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The Population Picture

Population Picture

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

Three basic questions govern the development of the foreign-language ethnic news media.

First, how many new people are entering the country? While some foreign-born people who have been in the country for years choose to continue reading, watching or listening to the news in their own language, new arrivals usually turn to the native-language ethnic press because they have no other choice. Some growth in immigration will drive continuing growth in the ethnic media.

Second, how quickly do new immigrants seek their news primarily in English?

And third, will English news supplant or merely augment the news they get in their native tongues?

The foreign-born population to some extent fluctuates depending on the policies of the U.S. Government. Crackdowns imposed since the terrorist attacks of 9/11 may limit future immigration, but Census data going back to the mid-1970s show a steady increase in the foreign-born population. And as the chart below shows, the larger impact may be on how immigrants enter to the country and what they do about their status once they’re in the country, rather than just whether they come. Between 1995 and 2000, the naturalized-citizen population was growing faster than the non-citizen population. But since 2000, the non-citizen population has grown faster.1

U.S. Foreign Born Population
Select Years
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Source: U.S. Census Bureau – Population by Sex Age and U.S. Citizenship. 2003, 2000 and 1995

The Census divides the foreign-born into those who have gained citizenship and those who have not. In assessing media consumption, it makes the most sense to combine them. When the number of naturalized and non-citizens is added together, the number of new U.S. residents has increased from roughly 25 million in 1995 to 33 million in 2003, an increase of 32%.2 Some 78% of the foreign-born in 2003 hailed from Latin America or Asia, where English is not the primary language.3 Those numbers would seem to bode well for the continued growth of ethnic media, particularly the foreign-language variety.

A broader look at the overall ethnic makeup of the U.S. – that is, not only the first generation, but the second, the third and so on – suggests that the power and significance of the U.S. ethnic population is even greater than those recent immigration figures show. The non-Hispanic white share of U.S. population is forecast to shrink as a percentage of overall population from 69% in 2000 to just over 50% in 2050. In the same period the Hispanic population is expected to grow from 12.5% to 23.8%, the Asian population from 3.8% to 8%, the black population from 12.7% to 14.6% and other from 2.5% to 5.3%.4 In real numbers, too, the forecast growth of the non-white ethnic population looks dramatic.

U.S. Population by Race and Ethnicity, Actual and Forecasted
2000 – 2050
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Source: U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Population Projections by Race and Hispanic Origin: 2000 to 2050

How much of this growing ethnic population primarily speaks a language other than English, and how much of it will choose to continue reading, watching and listening to news in a foreign language? There is no sure answer, but data suggest it may vary by ethnicity. Different ethnic groups seem to have different attitudes about where and how often they seek native-language outlets. Some choose to read in their native language. Others are more likely to seek out native-language radio and still others television outlets. We will discuss the patterns in more detail in the Audience section.

There are also more direct questions about how the media themselves will change as ethnic populations grow and adjust. Some differences in these outlets arise from specific ethnic traditions. Vietnamese newspapers, for example, have a tradition of publishing poetry, and that has carried over in the U.S. In many nations, newspapers are deliberately more partisan vehicles than they are objective news outlets.

As ethnic populations and their media grow and they become more a part of mainstream U.S. life, how much will their exposure to U.S. journalistic norms and culture shape the news they provide? This year, in the Content section, we take an introductory look at what some ethnic print outlets look like.


1. U.S. Bureau of Census, “Population Surveys, Population by Sex, Age, Citizenship Status,” March 1995, 2000, and 2003.

2. Ibid.

3. U.S. Department of Commerce news release, “Foreign-Born Population Surpasses 32 Million, Census Bureau Estimates,” March 10, 2003.

4. U.S. Bureau of Census, “U.S. Population Projections by Race and Hispanic Origin: 2000-2050.”