Opinion

opinion | Marcela García

Capturing America’s reality: We are multicultural

Maria Hinojosa’s series, ‘America by the Numbers,’ resonates with audiences. So why isn’t there room for it in traditional media?

Maria Hinojosa.

Futuro media group

Maria Hinojosa.

Most Americans would be surprised to learn that one of the most diverse square miles in the country belongs in the small community of Clarkston, Ga. Half of the residents of this city located about 10 miles northeast of Atlanta are foreign born. Once the site of Ku Klux Klan meetings, Clarkston has now been referred to as “the future of America on steroids.”

Demographers for a while now have foreshadowed the fact that the United States will be majority-minority by 2043, but it is already happening in pockets all over the country. More than 50 percent of births in the nation have been to people of color since 2011. More than half of American cities already have a majority of nonwhite populations. We already are a nation where the minority is rapidly becoming the majority — but it’s a reality that most of the mainstream media ignore or misinterpret.

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Why? Most traditional media outlets — with newsrooms that are typically not very diverse — approach the story of demographic change with an edge of caution and fear, an “us vs. them” attitude. Their coverage ignores the new reality: the “them” is us.

“Mainstream American media goes, ‘Wait, is this change good? Is this bad for us? What’s going to happen to whites?’ The subtext is that they feel threatened,” says Maria Hinojosa, the nation’s most prominent Latina journalist.

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In short, traditional media rarely speaks to the new and increasingly multicultural mainstream. Hinojosa, who has reported for CBS, PBS, and CNN, is trying to circumvent this dynamic — and, eventually, change it. She realized that behind every number, there is a story, and her eight-part series “America by the Numbers” (which completed its first season run on PBS at the end of November) is based on such data. Five years ago, she created Futuro Media Group, a nonprofit and independent media organization that also produces the acclaimed and long-running NPR radio show Latino USA.

Paul de Lumen

“Episode 7: Surviving Year One” speaks to families in Rochester, N.Y., where the infant mortality rate is very high.

In Clarkston, Hinojosa reported on the first Somali-American politician to be elected for the city council and the first Bhutanese-American ever to run for public office in the United States. She covered US veterans on the Pacific island of Guam — which sends men and women into the military at a rate three times higher than the rest of the country — who aren’t receiving the health care they need.

The series also challenges common misconceptions about certain ethnic groups, such as Asian-Americans and their “model minority” label, reporting on the very high dropout rates of Cambodians in Long Beach, Calif.

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Hinojosa’s content is resonating in part because it does not approach the demographic changes with an inherent sense of controversy, like much of the media do. “The sentiment in many mainstream media newsrooms . . . is that the conversation around demographic change, the Hispanicizing of America, the browning of America . . . was often met with a sense of fear,” says Hinojosa, who was born in Mexico City and grew up in Chicago. “And because I am an American journalist 100 percent but I’m also 100 percent part of that demographic change, I don’t approach this change from a place of fear and panic. I approach it as a journalist and trying to understand what this means.”

Hinojosa is shedding a light on the corners of a new multicultural reality in America, and it’s working. “America by the Numbers” doubled the number of African-American and Latino viewers that typically watch PBS programming, while also maintaining the established audience for PBS news and public affairs.

White audiences have also responded powerfully. “They tell us, thank you so much for helping us understand the world we live in, our changing neighborhoods, my son’s new wife. We get so much love for creating journalism that helps people understand as opposed to making them feel fear.”

In our current ever-changing media landscape, news organizations should take notice.

And yet Hinojosa found there is no room for her in traditional media. “When you’re working in a newsroom, you’re looking for the approval of your editors to confirm that what you’re seeing and thinking is actually valid. And I was getting tired of convincing them that this was a legitimate American experience,” she says.

In 2010, Hinojosa took an exploratory meeting with the team behind the most prestigious investigative TV news magazine in the country. “They told me, ‘We think you’re fabulous, we think you’re the right demographic, we think you’re the right kind of journalist for us. Can you just wait until one of our white old men dies or gets sick?’” Hinojosa politely laughed with them, but she certainly couldn’t wait.

So Hinojosa founded Futuro Media Group with an initial donation and has since raised $7.8 million. She hasn’t heard yet whether PBS will air a second season of “America by the Numbers,” but that has not deterred her from conceptualizing new episodes: The demographics are on her side.

Watch: A sneak peek of the series

Related:

Farah Stockman: ‘Dear White People’ or ‘Dear Bougie Black People’?

Editorial: Multicultural superheroes and dolls finally find a marketplace

2012 | Colette A.M. Phillips: America’s diversity lesson

2011 | Jeff Jacoby: Assimilation, American style

2011 | Joanna Weiss: A benign — and useful — ‘All-American Muslim’

Marcela García is a regular contributor to the Globe’s opinion pages. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa.

Correction: An earlier version of this column misdescribed Latino USA. It is an NPR radio show.

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