How Chicago’s Spanish language media is covering Laquan McDonald and Anita Alvarez

AP file photo of Anita Alvarez.

A black teenager is gunned down by a white police officer. The shooting is caught on video and released more than a year later under court order. A city reels, as much at having to watch teenager Laquan McDonald shot 16 times as at evidence of a delayed response that now reaches up to the mayor’s office–and has given rise to allegations of a cover-up.

In the newsroom at Chicago’s top Spanish language TV station, a news director must decide: Which parts of this story matter most to her Hispanic viewers?

“The Hispanic community expects stories that are relevant to them, and this was an African American teenager who was killed,” said Teri Arvesu, news director at Univision Chicago. “But we can’t ignore it because it doesn’t feel relevant. This is not a story about the black community. This is about a story about the community, period.”

For news outlets in Chicago, there’s been no bigger story in the last month than the fallout from the Laquan McDonald shooting video. The city’s Spanish-language media outlets have been no exception.

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The video shows Van Dyke shooting the teenager without provocation, counter to what police officials claimed had happened that night. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has since fired his police chief, Garry McCarthy, and went before the City Council last week to offer an emotional apology. The top police commanders also have been shuffled under an interim police chief, a story that Univision jumped on with an exclusive interview.*

“I feel it’s been such a whirlwind wind of angles and stories,” Arvesu said. “We’ve done a little more strategically and thought that through, making the story about the wider public safety, about the treatment of the police with the community, not just the black community, the Latino community.”

One of the angles Univision has focused on, according to general manager Doug Levy: the role of Anita Alvarez, the Latina prosecutor of Cook County, who is under fire for waiting until the video was set to be released to bring charges against Van Dyke.

Alvarez, the first Latina to hold the top prosecutor’s job for the county, is known for her tough-on-crime persona. She is now facing increasing scrutiny in the midst of an difficult re-election campaign that will be dominated by a city where Latino voters represent 17 percent of the electorate. Protestors and Laquan McDonald’s family have demanded that she resign. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a county commissioner who forced Emanuel into an historic runoff in the mayoral election earlier this year, is among those calling for Alvarez to step down.

“It’s an important story in the local Latino community but also reflects the political dynamics within the Latino community,” said Teresa Puente, a journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago who teaches about ethnic media and runs a Latina Voices blog.

Her role—and the role of her office in handling other cases of possible police brutality—has been widely covered locally and is gaining traction in the national press, too. For Spanish-language media in Chicago, Alvarez has long been an important subject, both as a prominent Latina official and for her role in the criminal-justice system.

“Alvarez herself has been popping up on our radar multiple times,” said Alex V. Hernandez, managing editor of the bi-lingual weekly newspaper Extra. “It was like an ongoing narrative. We already had been covering it.”

Hernandez said the paper has looked at the role of the prosecutor’s office in larger stories it is doing on criminal justice reform, including a story on the bond court and the county jail population

Alba Mendiola, an Emmy-winning investigative reporter for Telemundo Chicago, a Spanish language station owned by NBCUniversal, said Alvarez’s office has blocked other requests for information about cases involving Latino defendants, including one in particular that she has been following closely involving Gabriel Solache, a Mexican national who was convicted of murder after signing a confession in English.

Mendiola said she finds it troubling that Alvarez’s office, which won the conviction, is supposed to be investigating whether Chicago police acted appropriately in the case.

“We are struggling with Anita Alvarez’s office,” she said. “It is very hard for us to get information. We FOIA a lot of the cases, and we are just getting little by little. It is important for us to have this angle. It doesn’t matter if it’s Latina or not.”

Jesús Del Toro, editorial director for the Spanish language newspaper La Raza, said his staff has faced some criticism from readers for tough reporting on Alvarez after the Laquan McDonald video was released. Some readers, he said, think La Raza should support the prosecutor because she belongs to the Hispanic community.

“From our newspaper’s point of view, regardless of ethnicity, gender, or other particulars of an official, she needs to be accountable for what she’s doing or didn’t do,” he said.

*This sentence has been corrected to more accurately describe Univision’s coverage.

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Jackie Spinner is CJR’s correspondent for Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin. She is an assistant journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago and a former staff writer for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.