The language of online news: How science and health reporting in English impacts Latinx audiences
By Ryan Wallace
[Citation: Wallace, R. (2021). The language of online news: How science and health reporting in English impacts Latinx audiences. #ISOJ Journal, 11(1), 11-33.]
Although American news audiences are increasingly more diverse, contemporary journalism across the United States continues to be constructed primarily for an English-language audience. Focusing in particular on science and health reporting for Latinx audiences, this study seeks to understand to what degree publications are developing content for diverse sociocultural and multilingual audiences and how limitations in this coverage may impact the news minority audiences consume. To obtain a better understanding of the complex forms of science communication in digital news media, this study relied on a multimodal discourse analysis of four prominent intermedia agenda-setting newspapers and three popular science magazines. The results of this study indicate that science and health coverage across these publications reflect an “English first” ideology—not only limiting content in alternative languages, but also impacting the timeliness in which Latinx audiences receive important scientific information.
From the Spanish influenza of 1918 to the H1N1 outbreak more than a decade ago, evidence suggests individuals without the literacy to obtain important public health information during a pandemic are more likely to transmit the disease, whatever that may be (Velasquez et al., 2020). While the importance of news media’s storytelling has been highlighted amongst public health efforts, traditional campaigns and legacy media often fail to reach populations at highest risk (Wilkin & Ball-Rokeach, 2006). This year, with the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic, research suggests that language barriers may again be exacerbating historical social inequities amongst the nation’s most diverse populations (Sukumaran, 2020). While the importance of language may often be taken for granted, particularly in the United States’ primarily English-dominated media system, formulating health messages in vernacular languages can impact media consumption and help facilitate greater trust in reliable sources of scientific information (Clayman et al., 2010). Still, legacy media across the United States remains primarily constructed for an English-language audience and neglects the sociocultural and linguistic needs of its minority audiences (Wallace, 2020). With more than 50.5 million Americans identifying themselves as Hispanics, Latinx have become the largest minority in the United States and continue to contribute to a majority of the nation’s growth (Pew Research Center, 2011). This diverse community not only represents an important and growing part of the American electorate, but also an often underserved and underrepresented audience for news media. Brought together by a common language, this population of individuals share unique sociocultural identities in addition to unique symbol systems—that are largely absent from today’s news media (Rodriguez, 1999). Co-evolving alongside the nation itself, American journalism is largely influenced by an Anglo-Saxon identity (Chalaby, 1996). This is most clearly illustrated in the hegemonic and almost universal use of English as the primary language of American news media (Wallace, 2020).
The shortage of Spanish-language science and health journalism across the United States illustrates growing concerns about the nation’s hegemonic media system and a schism between traditional news media and the audiences it seeks to inform (Wallace, 2020). This is particularly concerning not only because of the fact that this population of individuals face health disparities like many other minority groups across the United States, but also because they may be disproportionately impacted by environmental and health issues. While media scholars like Yu and Matsaganis (2018) have sought to better understand the nuances of ethnic media and Latino journalism in particular, to help explain both its importance in the current media ecosystem and the importance of its coverage on issues like science and the environment, little consideration has been given to how some of the nation’s most important and widely-circulated publications are (not) effectively using the Spanish language to communicate with a growing part of their audience (Takahashi et al., 2015; Wallace, 2020). Building on past comparisons of science journalism across different language groups, this study seeks to better understand how the linguistic dominance of English impacts an important segment of American news audiences—Latinx Americans (Thompson, 2014; Villar & Olson, 2013).
To better understand the linguistic characteristics of science and health reporting online, as well as the implications of existing journalistic practices in the construction of world news, this study bridges three strands of theoretical inquiry— that of media logics, globalization and postcolonial theories. Although not often studied together, these strands of research not only provide an opportunity to understand the construction of online news, but also for critical inquiry into how globalizing forces are shaping these logics.
From a journalistic perspective, this research has the potential to inform practical knowledge about the composition of science and health reporting, what biases may exist, and how future reporting could be better improved with a deeper understanding of what audiences are excluded from these conversations. From a scholarly perspective, in addition to thick descriptions, this research has the potential to inform critical understandings of popular science publications, existing media logics, and the ways in which colonial histories and forces of globalization continue to actively shape the construction of social realities. In light of recent events such as the COVID-19 global pandemic, this research is particularly relevant for its ability to help better understand the dimensions of science and health reporting in online news, as well as how linguistic barriers may be precluding the most vulnerable communities from receiving the vital information they need.
At the intersection of postcolonial and media studies, scholars like Shome (2016) have sought to address and make legible the “dominant (and unmarked) West-centric logics that inform the received history of media as well as the functioning of media” (Shome, 2016, para. 3). By complicating understandings of media logics and their modern histories, postcolonial scholars have challenged the centrality of Western theories and the politics of knowledge production (Shome, 2019; Willems, 2014). Extending beyond media studies, these lines of theoretical inquiry have also led to deeper understandings of knowledge production in science, technology, and medicine—challenging romanticized notions of globalization and illustrating how particular forms of knowledge are privileged within and across cultures (Anderson, 2009).
Western Journalism and the Anglo-American Imaginary
Conceived of as an Anglo-American invention, contemporary journalism in the Western context is driven by a dominant hegemony—where Anglo-Saxon identity and the English language are imbricated not only into the means of news production, but also what stories are represented (Chalaby, 1996; Wallace, 2020). Journalism’s Anglo-American imaginary permeates throughout the institution’s beliefs and practices, guiding its ideals and shaping how and why American journalism is constructed (Zelizer, 2019). As journalists tend to perceive the world through the lens and ideologies of the dominant culture, their practices and the news often reflect the cultural patterns and hegemonies of their society (Hanusch, 2009). While comprehensive news coverage requires an understanding of the complex multicultural reality and the diverse groups that contribute to and consume the news, the linguistic barrier between these groups remains one of the most significant challenges (Gutiérrez, 2006).
Recent critiques of mainstream journalism in the United States have sought to draw attention to a significant gap between the audiences that journalists are writing for and the diverse communities that their audiences actually represent (Arana, 2018; Wallace, 2020). Acknowledging that often minority communities are excluded from the construction of the news, media scholars have begun to look at the importance of forms of ethnic media in the United States, but few studies like those of Ramasubramanian et al. (2017) have focused on characterizing the dimensions of this gap—who journalists are writing for, what audiences are often ignored, and how existing journalistic practices contribute to or reinforce this gap. With regards to Latinx in particular, recent research suggests that these pan-ethnic and multilingual audiences are changing with regards to their media consumption and linguistic preferences, and they require media content that reflects this multiculturalism (Sinta et al., 2018). Efforts from within the Latinx community have sought to develop culturally-relevant news for this diverse audience with the development of a form of Latino journalism, however, by-and-large dominant media in the United States reflect a hegemony that excludes these points of view (Rodriguez, 1999; Wallace, 2020).
Towards a Universal Scientific Language
Similarly, these linguistic barriers can also be seen in the scientific community. The globalization of scientific communication has largely been facilitated by a dominant language in science and on the Internet. In an era of globalization and increased social relations between societies all over the world, a common language is not only an asset—it is power (Montgomery, 2013). Through a common language, geopolitics can be shaped, economies can be raised, and knowledge can be collectively advanced through unified efforts (Crystal, 2012). In the sciences, “humanity’s great tower of knowledge,” English has dominated international communication and has become a powerful influence shaping scientific discourse (Montgomery, 2013, p. 3). Moving beyond academia, English has also influenced the science of corporations in the private sector, and even the language of international funding and legal documents like patents (Ammon, 2011).
While English has emerged as a dominant global language for science, this does not mean that it commands a true hegemony in the realm of scientific discourse (Montgomery, 2013). Around the world, scientific findings and active research are still published in a wide variety of languages—Arabic, Chinese, French, Japanese, Spanish, etc. (Ammon, 2011; Montgomery, 2013). These academic and technical journals published in other languages often represent domestic science developed within a particular national or regional space (Montgomery, 2013). Fortified by government funding and nationalism, this scientific discourse in the vernacular represents continued efforts to maintain a strong domestic economy, public health, and even national defense (Montgomery, 2013). Still, as science is globalized and scientists move throughout the globe for education, work, and research, English remains a dominant force in the construction, communication, and dissemination of new knowledge (Montgomery, 2013).
Amongst linguistic studies about the prevalence of English in the sciences, several critical arguments have been made not only about the structure of scientific communications, but also its geopolitical and sociocultural implications on a global scale (Crystal, 2012; Montgomery, 2013). From a postcolonial perspective, this dominance of the English language in the modern sciences can be viewed as remnant of colonial histories—where Western-centric knowledge dominated, as indigenous forms of knowledge and the vernacular were actively delegitimized. This can be noted in the fact that this dominance is most strongly seen in the life and physical sciences, while the vernacular is often used for the applied sciences (Montgomery, 2013). This global domination of the English language, however, is not derived from the linguistic qualities of the language— there is not an inherent link between scientific knowledge or intellectual thought and the English language (Montgomery, 2013). Not only does the global dominance of English represent a barrier for those who can versus cannot understand the language, but there are also advantages for scientists in the West who have English as their native language (Ammon, 2011). As English reigns as the predominant tongue for the rhetoric of science, this linguistic burden not only challenges the inclusion of diverse perspectives in science communication, but also their ability to effectively disseminate knowledge to actors across global networks (Pérez-Llantada, 2012).
As a concept that represents the intersection of cultural, institutional, organizational, and technological trends and their impact on media work, “media logics” provides an important theoretical framework for better understanding how media production industries operate in the cultural economy (Deuze, 2009). Referring to the ways in which “reality” is interpreted and represented by mass media, media logics is a concept that describes the typical organizational practices and linguistic style that are involved in mass communication (Mazzoleni, 2008). Elements of existing media logics inform formats and features of each medium, reflecting technologies, ideological values, patterns of practices, and even intended audiences (Altheide, 2013). However, media logics go beyond a theoretical understanding of factors that shape media work, their original conceptualization referred to prevailing principles, values, and routines that also largely shape how media content is constructed and why (Altheide & Snow, 1979). With regards to news media in particular, these logics shape the ways journalists see and interpret social affairs, informing everyday work and the ideological values that guide it (Mazzoleni, 2008; Pallas et al., 2016).
Social institutions are also infused with similar considerations, and in contemporary mediated societies these logics represent a significant force in structuring social power and reinforcing social hierarchies (Altheide, 2013). With regards to news media in particular, media logics rest on two normative, yet fundamental components of the journalistic institution—professional norms and routines that are built on ideological values and ideals like objectivity, as well as professional standards with regards to the construction of news discourse that are built on sociocultural and institutional agreement (Asp, 2014). With the professionalization of modern mainstream journalism, this meant developing a storytelling language that prioritized values of objectivity and trustworthiness. In pushing away from papers in the vernacular, like tabloid news, since the late 19th century journalists have striven as a former owner of The New York Times Adolph Ochs put it, to “give the news, all the news, in concise and attractive form, in language that is parliamentary in good society” (Miller, 2012, p. 7). Traditions of media linguistics that arose from these perspectives have not only shaped media logics but also have naturalized specific language ideologies—shaping cultural values away from the vernacular (Van Hout & Burger, 2016). Vernacular languages exist alongside, but apart from the language of journalism, which is why the institution often privileges the voices and perspectives of the dominant elites (Van Hout & Burger, 2016). This “English first” perspective, where journalists prioritize elite sources and the perspective of the dominant culture, reifies the dominance of English in the news and limits news content in alternative languages. However, to date there is limited research characterizing the dimensions of this perspective in mainstream news media—in particular because it requires comparative research that not only highlights what is manifest in news content itself, but also what perspectives, languages, and audiences are missing.
Noting the important roles that science journalism in particular has in shaping the public understanding of science, researchers have sought to reconcile the differences between scientific and media logics—to develop a better partnership between these interrelated social institutions (Korthagen, 2016). In the mass mediation of science, some scholars have been critical of invoking media logics to explain choices or changes in media production. However, as a conceptual framework that guides practices, media logics not only impact the formation of scientific texts but also shape the public understanding of science (Plesner, 2012). Analyses of new issues in science communications, such as the development of climate reporting, have illustrated the various ways in which existing media logics have been adapted in science journalism to contextualize emerging scientific topics into existing frameworks, however, some topics transcend the limitations of existing media logics (Berglez, 2011). Focusing in particular on coverage of social determinants of health, Hinnant et al. (2017) found that these limitations of existing media logics continue to result in narrow understandings of health realities—as journalists recognize the importance of covering the complexities and ambiguities of health issues, but struggle to produce coverage that aligns with the existing framework (Hinnant et al., 2017). This inability to adapt existing media logics to incorporate diverse perspectives and the complexities of health issues is in part a consequence of linguistic barriers which divide journalists from the audiences they seek to cover. Among the Latinx community, challenges with translating science and public health efforts across sociocultural, linguistic, and knowledge barriers have proven to contribute to excess burden of illnesses within this community (Baezconde-Garbanati et al., 2013).
To fill existing gaps in the literature as illustrated in the work of Thimm et al. (2017)— particularly with regards to existing media logics, postcolonial/globalizing forces that are influencing these logics, and what perspectives are excluded from the social realities that are actively being constructed by news media—this study analyzed popular online news publications and science magazines from across the U.S., seeking to compare discourse between English-language content and that of other languages. With this conceptual framework, that not only addresses what is manifest in news content but also what gaps may exist in news coverage, this study sought to answer the following research questions:
RQ1: How have these publications dealt with the variety of their audiences’ linguistic needs?
RQ2: Have the publications maintained an “English first” approach, or developed different content for differing audiences?
RQ3: What impact, if any, does the linguistic dominance of English in science and health-related news coverage have on the content that minority audiences consume?
To obtain a better understanding of the complex forms of science communication in digital news media, as well as the various semiotic systems that they draw from, this study relied on a multimodal discourse analysis of news websites to answer these research questions. Given that both journalistic and scientific discourses are foundationally multimodal (Pauwels, 2006), and often rely on diverse forms of discourse to articulate complex concepts (Lemke, 1998), multimodal discourse analysis was selected as the appropriate method for systematically analyzing this content across various semiotic modalities with regards to both text and context (Kress, 2013). Prominent intermedia agenda-setting newspapers and long-standing popular science magazines were selected for this study, including: The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Scientific American, National Geographic, and Popular Science. Given that this study focused in particular on discourse of science and health-related news coverage, these diverse publications were selected to provide a broad picture of mediated science communication across the United States. Digital media content from these publications was gathered from January 1, 2020 to October 10, 2020, and included: 17 websites, one podcast, and one newsletter. Additional archival data was also analyzed to better understand changes in these publications over larger spans of time.
Acknowledging that this corpus included various different topics and content in several different languages, this study followed in the tradition of Glaser and Strauss’ Constant Comparative Method—involving iterative rounds of open coding and comparison to develop patterns, themes, and a framework for qualitative analyses (2017). This methodological approach allowed for comparisons to be drawn across a variety of news media. However, this comparative approach also revealed existing media logics, how they may differ across publications, and perhaps most importantly allowed for gaps in news coverage to be made legible. Analyses were focused primarily on understanding the differences in meaning-making across linguistic landscapes, as well as what stories and information were lost in translation—or more often a lack thereof. While media studies often focus on the dimensions of news media and their content, this study foregrounded questions of biases and audiences’ diverse needs which are often unseen in the content itself.
To answer the underlying research questions, with regards to how these publications have covered science and health for diverse audiences and how they have dealt with a variety of linguistic needs, this study relied on a comparative approach—analyzing each publication separately, then together. Comparisons were drawn across the two distinct groups of publications that were analyzed for this study: intermedia agenda-setting newspapers, including several of the nation’s newspapers of record, as well as popular science magazines. In addition to thick descriptions, this comparative approach offered deeper insights into differing media logics across publications, how some media are (not) addressing the diversity of their news audiences, and what gaps exist in communicating science and health coverage across linguistic barriers.
Not All Newspapers are the Same
In analyzing the newspaper websites and multimedia content, it quickly became evident that not all newspapers are the same with regards to how they approach diverse audiences. To answer RQ1 (How have these publications dealt with the variety of their audiences’ linguistic needs?), first this study needed to establish a deeper understanding of the news content that these publications produce, their various multimedia formats, and the mass audiences that they were communicating with. While some publications developed separate websites, podcasts, and even newsletters, others did not share the same approach towards translating their content or adapting their coverage to Latinx audiences. In part this may be explained by each publication’s individual audiences, which may vary, however, is more likely attributed to the forms of knowledge and perspectives that are privileged by these intermedia agenda-setters. Amongst these newspapers, The Wall Street Journal was the least accessible to Latinx audiences and the least science-oriented. Given that their content is primarily developed for an English audience, and only Japanese and Chinese-language alternative editions are actively published and accessible from the home page, content in the Spanish-language is rarely published except in occasional international stories. Science stories are also rarely published, although they were far more common given the development of the COVID-19 pandemic. Technology stories have long been a staple of The Wall Street Journal’s coverage, and last year the coronavirus also garnered its own section on the main page of the newspaper’s website—just below the Business and Markets sections.
Similarly, The Washington Post provides an English version of its content with three different editions (the WashingtonPost.com Home Page, Print edition, and the e-Replica edition). However, there are key distinctions between these publications. The first is in the diversity and focus of their news coverage. While The Wall Street Journal rarely published science or health stories, The Washington Post covers a much wider variety of topics including: Climate and Environment, Science, Health, Technology, and dozens of other sections—most recently with the addition of a prominent section focusing on the coronavirus pandemic. By focusing their resources primarily on English-language content, The Washington Post has been able to create a site that traverses diverse topics, both domestic and international. However, while the newspaper does not necessarily translate their articles into alternative languages, they have made efforts in recent years to develop content for Latinx audiences.
In August 2019, the newspaper introduced “Post Opinión”, a Spanish-language version of their opinions section particularly geared towards Latinx audiences throughout Latin America and the United States. And later that same year, The Washington Post also introduced a Spanish-language podcast named “El Washington Post” for these very same audiences. The podcast is published twice weekly and is notable because it is developed for Latinx audiences by Hispanic reporters from Washington D.C., Bogotá, and Madrid. This divergence from their traditional English-language practices illustrate not only a long tradition of aural news media (e.g. radio) being popular amongst Latinx audiences, but also a schism amongst opinions between Latinx and other audiences—so great that they require a Spanish-language opinions section of their own. Aligning with postcolonial perspectives of media studies, this also illustrates Western-centric ideological perspectives, where the vernacular and opinions of minorities are separated from the language of the news.
Newspapers with a Spanish Side
Addressing RQ2 (Have the publications maintained an “English first” approach, or developed different content for differing audiences?), it became apparent that even amongst similar legacy news publication there were significant differences in their approaches toward differing audiences. Unlike the aforementioned newspapers, both the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times developed separate editions for their Spanish-language content that are easily accessible from the home page of their websites. However, there remain key differences between the publications and the content that they produce. The Los Angeles Times has two different websites, one for English-language content and another for Spanish-language content (En Español). The main publication in English is subdivided into 16 different sections, including topics like: Climate and Environment, Entertainment and Arts, Lifestyle, Politics, and Science. While the Spanish-language publication only has eight sections, which include similar topics like: Politics, Sports, Entertainment, U.S. and International coverage. Two important distinctions can be seen between the two sites.
First, there is greater diversity in the types of science stories that are published in English than in Spanish, given the fact that they are given their own sections in English and not in Spanish. And secondly, content “En Español” is considered a subset of the English edition itself—listed as one of its 16 sections. This establishes an “English first” perspective. And this perspective is reinforced within congruent content itself, where Spanish-language articles are near verbatim translations of English-language articles. At the bottom of much of this congruent content in Spanish there are links directing audiences to the English-language version. However, the reverse is rarely, if ever, true. No articles analyzed within this corpus directed audiences to the Spanish-language versions. Interestingly, with regards to congruent content, articles related to scientific topics like the spread of COVID-19 are translated nearly verbatim into Spanish, often with a significant temporal lag time. When compared to algorithmic translations of these very same articles (i.e. Google Translate), the Spanish-language translations were nearly identical.
Similarly, The New York Times has separate websites for its English and alternative language editions. However, in addition to English in Spanish, The New York Times also offers a version of its publication in Chinese. In English, the digital publication is segmented into 19 different sections, ranging from Arts to International coverage. And in Chinese, the digital publication is similarly segmented into 14 different sections that cover many of these same topics, including Tech, Science and Health. In Spanish, however, the digital publication lacks clear segmentation, with articles clustered into geographic categories like Latin America or ephemeral topics like election and coronavirus coverage. This lack of segmentation, as well as the “Read in English” links to translations of articles that are prominently displayed across the Spanish-language website, emphasize an “English first” perspective—where content in English is given priority. There is, however, an exception to this perspective at The New York Times. “El Times”, The New York Times’ Spanish-language newsletter, is not translated into English or any other language, although it relies on content that is often translated between English and Spanish. The difference between this newsletter and the rest of the publication, however, lies in the fact that it is not translated into Spanish, but rather written specifically for Spanish-language audiences by reporters based out of Mexico City. Intended to give Latinx audiences a guide to the news across Latin America and the rest of the world, the newsletter is intended to share views from Spanish opinion section as well as highlight coverage from key sections of The New York Times, including: Culture, Economy, Health, Science, Sports, and Technology. Unlike what was seen at the Los Angeles Times, congruent content with translations in other languages often directed audiences to these alternative versions in Spanish or Chinese. And though these translations often were temporally different from the primary articles written in English, the lag time was not as prominent—often published the same day or the day after.
These findings are important for two reasons: sociocultural and temporal. In answering RQ3 (What impact, if any, does the linguistic dominance of English in science and health-related news coverage have on the content that minority audiences consume?), this study found that many news publications not only offered fewer sections of coverage in alternative languages like Spanish, but also that when stories were translated, they were often much later in the news cycle and often lacked the perspective of minority audiences. The fact that Spanish-language content like “El Times” is specifically constructed in Spanish by reporters from Latin America brings to light the sociocultural specificity of news for an audience constructed by members of that community who speak that same language. Rather than relying on secondary translations, the rhetoric is constructed with a particular audience and language in mind—such that news of complex topics like science or health can be more accurately covered. Additionally, when secondary translations are needed, the short temporal lag illustrates that while English may be the first consideration of the publication, other language-groups and audiences are actively being considered in the construction of the news.
Popular Science Magazines
Apart from newspapers, this corpus also included several prominent popular science magazines, including: Scientific American, National Geographic, and Popular Science. These publications represent the long history of the mass communication of science in the United States. This includes Scientific American, which is the oldest, continuously-published publication in the United States. As was seen amongst the aforementioned newspapers, significant diversity was also seen in how popular science magazines addressed the linguistic needs of diverse audiences—from producing content exclusively in English for American audiences all the way to developing multi-language platforms that not only speak to Latinx audiences, but other language groups as well.
Of the three magazines analyzed in this corpus, Popular Science proved to be the most perplexing publication—unique when compared to all others in this study. Unlike answers to RQ2 amongst the newspapers from this corpus, rather than adopting an “English first” perspective as was common with other publications, Popular Science was the only one to adopt an “only English” one. This is important, considering the rich history of the publication dating back to the late 19th century, and its particular orientation towards American audiences. By focusing on science in particular, Popular Science has been able to adapt a wide variety of complex topics into relatable articles constructed for a broad and non-professional audience. Parsing out the complexities of modern science, topics are subdivided into even more specific categories including: technology, health, animals, space, and environment. They help translate science into clickable, evergreen stories. However, while these stories are simple enough to be translational across various linguistic barriers, language has continued to be a limitation of their work in the United States. In part, this approach may be attributed to the print origins of the publication—limiting the feasibility of producing and publishing content in other languages. However, under publishers in other nations, the magazine and its content have been translated into languages like Italian and Arabic. Domestically, however, no other language editions are currently available.
On the other side of the spectrum, National Geographic magazine is a global product with variations in several different languages. Working with different publishers around the world, they produce “foreign-language” editions of their print and digital media products. These include a Spanish-language website, as well as Spanish-language editions of “National Geographic En Español” and “National Geographic Traveler”. The Spanish-language website is not accessible from National Geographic magazine’s home page, neither are direct translations of available articles. Direct comparison of the main pages of the website in English and in Spanish revealed significantly different discourse across the two publications (as seen in Figure 1). Not only do they differ significantly with regards to central topics, but they also differ with regards to salience and timeliness with the English site reflecting ongoing crises of: wildfires, the COVID-19/coronavirus pandemic, and wildlife conservation. Focusing more on places, destinations, and the occasional science-driven story, the site in Spanish reflects a focus more on evergreen articles and is clearly not maintained to the same degree or caliber as the English-language site. When analyzing the temporality of this content, interestingly temporal elements for the main website in English were not only prominently displayed in the articles themselves (e.g. “Date Published” right beneath the byline) but also incorporated into the URLs. In the Spanish-language versions, however, the date published was nowhere to be found—neither in the text nor in the URL. This further reiterated the evergreen nature of the articles in Spanish, as well as illustrated an “English first” perspective by prioritizing the content in English and establishing its temporal relevance relative to other stories. As illustrated in previous analyses of National Geographic news content like Parameswaran (2002), this approach towards globalization illustrates the hegemony of modern discursive regimes where Western-centric discourses and forms of knowledge are privileged in the news, and alternative/local perspectives (e.g. the vernacular) are erased in Western articulations of global news.
As the publication with the longest history of being continuously published in the United States, with print and digital content spanning more than 175 years, Scientific American is a particularly important case study to consider given its prominence in American science communication. From the main website, audiences are able to gain access to three completely separate editions in: English, Spanish, and Arabic. The Spanish-language version of the site was introduced in October 2014, however, was ultimately short-lived. While the website is still active and up, the Spanish-language website has not had an update since May 2018. This is an important consideration in addressing RQ3 and the differences amongst minority audiences, given that while the Spanish version of the publication is no longer actively being updated, the Arabic website remains current. Looking at examples of direct-comparison between the languages, we can see that each of the sites has distinct content geared towards its own language audience—with the Arabic site not only having content geared towards the Arab world (with prominent writers from places like Cairo) but also podcasts in the language, and the Spanish site providing content geared towards Latinx audiences with regards to culture and the health of these communities. Highlighting research from regions that share these languages, the publications are able to share the voices of scientists from within these communities and the importance that their work. However, for some of the most important stories regarding public health, policy, and great advancements in scientific technology, cross-over can be seen from the English site to the other languages. Prominently displayed at the top of this occasional congruent content are links to the translated versions in other languages. However, of all cases analyzed by this study, translations are made to solely one other language at a time not all languages—between English and Arabic, or English and Spanish. Additionally, there is often a significant temporal gap between the publishing of the English content first, then the translation in the secondary language.
The results of these analyses allowed for the multimodal discourse of each publication to be better understood, as well as for direct comparisons to be drawn between publications and media type. In answering RQ1 (How have these publications dealt with the variety of their audience’s linguistic needs?), it became clear that there is great diversity in how each publication deals with audiences’ linguistic needs ranging from creating solely English-language content to creating culturally-relevant content for specific audiences, in their own languages. In addition to Arabic and Chinese, Spanish-language content was actively produced by several publications (e.g. Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, National Geographic, The Washington Post). Noting the importance of engaging Latinx audiences and their unique cultural perspective, publications like The Washington Post prioritized developing media content like podcasts and opinion sections in Spanish. Others like National Geographic and Popular Science viewed “foreign-language” editions as a priority for publishers abroad. However, it may not solely be a question of priorities—it may also be a question of resources. Publications like National Geographic and Scientific American had developed content and the infrastructure for publishing Spanish-language content but had since ceased actively maintaining the site or abandoned it altogether.
Given this understanding of the publications and their approaches to dealing with the variety of audience’s linguistic needs, the answer to RQ2 (Have the publications maintained an “English first” approach, or developed different content for differing audiences?) was overwhelmingly that publications maintained an “English first”, if not an “only English”, approach. While some publications like The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times sought to develop content specifically for Latinx and other language audiences, the primary content of all publications was in English—although they varied greatly in the degree to which they developed content in other languages. An “English first” approach was established and maintained through three key differences in coverage: form, diversity, and temporality. With regards to temporality, English-language versions of content were prioritized to be published first, and translations to secondary languages often resulted in a temporal lag time of several days, if not weeks. Occasional stories, such as newswire content, were translated and published in the same day, but this was not often the case across all seven publications. In fact, the incorporation of temporal elements such as time stamps or “date published” were universally available for English-language news content, however, this was not always true of content in other languages—as illustrated by National Geographic En Español. Given the fact that not all news content was translated between the English and other language editions, where available, there was also a stark difference noted in the diversity of news content available in English versus other languages. Spanish-language versions of the digital publications often had fewer sections, if any, and even newspapers that developed content specifically for Latinx audiences (i.e. The New York Times and Los Angeles Times) failed to have Science or Health sections available in Spanish—even though The New York Times had both sections available in Chinese versions of the publication. Content in other languages also often differed in the forms of media that were developed. For publications like The Washington Post, where content was created specifically for Latinx audiences by Hispanic journalists, the publication prioritized aural forms of media (i.e. podcasts) as well as opinion editorials, rather than hard news. Where content of similar forms was made available across languages, this congruent content also often prioritized an “English first” perspective by directing audiences to English translations of the articles in other languages, but rarely the other way around— with the exceptions of Scientific American and The New York Times.
Focusing specifically on science and health coverage, RQ3 asked: What impact, if any, does the linguistic dominance of English in science and health-related news coverage have on the content that minority audiences consume? While broadly these publications only offered content in a few alternative languages (i.e. Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, and Spanish), five of the seven publications did offer news content in Spanish. Spanish and other alternative language versions of these publications had limited sections. Although popular science magazines maintained a focus on science topics across all languages, newspapers often excluded these key topics in their coverage. This limited not only the diversity in the types of stories that were translated to Latinx audiences, but also resulted in less comprehensive coverage of these important topics in secondary languages (as seen in Figure 1). Additionally, by prioritizing the English-language in the production of science and health coverage, the linguistic dominance of English also potentially limited the inclusion of diverse voices from within this community. While Latinx and Hispanic researchers represent an important group within the STEM community, the dominance of English in science and the news may prove to be an insurmountable linguistic barrier to many researchers. Two other points are particularly worth noting with regards to science and health-related coverage across these publications: 1) A significant temporal gap was often noted between the publishing of congruent content from English to alternative languages, impacting the news’ timeliness; and 2) Even with existing frameworks for communicating important public-health related news to Latinx audiences, in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic certain publications failed to provide these audiences with vital information and resources.
Given that this study serves as a broad survey of the language of online news, particularly with a focus on how science and health are reported to diverse audiences, there are several limitations that limit its ability to speak for the broader mainstream news media at large. Although it highlights some of the nation’s most important newspapers of record, this study only analyzes data from seven of the nation’s top newspapers and popular science magazines. For this reason, the findings do not necessarily speak to the great diversity of the American journalism community, however, do indicate prevailing trends amongst important intermedia agenda-setters. Additionally, as a multimodal discourse analysis of news content and the formats of news media, this study cannot directly address questions of audience perceptions or effects as a consequence of linguistic biases. Although it may present challenges for diverse audiences, noting problems like gaps in reporting, additional studies that focus on audiences would be needed to better understand the impacts that this content has on diverse communities. Finally, the timing of the study is one additional factor that needs to be considered in its limitations. Given the unique circumstances surrounding the time frame during which this data was collected (i.e. the COVID-19 pandemic), these publications may have been or are undergoing significant changes in how they report important topics like science and health to diverse audiences—this study, however, provides insight into the prevailing trends at the time.
Underscoring the importance of these limitations, it is vital to address that since data collection for this study ended, one important change has developed. While international editions and the Arabic-language website of Scientific American remain accessible through the publication’s main webpage, the Spanish-language version has been removed. The site is still live, however, given its inactivity since 2018 it appears that the publication is moving forward without Spanish-language content. While the publication serves as a great example of the cultural specificity that can be accomplished with linguistic plurality and addressing the diversity of audiences by communicating through their own languages, it also illustrates the challenges of an “English first” mentality. The lack of resources may very-well be the reason why the Spanish-language publication has since been abandoned. However, given the importance of science and health communication during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, it was surprising to note that Scientific American did not make greater efforts to communicate with Latinx audiences through an existing platform that they had already cultivated—particularly in a moment when reliable scientific information was most needed.
In evaluating the discourse of online news, particularly with regards to science and health topics, this study found that while English may not be the universal language of science or the news, it remains the primary language in which science is communicated to mass audiences in the United States. Aligning with theories of globalization and postcolonial critiques, this dominance of English across the linguistic landscape of both science and news media illustrates a Western-centric construction of social order and the obfuscation of knowledge in the vernacular. While science, health, and technology represent important categories of news content that are prominent across news media and were virtually ubiquitous across all publications analyzed in this study, translations of these publications often failed to consider the needs of diverse audiences—if even translated at all. By prioritizing the English language in the production of online news, news content in alternative languages was often limited and untimely when translated. And these translations also often lacked sociocultural context or additional resources for Spanish-language audiences—relying on near verbatim algorithmic translations of this content. While public health research suggests that sociocultural, linguistic, and knowledge barriers contribute to excess burden of illnesses within minority communities (Baezconde-Garbanati et al., 2013), existing media logics continue to reinforce these barriers by excluding diverse perspectives and other languages in the construction of the news.
While media logics exist for communicating science and health topics in English, alternative media logics are not widely observed by Anglo-American news publications when translating their content to other languages. From a theoretical perspective, these findings suggest that working within existing media logics may perpetuate Western-centric ideologies and colonial frameworks of knowledge (Hjarvard, 2018). Rather than developing new media logics or finding ways to adapt content in other languages to existing media logics with greater cultural specificity, many of these publications simply transpose digital media from one language to another. Although technological advancements in translation software have made the translation of the news viable at scale, given the importance of science and health news coverage for minority audiences, journalists may consider developing practices of interpreting this content for diverse audiences rather than simply translating it. This would require newsrooms to engage with diverse perspectives that they may not normally consider, develop relationships with more diverse sources of information, and seek out journalists with sociocultural ties to these minority communities.
Although the United States has no official language, this study reveals that English is often the primary, if not sole, language of digital news media in the United States. This “English first” ideology influences not only the form of news discourse, but also largely shapes the perspective journalists take. This study illustrated that while many publications do have congruent content that is translated between languages, the salient topics of these publications differ between language editions. In addition, the “English first” ideology seen across many publications had practical implications on the timeliness of news being communicated to different audiences. In spite of Latinx communities having a greater burden of illnesses and disproportionate susceptibility to infectious diseases, science and health-related news in Spanish often lagged days behind congruent content in English. And even more concerning was the abandonment of existing resources for communicating to Latinx audiences, particularly in a moment of global crisis.
This study brings to light a linguistic bias and media logics that remain prevalent across American news media, with regards to the English-language tradition of mainstream news media (Weaver et al., 2009). However, given the fact that it focuses primarily on news content itself, it is limited in its ability to describe how these media logics are inscribed into everyday work practices for journalists and the impact that audience diversity has on newsroom decision-making. Further ethnographic research is still needed to better understand the various forces that contribute to English dominance in American journalism. And given the potential impact that these practices and news content have on mass audiences, future studies should also consider conducting surveys to better understand the practical implications that limited science and health information have for Latinx and other minority communities. Media studies scholarship should further question existing media logics, consider the role that diversity plays in the content that newsrooms produce, and how this dominance of the English language across news media may affect social determinants of health for minority communities.
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Ryan Wallace is an interdisciplinary researcher and doctoral candidate in the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Journalism & Media who focuses on the intersections of science, culture, and mass communication. As a former journalist, his professional experience informs his research as he asks questions about journalistic roles, the social construction of identities, and how topics like science are portrayed in the media. With a background that includes the life sciences and media sociology, his current research centers around mediated science communications with a particular focus on key issues such as the Anthropocene, new media, and development in Latin America. Wallace analyzes discourse to better understand the polarization of these topics, how various stakeholders are engaging in these complex conversations, and the role that media play in shaping perceptions of scientific discourse.