The Role of U.S. News Media in Conflating Latinx Identity and Criminal Drug Culture, 2010-2020

A research and advocacy project produced by the students of CMS 394/ANT 420 Media and Power at Washington College.

Research Questions

What is the relationship between Latinx identity and criminal drug culture advanced by U.S. news media coverage between 2010-2020? How is this relationship structured by the news media’s symbolic power?

How does U.S. news media’s representation of Latinx identity and criminal drug culture reflect broader socio-cultural narratives around Latinx countries, people, and criminality in the United States?

What specific changes should be made by U.S. news media producers to ensure their texts do not reproduce harmful stereotypes and biases against Latinx people?


Intersections of U.S. news media, Latinx identity, and the War on Drugs, 2010-2020


Acknowledging power. Clear and regular articulation of the power imbalances embedded in the U.S. news media industry.

Increased transparency and reform regarding law enforcement. The work of this campaign supports the decriminalization of drugs and reallocation of police funds to social and mental welfare programs and rehabilitation.

Individual-level change. Contact legislators and those in power to demand systemic changes. While we fight for changes on a larger scale, we can improve personally in small ways. When we educate ourselves based on biased narratives, we internalize that information. This makes it crucial to choose your news sources carefully. As you educate yourself, turn around and teach those around you, especially younger generations, to respect all people regardless of cultural differences. Hatred and ignorance are learned behaviors—stop them at the source.

A comprehensive and engaging overview of the project and findings.

Produced by Patrick Salerno, Maddie Jones, and Julia Sparco with media clips provided by Laura Cochrane, Amy Luther, Kim Leonard, and Kera Wageley


The findings of this campaign opened insightful windows into the social structures that allow this issue to persist in our country. Working from a critical race theory framework as a way to examine social problems borne from cultural assumptions and stereotypes, this project grounds itself in the knowledge that media systems, white supremacy, racism, and legal and corrective systems in the United States are inextricable from one another. Overall, we found that U.S. news media regularly equates Latinx people and countries with criminal drug culture, a connection that has been exacerbated by the racist rhetoric of President Trump and his administration. U.S. news media has played a critical role in this transition.

While many in the general public may view news coverage as fact-based, unbiased reportage, research has shown that news is “the end-product of a complex process which begins with a systematic sorting and selecting of events and topics according to a socially constructed set of categories” (Hall et al, 1978, 648). In this process, an event must first be deemed “newsworthy” by news insiders; it is then evaluated in relation to the society it exists in, giving the story social context for viewers (Hall, et al, 1978). This context is based on the assumed consensual nature of society which posits that all members of exist within, and understand, the same societal framework (Hall et al, 1978). Consensus, here, is necessarily hegemonic and supremacist. Framing a news story for an assumed mass audience under the guise of consensus is the social production of news, determined through the relationship between the media outlet, journalists, and social context. As a result, news media holds significant real and symbolic power, as it molds what “counts” as a newsworthy event and how said event should be understood (Hall et al, 1978).

The dissemination of information on multimedia platforms places even higher importance on understanding the impacts of the social production of news. The multitude of news access points across tradition and digital media enables constant exposure and circulation (Messina, Montagnuolo, Di Massa, & Borgotallo, 2013). Viewers are consistently under news media systems, and avoiding these systems leave viewers large gaps in sociocultural life (Messina, Montagnuolo, Di Massa, & Borgotallo, 2013). A key issues arises when the ubiquity of these systems (mis)represent minority groups—like the Latinx community—through generalization and stereotype. Between 2000 and 2020, the news media has conspicuously molded Latinx communities into a threatening symbol, based on the stereotypes of drug culture in Latinx countries. This has, in turn, been a critical factor in influencing social and political attitudes. By conflating drug culture and Latinx identity, news media fuels the spurious association between Latinx people and drugs, informing prejudice, perpetuating stereotypes, and sustaining the criminalization of minorities.

News media framing of the intersection of War on Drugs and Latinx “drug kingpins” is a prime example of this. Birthed under the Nixon administration, the War on Drugs focused increased attention and resources on stamping out the drug trade and use. However, this increased attention translated to the stereotyping and over policing of Black and Latinx communities, disproportionally elevating their incarnation rates. For Latinx communities, consistent news coverage of drug “kingpins” and crime rings in Latinx countries—like the long-chronicled chronicled escape and re-capture of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman in 2016—fuels the gross generalization of all Latinx people as a monolithic, identifiable, criminal enemy.

-Melissa Defrancesco, Ama Amponsah, Liv Montes, Yaw Reese, Jacklyn Russo, Caroline Taranto, and Tamia Williams

Hall, S., Critcher, C., Jefferson, T., Clarke, J., & Roberts, B. (2009). The social production of news. Media Studies: A reader (S. Thorham, C. Bassett, & P. Marris, Eds.) Edinburgh University Press. Messina, A., Montagnuolo, M., Di Massa, R., & Borgotallo, R. (2013). Hyper media news: A fully automated platform for large scale analysis, production and distribution of multimodal news content. Multimedia Tools & Applications , 63(2), 427–460.

Messina, A., Montagnuolo, M., Di Massa, R., & Borgotallo, R. (2013). Hyper media news: A fully automated platform for large scale analysis, production and distribution of multimodal news content. Multimedia Tools & Applications , 63(2), 427–460.