Texas Tech University

Thomas Jay Harris Institute Crucial in Research, Education of Hispanic Media

George Watson

September 24, 2015

The Institute in the College of Media & Communication has played a key role in understanding and disseminating information related to media use by Latinos.

Thomas Jay Harris, former editor of the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal

Hearing the term “Hispanic-related media” might evoke images of television networks Telemundo or Univision, but not much else.

The general perception is Hispanic-releated media references only to news or entertainment outlets that speak Spanish. The reality is, however, Hispanic media goes far beyond that.

Recent research by the Texas State Demographer's Office showed Hispanics will become the state's largest racial/ethnic group by 2019 and will be the majority group by 2040.

Spreading knowledge of Hispanic/Latino communication from around the world through research, education and community outreach is the goal of the Thomas Jay Harris Institute for Hispanic and International Communication in Texas Tech University's College of Media & Communication.

Founded in 2006 and later named for the former editor of the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal whose financial support was instrumental in its growth, the Institute promotes research and education in the areas of international communication. That includes not only Spanish language media, but any media that focuses on Hispanic and Latino issues in any language.

“(Former Dean) Jerry Hudson was very instrumental in launching this initiative,” said Kent Wilkinson, regents professor in Hispanic and international communication. “We were fortunate to get the gift from Thomas Jay Harris' Estate. Harris was very devoted to Texas Tech and to helping students have international experiences because they were important in his own life.”

Hispanic media function

Wilkinson said Hispanic and Latino media are used differently than other forms of media. The main purpose, he said, is to stay connected to Hispanic and Latino heritage.

“It tends to be used by people in order to maintain their ethnic identity in a way to connect to other Hispanics and Latinos within the U.S. and also in their country of origin,” Wilkinson said. “It doesn't matter if they've been in the country a few months or a few years or have been here for generations. It's a way to keep that connection going.”

To do that, Wilkinson said Hispanic/Latino media tend to be more entertainment-oriented than on news and information. That is especially true nowadays, he added, thanks to a trend where the Hispanic/Latino community is growing more from births within the U.S. than through the perceived influx of immigration.

Kent Wilkinson, regents professor in Hispanic and international communication

“We have generations growing up very much socialized in the U.S. and going to English-speaking schools and being socialized more as Americans,” Wilkinson said, “but they are dealing with the cultural identity and connections to their country of origin. It is an interesting challenge for media companies.”

To help the media meet that challenge, the Harris Institute conducts tremendous research into how Hispanics and Latinos use media, whether it's in English, Spanish or bilingual.

Wilkinson touted the Institute's diversity among its faculty and students both within the college and in other colleges as well, and that has helped drive one research project where faculty examined content of international newspapers and how they covered the 2012 presidential elections. They examined coverage from the month before the election in newspapers in seven different languages from eight different countries, a project Wilkinson said was only feasible because of the Institute's diversity.

Another study currently underway involves what is called a uses and gratification study. The project examines how young adults in four different countries – United States (Texas specifically), Mexico, Colombia and Chile – use their smartphones to stay informed.

“It's very important in showing us how they use these devices, but particularly this young demographic that is of interest to industry and politicians,” Wilkinson said. “We're able to understand more clearly what the relationship is with a smartphone in different countries.”

And speaking of politics, Hispanics and Latinos have become a large focus in the early part of the 2016 presidential race, in particular with the attention paid to illegal immigration.

At a recent campaign news conference, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump had a confrontation with Univision anchor Jorge Ramos about Trump's disparaging remarks about Latinos crossing the border into the U.S. illegally.

Wilkinson said the confrontation raised several issues that he discussed with his special topics class: When does a journalist stop becoming an objective news person and becomes an advocate for ethnicity? Does he have the responsibility to become that advocate? What would Trump's relationship with Mexican leaders be given his comments?

“It's interesting to see the way that played out and what the role of journalists will be in trying to get clear answers on perspectives or points of view,” Wilkinson said. “I think immigration will be one of a number of issues as we go along.”

Cross-discipline focus

The Harris Institute promotes education of Hispanic/Latino media through a number of measures – coursework, research, funding lectures, conferences and other events related to Hispanic and Latino media, collaboration with other departments at Texas Tech and the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, recruitment and retention of students to study Hispanic and international media as well as faculty and student international exchanges.

One initiative that exemplifies that, Wilkinson said, is the organization of the Texas Tech Hispanic/Latino Researchers' symposium Oct. 7. The idea is to bring together faculty and students who conduct Hispanic and Latino-oriented research in all disciplines and all colleges to share their work and organize as a group. With Texas Tech's push toward becoming a Hispanic Serving Institution status, the university can attract more attractive for grants, making Texas Tech more competitive with other universities performing similar research.

Thomas Jay Harris Institute

Wilkinson also lauded the university's Quality Enhancement Program (QEP) to promote communication in a global society, saying it fits perfectly with the focus of both the College of Media & Communication and the Harris Institute.

“It's all sort of coming together and giving us more support and momentum,” Wilkinson said.

International Journal of Hispanic Media

In September of 2014, the Harris Institute's status grew in stature when it took over stewardship of the International Journal of Hispanic Media and Wilkinson was named its editor.

Formerly known as the Journal of Spanish Language Media, the Journal focuses on bilingual and English-language media that targets Hispanic audiences in the U.S. while maintaining an international focus. The Journal publishes a wide range of articles showcasing quality research that promotes Hispanic media.

“It gives us more visibility as a place where important work on Hispanic media is being conducted,” Wilkinson said of the Journal. “It is an international journal so some of it comes from other Latino countries, but much of it is from the U.S. We want to have that international focus but also recognize that we're not only talking about Spanish-language media as was the case 15 or 20 years ago where Latinos were defined by language.”

Wilkinson pointed out that in the 201 and 2014 July television sweeps periods, Univision beat all other media, including traditional media. Several factors, most notably the World Cup, played a role in that. But new English-language channels are being developed geared toward Hispanic audiences, and the Journal's goal is to keep the public informed from an academic perspective as these changes occur.

An advisory board helps the Journal in terms of making it interesting to people in the industry and distribute information not only within academic circles but outside the industry as well.

“We're finding that more and more people of different disciplines see the importance of media and persuasion in communication,” Wilkinson said. “We'll be attracting more and more participation and attention as we move forward.”

With an eye toward the future, the Journal will continue to be an integral part of the overall mission of the Harris Institute. As the Hispanic and Latino community continues to grow, its influence in the fabric of society will do the same.

“As this group gains more prominence, we need to have a clearer understanding of their political attitudes and behaviors as well as their media use,” Wilkinson said. “In fact, researchers affiliated with the Harris Institute are currently analyzing results from a statewide survey of Texas Hispanics' media use and political preferences, a topic that Wilkinson considers quite important going forward.”