Americans count on the media to tell us -- as Walter Cronkite used to say -- "the way it is." But how can media companies do that effectively when their staffs look more like the way it used to be?
The shortage of nonwhite journalists was a hot topic at the 29th annual conference of the U.S. Hispanic Leadership Institute, one of the most influential Latino organizations in the country. The Chicago-based USHLI has made its name in developing leaders, registering voters and expanding opportunities in 40 states. The organization's conferences draw more than 3,000 college students from around the country.
This year, I was invited to participate as part of a panel on entertainment and media. I submitted that one of the major reasons the media images of Latinos are still dogged by offensive and inaccurate stereotypes is that there aren't enough Latinos at keyboards, behind the cameras or in front of microphones. And, I said, even for those who do break through, it's often still no picnic. The pioneers are likely to be weighed down by the pressure to succeed and frustrated by what they perceive as a lack of respect for them, their ideas and their community. It's not that the individuals who run media companies are anti-Latino; they just tend to have a gigantic blind spot when it comes to Latinos -- or, for that matter, any ethnic group that doesn't fit in the traditional paradigm of black and white.
It's no wonder that the percentage of Latinos in journalism is falling. In 2000, Latinos accounted for about 4.5 percent of print journalists. In radio and television, the numbers were smaller.
Today, according to the American Society of News Editors, Latinos make up only about 3.5 percent of print journalists. When you look at management, the figure drops to about 1 percent. In broadcasting, Latinos also make up less than 1 percent of radio news directors and about 3 percent of television news directors.
Here's more bad news: What some critics call the media "brownout" is happening at a most inconvenient time. The big story outside the newsroom is the phenomenal growth of the Latino population in the United States over the last 10 years.
As the Census Bureau can tell you, this set of numbers is not going down. According to recently released figures from the 2010 census, Latinos accounted for 65 percent of the growth in the population of Texas since 2000 and widened their footprint in Oklahoma and Illinois. In Texas, Latinos now make up nearly 38 percent of the state's population. In Illinois, they've surpassed African-Americans and now make up 15.8 percent of the population.
It adds up to a national picture where Latinos are more than 15 percent of the U.S. population and on their way to an estimated 30 percent by 2050.
Yet, it is not unusual -- in fact, it's quite common -- to find newspapers in major U.S. cities that don't have a single Latino member on their editorial board and few to none on their opinion pages. You have to wonder how much analysis and commentary these papers are missing.
Meanwhile, the Huffington Post -- considered the latest success story in online journalism, given its recent acquisition by AOL for $315 million -- decided that the best way to cover the Latino community was not to integrate the main website but to develop a separate section for Latinos. Those plans have now been scuttled.
The Huffington deal prompted another introspective conversation on the state of the news business -- this one on the public radio program "Latino USA." I was on the show with June Cross, an assistant professor at the Columbia University School of Journalism.
Host Maria Hinojosa asked why some of the largest media companies -- The New York Times, ABC News, NPR, etc. -- have such an abysmal record of hiring and retaining minorities in general but Latinos in particular. Cross, an African-American, zeroed in on the problem.
"When news managers say they want more black journalists or Latino journalists, they don't really mean that," she said. "They want people who look like you and me but who think like them. They want to do the right thing, they just don't know how to cross that divide."
It's fine not to know how to do something. But, when you're in an industry this important, what is not fine is to not care enough to learn -- and do better.
Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2011, The Washington Post Writers Group