Roberto Suro grew up in the United States listening to stories about his mother's family-owned newspaper, El Telegrafo, in Guayaquil, Ecuador. He would hear tales of his great-grandfather being jailed over a news story, then sneaking editorials out of jail. Mr. Suro decided to follow in the family trade, embarking on a 30-year career in journalism that featured tenures at The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Time Magazine. In 2000, his career path changed. He left journalism to launch, as its director, the Pew Hispanic Center, focusing his efforts on producing research about the growing U.S. Hispanic population. In 2006, he accepted an offer to return to journalism as a professor at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism to help mold future journalists.
What made you decide to continue the family tradition and enter journalism?
I was always around journalists, so it was definitely in the back of my mind. When I started college, I wanted to write fiction. Later, when I needed a way to make a living, I figured journalism was a good way to do it. And, somewhere along the way, I came to the conclusion that writing about truth was more interesting than anything I could make up.
How has the journalism industry changed since your career began in 1974?
The '70s and '80s were great times for the industry. I had the opportunity to cover stories all over the world. When I was the acting bureau chief in Rome for Time Magazine, I wasn't supposed to know what my budget was. Back then, I was told to never let the budget get in the way of making editorial decisions. Today, that's just unimaginable. Now, if there's a marginal story out there – but you're really interested in doing it – and it's going to take airfare to do it, it's not going to happen.
What are the highlights of your journalism career?
After five years as a reporter in Chicago, I was hired by Time Magazine. Their idea was to move the younger correspondents around quickly. I was a Washington correspondent in D.C., a Middle East correspondent in Beirut, and a European correspondent in Rome all over the course of seven or eight years. It was a great training ground, working with terrific reporters in a rich institution.
The U.S. Census Bureau has reported that 75 percent of the U.S. Hispanic population speaks English or is bilingual, and that only 25 percent is Spanish-language reliant. Why is there a general perception that the Hispanic population is a Spanish-speaking one?
That happens for several reasons. One is that those numbers relate to the entire population. It's much different if you look at the Hispanic parent population. The kids are overwhelmingly English speaking or bilingual, especially if they are born here. But while they represent a large part of that population, adults are more Spanish speaking and they're more visible than the kids. You see and hear more from the adults than the children, so, as a result, that's what society reacts to.
Another reason is because the Spanish-speaking media has become quite prominent. You see it when you're channel surfing. People, since the development of television, have seen nothing but English-speaking channels for the past 50 years, except for some key markets. Now, in Indianapolis, Charlotte, and Atlanta you can be clicking through the channels and seeing three or more Spanish-speaking channels . . . that's entirely new to people, and they're reacting to it, but it's a misperception of the population.
Why did you leave The Washington Post to co-found the Pew Hispanic Center?
I still don't entirely understand how I gave up a senior Pentagon correspondent job with The Washington Post to invent something about the Hispanic population that didn't exist anywhere else. I'm not sure what delusion I was in, but, after once thinking I could stay at The Washington Post forever, I found my myself thinking only about this [Pew Hispanic Center project] that only existed on paper. It had no staff and no plan . . . just a substantial pile of money to be spent over three years. But the Pew folks saw something I didn't. They knew that an appetite for information on this Hispanic population was about to explode. I bought into it and left The Post, and they turned out to be right.
What sparked your interest in heading a national research project on the U.S. Hispanic population?
I had written about [the subject] at the start of my career as a cub reporter in Chicago. After reporting internationally for eight or nine years, I came back to Houston to work for The New York Times and it just struck me how the country had changed. The numbers had grown. There was a dramatic flow – not just a trickle – of people coming into this country and I wanted to write about it. I went on to write about it for both The New York Times and The Washington Post, and I wrote a couple books on it. I was totally immersed in the subject.
Who was the original target audience for this brand of research?
Pew determined there was a vacuum for this information that existed between two places: academics doing important abstract work that would reach the public slowly, and advocates who were also doing important work, but they would advance their information to the public quickly to meet a specific agenda. There was a need for timely, relevant research that could be presented to decision-makers, journalists or the public. And we'd say, "Here are the facts. You decide."
What are you most proud of regarding your work at the Pew Hispanic Center?
We feel that we modestly elevated the level of discussion on the immigration issue. The object of the project wasn't to develop a consensus or push the public debate one way or the other. Our goal simply was to produce more sophisticated media coverage and a more informed public policy debate. And I think you saw that in the immigration debate this time compared to debates that happened in the 1980s. My happiest moment of the debates this year was seeing people from opposite sides of the issue cite our material to strengthen their opposing arguments. They were not arguing over the facts. They were arguing over the policy.
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