Professor to study Spanish language television and emergency warnings

Thursday, February 15, 2007

When Dr. Abraham Benavides, assistant professor of public administration at the University of North Texas, saw a severe thunderstorm warning scroll across the Dallas-Fort Worth network affiliate that he was watching one evening last fall, he wondered if the local Spanish language affiliate was carrying the same warning.

But after flipping the channel, he saw nothing. Nor did he see warnings on three other Spanish-language stations

"People who were watching the Spanish channels could have had no idea that the thunderstorm was coming," Benavides said, adding that he also recalled Dr. David McEntire, UNT associate professor of public administration and former director of the department's emergency administration and planning program, mentioning a 1987 tornado in Texas.

On May 22, 1987, a F4 tornado - with winds of 207 to 260 miles per hour - touched down at 8:15 p.m. in the small town of Saragosa in Reeves County. More than 80 percent of the structures in the town were destroyed, and out of 183 residents, 30 were killed and 121 were injured.

Benavides said that when the tornado touched down, many residents in the predominantly Hispanic town were watching the local Univision affiliate, which did not carry the emergency weather announcements being broadcast on the English language affiliates.

"When I turned to the Spanish channels last fall, I thought that things had changed and the Spanish language stations did carry warnings," he said. "As the Hispanic community continues to grow in the U.S., it is important that the Spanish language media be properly prepared to transmit emergency warning information to all its customers."

Benavides recently received a $2,000 grant from UNT's Center for Spanish Language Media to survey Spanish language television stations in the U.S., particularly those in metropolitan areas with large Hispanic populations. He will determine if the stations have emergency response procedures and use the Emergency Alert System; if the stations provide emergency information via open captioning, crawls or scrolls at the bottom of the screen; and if personnel receive training in how to alert the public, among other areas. He said he will also examine Federal Communications Commission regulation of Spanish language media, pointing out that while English language stations are required to carry Emergency Alert System bulletins, the Spanish stations may not.

"Many programs on Univision don't originate from the U.S., so you cannot break in on the programs," Benavides said. "Technology does exist to transmit information via crawls at the bottom of the screen without interrupting the programming, so it's a matter of knowing why some Spanish stations don't use it. Another problem may be that someone must be available to transmit emergency weather bulletins into Spanish. It could be an expense that the station doesn't want to have."

Benavides plans to finish gathering data on the Spanish language stations and have a report prepared by the end of the year. He notes that other U.S. television stations that transmit in languages other than English should also be prepared and equipped to transmit weather warnings and other emergency information to their audiences.

"If I was a station manager, I would want to do this as part of the station's public service duties and responsibilities," he said.

UNT News Service Phone Number: (940) 565-2108