Initiative Supports Latinos in News

Jun 12, 2006  •  Post A Comment

By Elizabeth Jensen

Special to TelevisionWeek

Three years ago the National Association of Hispanic Journalists launched its innovative five-year initiative, dubbed the Parity Project, to improve the quality of news coverage of the Latino community and help usher more Latinos into the journalism profession. It was the first such comprehensive project since the group’s founding in 1984 and has since won plaudits for helping make advances in newspaper newsrooms, with some papers doubling the number of Hispanic reporters on staff.

Television was part of the project, too, but until recently that was another story, with relatively few station participants. In the past year, however, that has started to change.

In November NAHJ signed its first television station group, owned by Cincinnati-based E.W. Scripps, which was already using the Parity Project at some of its newspapers. Of the company’s 21 daily newspapers, 11 are Parity Project participants, and many have substantially increased the number of Hispanic journalists they employ. Scripps’ NBC-affiliated station in West Palm Beach, Fla., WPTV, and its ABC-affiliated station in Phoenix, KNXV-TV, are the first of the company’s 10 stations to implement the project.

Parity Project participants work with NAHJ staff to hold cultural awareness sessions for the newsroom, as well as town hall meetings where newsroom employees can connect with Latino community members-the most important element of the program, said Joe Torres, NAHJ’s deputy director of communications and media policy. Convincing television stations to sign up, however, has been a challenge because of the lack of data necessary to convince news outlets they have a problem.

To identify the newspapers where the number of Latino reporters and editors is particularly low compared with the surrounding population, the Parity Project is able to turn to annual figures compiled by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. No such individual breakdowns are available for television stations.

“The biggest problem we have is getting television stations to share their diversity numbers,” said Veronica Villafa%F1;e, TV anchor and reporter at the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News and NAHJ’s outgoing president. “We have to assume if they don’t want to share them that their numbers are low,” she said, adding that the organization doesn’t know that to be true.

Overall, more than 25 newspapers, TV stations and National Public Radio now participate in the Parity Project, Mr. Torres said. Figures compiled through the end of 2005, when NAHJ had 19 partner companies, showed a net gain of 50 Latino journalists in participating newsrooms. That was a 57 percent increase from the 87 Latino journalists already in place when the companies joined. A total of 86 Latinos found jobs through the project, he said, but that number was offset by some departures.

“If you are really committed, you can change the makeup of the newsroom and coverage,” Mr. Torres said.

In addition to launching the Parity Project, NAHJ, with its 2,000-plus members, has been moving into the area of media policy in recent years. Most notably it has taken a public stand against continued media consolidation until the issue of minority ownership of news outlets is examined. A recent NAHJ request that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration revive what used to be regular reports examining the state of minority broadcast ownership in the U.S. was rejected.

NAHJ doesn’t have the funding or staff to expand its advocacy and policy work, but it is hoping to change that, said Ms. Villafa%F1;e, whose two-year tenure as president will end at NAHJ’s upcoming annual convention, set for June 14-17 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “There are certain issues that are really important to address,” she said.

Rafael Olmeda, the 36-year-old assistant city editor at the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, is expected to be elected president of NAHJ at the convention. In an interview, he said, “We need to show that an organization that makes a concerted effort to hire Hispanics and address issues in the newsroom that need addressing will find experienced people to fill the jobs that need to be filled.”

One goal he hopes to achieve during his tenure is the creation of a mentoring program to help Latino high school students who express an interest in journalism achieve high school graduation.

While many of the items on his agenda are print-related, Mr. Olmeda expressed disappointment at the recent changing of the ABC “World News Tonight” anchor chair, with Elizabeth Vargas stepping down as co-anchor. “We were disappointed when Charlie Gibson was named, not because we have a problem with Gibson but we wanted to see Elizabeth Vargas thrive and succeed in that job. I hope she knows that she made a lot of people proud,” he said. “We hope to see someday soon again a Hispanic anchor at the network news.”

During the convention NAHJ will release the results of its first-ever content analysis of a year’s worth of newsmagazines Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report, an initiative launched by Mr. Olmeda. For the past decade NAHJ has similarly analyzed network television news and CNN in its annual “Brown-Out” report. The next TV report will be issued in the fall.

The newsmagazine report, prepared pro bono by the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communication at Arizona State University, is a way for NAHJ to move into print analysis in a way that’s more manageable than taking on a year’s worth of newspapers, Mr. Olmeda said. He declined to discuss the results except to say, “I honestly expected better-that they would have done better than what I saw in the results.”

To kick off the convention, whose theme is “NAHJ in Fort Lauderdale: Fuente de Diversidad Hispana” (“Source of Hispanic Diversity”), Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba’s National Assembly and a possible heir-apparent to Fidel Castro, will be interviewed via satellite from CNN’s Havana bureau Wednesday evening, June 14, by New York Times contributor Mirta Ojito, a Cuban exile.

Not everyone at NAHJ was initially comfortable with the controversial choice. Ms. Villafa%F1;e said she questioned the selection and said the argument she heard back was, “If we don’t do it, who will?”

“One day Fidel will no longer be in charge, and this is a way to have our members try to ask serious questions of the government,” Mr. Torres said. NAHJ attendees will be able to submit their own questions during the session.

Other convention speakers include CNN anchor Lou Dobbs, an outspoken opponent of illegal immigration, who will appear on a panel discussing the implications of immigration reform with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Emilio Gonzalez, the director of Citizenship and Immigration Services for the United States. Another session examining the quality of news coverage of immigration reform will include radio DJ Rafael “El Pistolero” Pulido, who helped mobilize recent pro-immigration marches in Chicago.

P. Anthony Ridder, who just oversaw the sale and dissolution of his Knight Ridder newspaper empire, will join other executives and analysts for a discussion of the financial, social and technological changes roiling the news business. Other sessions will look at press freedoms in Latin America and a Latino perspective on the Iraq war.

This year, said Ms. Villafa%F1;e, the convention, which is being held at the Greater Fort Lauderdale/Broward County Convention Center, will include more Spanish-language sessions for journalists who work in Spanish. When NAHJ was founded in 1984, she said, the need was to help journalists get into mainstream media. “We still do that,” she said, “but the media landscape has changed in the past 10 years,” with more Spanish-language outlets.

“It’s very important to be able to provide [those journalists] with the same training opportunities as English-speaking journalists,” she said.