The demographic changes sweeping the country were vibrantly clear during the National Association for Hispanic Journalists’ recent convention in Fort Worth, Texas.
The changes came across in panels on topics such as “No Niño Left Behind: Covering Education” and “HIV/AIDS in Hispanic Communities.” They were given voice in Spanish and English that mingled in the panels and the hallways.
They could be seen in the reporters, editors and producers from Telemundo, Univision, The Washington Post, AARP: The Magazine and the Dallas Morning News who debated journalism issues by day and danced off their troubles at night.
But the network news in 2004 somehow managed to nearly ignore one of the most dramatic and important stories of our time – that is, the increasing importance of Hispanics in U.S. culture, business, health, education and politics.
Even though Latinos now make up about one in seven people across the United States, less than 1 percent of nightly news coverage focused on this group last year.
“By constantly excluding a certain segment of society from the news, networks are contributing to the chasms in understanding between members of society,” said Federico Subervi, who studies coverage trends and is a professor at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Texas State University in San Marcos.
More than a third of the coverage that Subervi observed emphasized a single topic – immigration.
Few reports looked at Latinos’ influence on business and culture, or their concerns about education or health. Half of the stories did not include an interview with any Latinos, and – probably because of their short length – more than a third of the stories included no quotes or interviews with any sources at all.
Business pressures on network news and the stubborn lack of diversity in newsrooms both contribute to the sorry picture.
Change requires both risk-taking and commitment, difficult tasks in today’s media environment, says Tom Jacobs, an industry veteran who recently interviewed dozens of journalists throughout the country for a documentary film on TV news.
“The demands from corporate owners for ratings and profits is so great now that even managers who want to do the right thing won’t take the chance,” Jacobs says.
And while news outlets may understand both the economic and ethical reasons for more inclusive coverage, they may not know how to go about it.
Fortunately, NAHJ and its sister organizations aren’t giving up. NAHJ hopes to change the picture through its Parity Project, which it launched two years ago. The effort involves news organizations, the Latino community and local journalism educators.
Since the project began, 62 Latinos have been hired at participating news organizations. The Rocky Mountain News doubled its Latino staff from 12 to 23 over two years, for instance, and the Tampa Tribune added three new hires over several months.
More than 1,000 people joined in town hall meetings, while 850 journalists learned cultural awareness in NAHJ sessions.
Journalists at the Fort Worth gathering studied the pressures on traditional media, including competition, belt-tightening and fragmented audiences. But they didn’t stop there.
They discussed how to strengthen press freedoms and improve their own management techniques.
They looked at models of excellent work that included the concerns and voices of Hispanics, who make up 14 percent of the U.S. population.
NAHJ members clearly believe that individual journalists can help shift the weight of coverage on their own. Their secret weapon has little to do with their shared Hispanic heritage. Rather, it is their commitment to the basic journalistic tenets of fairness and accuracy. We all can work to correct the troubling patterns Subervi found by insisting on good journalism practices, such as:
The work of organizations such as NAHJ will help build the bridges and communication networks necessary for lasting improvements to coverage.
But there’s no reason to sit by and wait.
Simply by doing our jobs ethically and well, each of us can adjust the picture of Latinos seen across the country, shifting to a more accurate and informative frame.
Sally Lehrman is a member of the SPJ board of directors and national diversity chairwoman.