular basis. The “here we go again” attitude.

Those were part of the highlights and it was a good convo. I have tons of love and respect for El Profe, and I can totally see parts of his point (yes, the special report is important to discuss and highlight), but what I absolutely do not agree with is the notion that the Latino digital space is focusing on the wrong issue. That we sit here in some corner of the Internet and say to ourselves, “Hey, what issue can we manufacture today?” Believe me, I would rather write about the more “serious” issues, but when you keep getting tweets from the ground up about images and portrayals and stereotypes, it’s hard not to stay silent when you deep in your bones that so much work needs to be done.

But hey, this is all about being “upset,” right? At least if you read how Laura Sánchez Ubanell ends her VOXXI piece: “Next time you are offended by something, rather than immediately leaping to blatant criticism, take the time to think if you’re really upset about something else and using a well-meaning article to vent your frustrations about the state of the world.”

My frustrations about the “state of the world” are directly tied to how media continues to fail and completely misinterpret its understanding of U.S. Latinos. Yet, as much as Sánchez Ubanell is telling us all that we shouldn’t be so “sensitive” (story of my life), I also think that the cover image could have been brilliant in another context, but not in the context of how it was promoted and rolled out by The Economist. There is definitely a “Kuleshov Effect” experiment that someone needs to do about this cover.

Finally, I am told that Latinos who are not Mexican Americans have a bigger “outrage” issue with this cover image than those Latinos who are. That argument doesn’t hold much weight, considering that veteran news guy Victor Landa, another really, really, really good friend from San Antonio, said it best yesterday when he weighed on the cover:

Aside from that, the irritating stars-and-chiles cover is, in a perverse way, a step on the road to what we asked for. And the overwhelming negative reaction to it is exactly the step we should be taking. It’s important to call national and international publications and broadcasts on their gaffes. We owe it to those who came before us, who dreamed of the day that mainstream America would pay so much attention to us that we’d need to make sure they got it right.

The Economist didn’t get it right. The stars-and-chiles is ignorant at best, insulting at its worst. For Latinos, the cover and the content’s misunderstandings are more evidence of the need for diversity in top-tier editorial positions. A Latino editor would have caught the insult at first glance, and the obvious stereotype wouldn’t have been perpetuated.

It’s what happens when you call attention to yourself. After you’re noticed you’ll have to start setting things straight. It’s a nod to the days we were ignored, and the work isn’t finished.

Exactly. As much as so much work has been done, not only in the digital space but during a time when the Internet wasn’t even around, the work isn’t finished.

Don’t blame the people who raise this issue. Blame those media outlets who still do stupid things.

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Julio (Julito) Ricardo Varela (@julito77) founded LatinoRebels.com in May, 2011 and proceeded to open it up to about 20 like-minded Rebeldes. A 1990 Harvard graduate in the History and Literature of Latin America, his personal blog, juliorvarela.com, has been active since 2008 and is widely read in Puerto Rico and beyond. He pens columns on LR regularly. In the last two years, Julito represented the Rebeldes on several outlets, including MSNBCCBSNPR,  Univision and The New York Times. Recently, he was a digital producer for Al Jazeera America’s The Stream and is currently the Digital Media Director for Futuro Media Group.

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