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Commentary: To stay relevant, media must diversify

  • Story Highlights
  • Ruben Navarrette Jr. says that as times change, the media are too far behind
  • To stay relevant, he says, news outlets must hire more journalists of color
  • Media officials just don't know where to look, writer says
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By Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Special to CNN
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CHICAGO, Illinois (CNN) -- Thanks to the history-making candidacy of Sen. Barack Obama, Americans find themselves at a defining moment in our politics.

Ruben Navarrette says the media must work harder to hire more journalists of color.

It's a transformative moment: A lot has changed, and if Obama is elected -- and I'm still not sure that he should be -- more changes will come. It's also a revelatory moment: With every controversy, legitimate or manufactured, we're learning as much about ourselves as we are the presumptive Democratic nominee.

Unfortunately, as is often the case, the media are a few steps behind. We've watched gray-haired pundits struggling to find a frame of reference by comparing this election to the one in 1960 or 1980 or 1988 or 1992.

We've seen white journalists who have never set foot in a black church speculate wildly that the sermons are all about racial separatism. And we've seen journalists whose knowledge of Hispanics obviously doesn't go beyond mariachis and margaritas suggest that the way for candidates to get the Hispanic vote is to promise open borders.

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

One way for both print and broadcast media outlets to avoid these kinds of mistakes, and stay relevant in changing times, is for them to do something that they always say they want to do and intend to do but somehow never get around to doing: diversifying their staff by hiring more journalists of color.

According to a 2008 audit by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, minorities account for just 13.5 percent of working journalists in the nation's print newsrooms. More than 400 newspapers reported having no minorities on staff.

Once on the defensive, media executives always claim that they can't find qualified people. That tells me they don't know where to look.

To help them out, this week, thousands of African-American, Latino, Asian-American and Native American journalists will be hiding in plain sight at the UNITY: Journalists of Color conference in Chicago.

The hour is late. It is not a good time to be ignorant of those who look different than you. The non-white population in this country is growing; whites are the statistical minority in a handful of states, including Texas and California.

One reason is the growth of the Hispanic community, the same thing that has created so much fear and racism throughout the land. According to the Census Bureau, by 2050, one in four Americans will be Hispanic, and whites will be in the minority nationwide.

It's a demographic trend you could miss if you only watched Sunday morning talk shows. It is an embarrassment that -- of all the pundits, analysts and commentators under contract at the five major television networks -- there are, to my knowledge, only two Latinos. Kudos to CNN for hiring GOP strategist Leslie Sanchez.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the editorial board of the San Diego Union-Tribune and a nationally syndicated columnist. Read his column here.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

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