By Tim Dougherty
Credibility, it's often said, is the professional journalist's most valuable asset. Is it at risk when newsrooms don't reflect the diversity of the communities they serve?
That question is being asked with a new sense of urgency in the wake of recent studies indicating that minority journalists, including Hispanics, remain relatively uncommon at the nation's news publications and broadcast outlets.
According to a survey released in April by the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE), the number of minority journalists employed at daily newspapers increased a negligible 1.5 percent last year to 6,365, or 11.55 percent of the U.S. daily newsroom work force. Hispanics accounted for 3.5 percent or 1,905 of the total, virtually unchanged from the year before.
Likewise, in a study conducted last year by Fairfield Research Inc. and the human resources consulting firm Raymond Karsan Associates for Mediaweek magazine, Hispanics were found to account for just 1.2 percent of the editorial staffs at 165 of the nation's largest magazines.
These and similar findings sketch the broad contours of a national press corps that often must resort to one-dimensional depictions of Hispanics and other minorities for lack of a more diverse newsroom perspective, says Nancy Baca, president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and assistant features editor at the Albuquerque Journal.
"There are absolutely not enough Hispanics in the news business, and not only in the newsroom but in decision-making positions. It's a situation that tends to propagate stereotypes - for instance, that we're all immigrants, newly arrived, with no job, no money, and no education," echoes Patricia Guadalupe, the editor at Hispanic Link News Service and a contributing editor at Hispanic Business.
The larger issue may in fact be coverage of Hispanics at all. According to "Network Brownout," an annual report by the NAHJ and the National Council of La Raza on the portrayal of Hispanics in network television news, slightly less than 1 percent (118 stories) of the total number of stories on ABC, CBS, and NBC newscasts in 1998 focused on Hispanics and Hispanic-related issues. Surprisingly, this constituted a 5 percent increase from the year before.
"In my opinion, it's not good journalism. Journalists are supposed to hold up a mirror to society, and here we are, 11 percent of the population, and we're in just 1 percent of the stories," says Cecilia Alvear, a producer at NBC News and vice-president of the NAHJ broadcast wing.
"I'm not advocating positive coverage, but complete coverage where everything will come out - the good, the bad, and everything in between. We are Americans and our stories are worth telling."
According to "Good Morning America" news anchor Antonio Mora, the lack of network news coverage of Hispanics and Hispanic issues is the result of too few Hispanics working behind the camera.
"The situation in terms of Hispanics having on-camera presence has gotten infinitely better in the '90s. But once you go beyond the camera you have a real problem and it's a problem industrywide. Basically, it's an embarrassment," he says, adding that coverage is often freighted with negative bias as a result.
"The things that are important to and about Hispanics are not being told, and when they are they're often negatively portrayed when they're not meant to be."
Given these realities, Mr. Mora and others say it comes as no surprise that an increasing number of Hispanics are tuning in Univision and other newscasts that make it a point to accurately cover Hispanic issues. Los Angeles' KTTV has become the region's top-rated 10 p.m. newscast, for instance, thanks in large part to a greater programming focus on Hispanics and an influx of Hispanic staffers.
Local television newsrooms have been relatively welcoming to Hispanics and other minorities. Minorities make up 19 percent (Hispanics 7 percent) of local TV news staffs, down slightly from 20 percent last year and an all-time high of 21 percent two years ago, according to a survey by the Radio & Television News Directors Association. Hispanics account for 3 percent (minorities 11 percent) of radio news staffs, the survey indicates.
Ms. Alvear says market forces ultimately will determine the quality and quantity of media coverage directed toward Hispanics.
"Demographics eventually are going to shift the equation. I like to say that through enlightened self-interest, not altruism, there will be better coverage. It's a business decision," she says, citing the example of the Los Angles Times, which has boosted coverage of Southern California's growing Hispanic population and last year promoted journalist Frank del Olmo to the position of associate editor as part of the effort.
There are, in fact, subtle signs that positive change may already be afoot.
For all its downcast implications, the latest "Network Brownout" is not without encouraging aspects, stresses Ms. Alvear and other NAHL representatives. For example, Hispanics were portrayed in a greater variety of network news stories last year than in 1997, when more than two-thirds of the coverage fell into the categories of crime, immigration, and affirmative action. Last year the greatest number of stories (27) fell into the category of politics.
Also, more Hispanics were identified as experts in Hispanic-related stories last year, though they remain all but invisible as pundits on mainstream topics, according to "Network Brownout 1999." On a personal level, though much progress remains to be made, Ms. Alvear - like Mr. Mora - thinks network newsrooms are more diverse than they were even a decade ago.
During the week of May 17, more than 2,000 newspaper journalists in about 200 U.S. newsrooms reportedly participated in diversity discussions and related content audits as part of a "National Time-Out for Diversity," said to be the industry's first organized attempt to focus newsroom attention on getting more minority voices into news coverage.
Of course, the surest way to improve coverage remains increasing the number of Hispanics and other people of color employed as journalists. "If you bring in a more diverse work force, you'll have more diverse ideas," sums up the NAHJ's Ms. Baca.
But the challenge may not just be in attracting more Hispanics and other minorities to the newsroom. According to a survey commissioned by The Freedom Forum, a private foundation dedicated to media and First Amendment issues, 55 percent of minority journalists at U.S. daily newspapers expect to leave the business and 40 percent say they will make the career change within five years. Ironically, 61 percent of respondents in the same survey said they liked their current job "very much."
"A lot of us like what we do but we're frustrated by the low numbers," says Ms. Guadalupe of Hispanic Link, referring to the underrepresentation of minority journalists generally and Hispanic journalists specifically.
She and others point to the nation's burgeoning Spanish-language and otherwise Hispanic-oriented media sector as an increasingly viable option for Hispanic journalists who feel unwelcome in mainstream newsrooms. According to Western Publications Research of Carlsbad, California, there are more than 500 Spanish-language newspapers in the United States, compared to 450 just three years ago.
"That's where the future is for a lot of us, not at mainstream news organizations but at those targeting the Hispanic community," says Ms. Guadalupe.
"We have all these studies saying there are few Hispanics at the New York Times and the Washington Post, but maybe the solution is not being there. Maybe it's time that journalism schools should look at that."
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