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Hispanics Seek 3-D Portrayal in the Media

Jun 9, 2007  •  Post A Comment

NAHJ President Rafael A. Olmeda, assistant city editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., talks about what to look for at the upcoming NAHJ conference with TelevisionWeek correspondent Debra Kaufman.
TelevisionWeek: As we go into NAHJ 2007, what are the urgent issues facing Hispanic journalists?
Rafael A. Olmeda: At NAHJ, we’ve been keeping a really close eye on how the immigration issue is discussed and debated. We have an interest in making sure that the issue is given fair treatment and coverage.
One thing that we’re constantly explaining to people is that as an association, we’re not going to say we advocate or don’t advocate this or that law, but what we will say is that there are human beings involved in this struggle, this debate. We have to remember that at all times.
My personal belief, and NAHJ’s position, is that it is increasingly inappropriate to refer to human beings as “aliens.” People disagree with us and we understand that. There is a debate to be had and we acknowledge there is no consensus. NAHJ’s position is that if they are going to be called “aliens,” the least we can do is give them the benefit of a noun. “Illegal” is an adjective, not a noun, so please stop being lazy at the very least. We have asked the news media to evaluate even that term, because it’s putting the illegality on the human being and not on the action. We don’t refer to jaywalkers as “illegal crossers of streets” or thieves as “illegal takers of things.” But we refer to illegal border crossers. It’s worse in broadcast, because everyone likes to talk about it in two seconds. So you don’t say, “people who cross the border illegally”; you say, “illegals.” You save time at the cost of the humanity of your subjects.
It is a serious enough issue without the hysteria caused by use of language. You want to describe exactly what the person has done that is “illegal” and be able to trust the American people enough that they’ll understand that a law has been broken or violated.
The other major issue is dramatic changes in the industry. The ASNE (American Society of Newspaper Editors) had their convention in March and the statement was made that really got my attention: “The digital revolution is over. Digital won.”
We have to realize that the days of the print journalist are coming to an end. All print journalists are multimedia journalists. I’d almost take it a step further and say all journalists are multimedia journalists. We can no longer categorize ourselves in terms of what kind of media we work for.
We need, as NAHJ, to do two things: to make sure our members are prepared for these challenges, that we have the training opportunities; and to make sure that, as the media delivery systems change, the core of our mission does not. No matter what method you use to receive the news, we are entitled to having our issues in the media presented fairly with integrity and fairness to all sides.
TVWeek: What events have been seminal over the last year for Hispanic journalists and readers/viewers?
Mr. Olmeda: A lot of it goes back to the immigration issue. Just a couple of weeks ago was the [May 1] clash between the LAPD and the protesters and journalists. There is a line of professionalism, where police tend to know who the media are: a guy carrying a camera and a woman in front with a microphone. You don’t take the camera and smash it to the ground.
In South Florida, I think there’s a close examination of what’s going on in Cuba, with the health of [Fidel] Castro, and what that will mean for the future relationship between Cuba and the U.S. That relationship is about to change, and nobody knows how.
Press freedom in Latin America is also a big issue; the recent events in Venezuela are getting quite a bit of attention.
Another thing that we were very concerned about, late last year and early this year, is continuing to keep track of the growth of Spanish-language TV in general and, in particular, in the southwest U.S. NBC switched to a regional format of providing news for the southwest U.S. for Telemundo stations. And our belief at NAHJ has been that it’s impossible to provide the local news of the local audience with regional broadcasts. You can probably do a fine job of regional broadcasts, but you can’t do the best job of serving the local markets. We’re going to continue discussing that issue with NBC and Telemundo.
TVWeek: What is going on in the newsroom: Are Hispanics gaining more representation or is it still a struggle?
Mr. Olmeda: It is still an enormous struggle, and the industry simply has to wake up. The numbers of Hispanics are growing rapidly. And in the newsrooms, the numbers are either growing anemically or not at all — or declining. And that’s both raw numbers and percentages. The industry will find itself in 20 years a white industry covering a very non-white country.
I’m not saying that you have to be Hispanic to cover the Hispanic community. My favorite Hispanics covering the Hispanic community here are Jewish and white. Their command of the language, their appreciation, their understanding of the history … they’re not Hispanic by blood, but they understand. And that understanding grows when you have people of various ethnic backgrounds in the newsroom.
For example, the day Celia Cruz died, I walked up to a white columnist, and told him why I was sad, that Celia Cruz died. He looked at me and said, “Who?” I was taken aback. How could anyone living in South Florida not know who Celia Cruz is? But because of that interaction, he was able to say, there is something going on in my community that I don’t know about, and I don’t like that because I’m a metro journalist. He wrote a wonderful article about how meaningful she is to the community and how there could be someone like him in South Florida who didn’t know who she was. It was a strong and poignant and touching story. He was able to communicate to others like him — because he’s not alone. That
wouldn’t have happened had we not had that conversation.
It illustrated how important it is for Hispanics to be on staff. You don’t have to be Hispanic to cover the Hispanic community, and just because you’re Hispanic doesn’t mean you should cover that community. We want to be part of American media; we want to say we’re part of the American story.
TVWeek: There’s been so much talk about Ken Burns’ documentary on World War II and how he left out Hispanics. How has the NAHJ responded to this?
Mr. Olmeda: That was a tough spot for me, because I don’t want to step on someone’s artistic vision. But at some point, someone has to say, “Look, you’ve come up with 14 1/2 hours on World War II and you haven’t mentioned Hispanics. You covered jazz, baseball, civil rights — and you didn’t cover the Hispanic community.”
I respect his artistic vision and his right to craft the documentary in the way he wanted to. At the same time, he really needed to hear us. Ken Burns should be flattered that we went after him. What he does is so important. We’re not just steamrolling over him; we’re saying, you are the preeminent American storyteller, you can’t leave us out. This man’s vision and work is so respected that we couldn’t let it go. This was not a mere confrontation. This was a community saying, we respect you — respect us.
TVWeek: I know you issue the Brown-Out Report. What is this and what do they tell us?
Mr. Olmeda: The Brown-Out Report is an analysis of coverage of Hispanics and by Hispanics on network news broadcasts. We have occasionally included CNN in that as well, but only the nightly news broadcasts. We have done 11 of them, and the next one will publish in 2008.
It shows the number of stories that are about Hispanics or Hispanic issues, the number of times they’re cited as sources. If you read a report, you get a sense that the majority of time they talk about Hispanics, it’s about immigration, and if it’s not about immigration, it’s about crime. Now and then you have an anomaly. In 1999-2000, when a little kid showed up in South Florida, there was a lot more coverage, but all about Elian Gonzales. What we’ve tried to do is show that we’re X percent of the population and yet 1 percent of the news stories and an even smaller percentage of the people reporting these stories.
We publish and publicize the Brown-Out Report and we send it to the networks. A few years ago, one of the broadcast networks challenged our methodology. And so we did what they asked, and the numbers got worse.
TVWeek: The Parity Project, NAHJ’s effort to increase minority representation, started in 2002. Are you evaluating its impact?
Mr. Olmeda: With the Parity Project, we go into a newsroom, with its cooperation, and we hold a town hall meeting between the news organization and the Hispanic community at large. It can be nice, polite and cordial, or it can be very heated. But it’s an honest presentation to the newsroom from the community, and it builds up the relationship between the newsroom and the community. The newsroom sets hiring goals, not quotas, and usually they get to those numbers more quickly. Usually they’re successful, but not always, and that’s OK, too. It’s a holistic approach: We may succeed in one thing and fail in another.
In every newsroom where it’s faithfully applied, the project has done wonders. It has increased the ability of these news operations to cover their communities. Last year, a Phoenix station did, by community review standards, the best job of covering the immigration rallies taking place because they were so keyed into the community that they knew when and where they’d happen. They blew away the competition, and that’s how it should work. We’re showing people that when you make the commitment, you can achieve the results. The Parity Project is that philosophy in action. It is our centerpiece program and we are enormously proud of it.
TVWeek: Are there indications that Hispanics are more equally represented or more visible in new media such as the Internet, podcasting and so on?
Mr. Olmeda: The short answer is yes. There is better representation in the younger set than as you go up the ladder, particularly in new media. The reason we know that is ASNE does a survey every year on the number of minorities in the newsroom. This year they included online for the first time in their survey, and the numbers went up. The numbers were worse overall, but better in online.
We have to step up as Latinos and say, we want to be journalists, we want to be part of the American storytelling process. We can’t simply demand parity and not provide people. I encourage Latinos to get into the field of journalism. Even if you didn’t study it in college, you bring a skill set from your previous career. Professionals from all fields can enter journalism and provide real-world perspectives. What we should be doing is making sure the newsrooms are intelligent, inquisitive, challenging and reflective of America.
25TH ANNIVERSARY NAHJ CONVENTION
Theme: NAHJ@25: Building Today, Shaping Tomorrow
Where: McEnery Convention Center, San Jose, Calif.
When: June 13-16
Details: nahj.org

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