Hispanic journalists, media enthusiasts, and guests had the opportunity Friday to voice their concerns with a lack of diversity in their industry, particularly the low number of on-air Hispanic correspondents employed at English-language national networks and cable stations.
As mainstream print and broadcast media adapt to years of layoffs, shrinking budget and audience, attendees at the 2014 National Association of Hispanic Journalists conference gathered at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center for a panel about diversity – or lack thereof – in mainstream media.
More than 800 NAHJ members, from household names to local reporters, and journalism students hoping to find a job after graduation, attended Friday's Newsmaker Luncheon. MSNBC President Phil Griffin and National Hispanic Media Coalition President Alex Nogales debated the best ways to diversify media. Univision anchor Enrique Acevedo moderated.
Before the conversation could begin, Griffin was greeted by the elephant in the room: a months-old segment that he felt needed to be accounted for once again.
Apologizing for a Cinco de Mayo segment on the “Way Too Early,” morning show, in which producer Louis Bergdorf stumbled around the show’s set wearing a sombrero, shaking maracas, and chugging from a bottle of fake tequila, Griffin called the incident an “embarrassment for the company," a sentiment he repeated throughout the panel.
“We are going to lead the way, and that’s what (MSNBC) stands for," Griffin asserted, despite recent evidence to the contrary. "What happened at Cinco de Mayo, that’s embarrassing for a channel that tries to be the most inclusive news network out there.”
Nogales said such incidents could be avoided simply bringing more Latinos into the newsroom. He said Hispanic journalists currently account for only a token four percent in the mainstream media, badly lagging the 17 percent Hispanic population nationwide.
“(NHMC doesn’t) have a quota in this; you don’t have to be the same as the population, proportionally speaking, but you have to have something along the line,” Nogales said. “It can’t be four percent, por favor.”
After years of newsroom layoffs and job eliminations, the number of journalists working in the industry is far below peak levels. Many newsrooms are less than half the size they were a decade ago. Nearly half the members surveyed for NAHJ’s “State of Hispanic Journalists” study believe older Hispanic journalists are at greater risk of newsroom downsizing, while 42 percent say they are worried about their own job security.
Annual reports by the American Society of News Editors don’t paint a much better picture: as newsrooms shrank, so did the number of minority journalists for several years in a row. According to ASNE's 2014 report, the proportion of minority journalists has recovered to 2007 levels at 13.34 percent.
The number of employed minority journalists has fallen from 7,400 then to 4,900 now, although the ASNE survey does not count minority journalists who work independently as bloggers, freelance journalists, or at media startups that do not belong to the organization.
This effect can be seen locally: the number of minority journalists working for the Express-News grew from 26.6 percent in 2000 to a 36.9 percent peak in 2008. That fell to 33 percent in 2011, and to 30.4 percent in 2013, the last time the daily responded to the survey. Still, that ranks the newspaper among the top performers nationwide for diversified newsrooms. (Full disclosure: Robert Rivard served as editor of the Express-News from 1997-2011.)
“We’re not asking that we be included; we’re demanding we be included,” Nogales said.
Griffin frequently referenced the hiring of MSNBC correspondent Jose Diaz-Balart, agreeing that the network is changing, albeit slowly.
“From a business point of view and a responsibility point of you, we have to change,” Griffin said.
He said Diaz-Balart’s bilingual skills have proven to be an asset during the continuing Central American refugee crisis, allowing him to interview refugees in Spanish and then delivering his reports in English.
“Too long it’s been reporters speaking to reporters or reporters talking to officials,” he said.
Nogales remarked that Diaz-Balart was still only one person, and MSNBC can hardly rest on its laurels with one or two high-profile Latino on-air reporters. Among the national news networks, Nogales said, MSNBC has the lowest number of Hispanic correspondents.
“Two: that’s it, that’s the allocation,” Nogales said. “You can’t have one more person in there?”
Guests also had the opportunity to take Griffin and MSNBC to task, as well as Spanish-language media for other diversity issues. After being asked about news networks’ portrayal of stereotypes and how MSNBC could avoid them, Griffin compared the challenge to Rachel Maddow joining MSNBC as a correspondent.
“When we hired Maddow, I didn’t ask her to dress differently or more normal,” Griffin said. “I never asked to change a thing about her; I wanted her real.”
Nogales countered that Maddow’s show lacks a diverse cast, with Hispanic guests appearing only rarely.
“You’d think that because she’s gay she’d be more sensitive to the needs and aspirations of people of color,” Nogales said.
There were some interesting viewpoints expressed by audience members when the floor was opened to their questions and comments.
Daisy Gonzalez of FX Design Group challenged Spanish-language media, saying they were at fault in lacking diversity themselves, particularly in hiring people of indigenous descent.
“We need to acknowledge the racism in ourselves and stop hating each other,” Gonzalez said.
Annette Raveneau noted there are very few Afro-Latino journalists working in either English-language or Spanish-language broadcast media anywhere in the hemisphere.
“We are as educated, as intelligent, and we bring that sazón you’re dying to have,” she said.
As the penultimate person posing a question from the audience, I questioned MSNBC's lack of coverage for the forced evictions in Rio de Janeiro during the 2014 World Cup.
“We’re behind. There’s no question we’ve been so far Eurocentric,” Griffin said, acknowledging that the network needs to improve coverage from Central and South America.
Nogales ended the panel with a call for Latinos to take the offensive.
“It’s going to take advocacy, and it’s going to take you, yourselves, as journalists,” he concluded.