Photo: The Knight Foundation
Photo: The Knight Foundation

Recent Knight Commission Report may shed new light on Brokaw comments on "Hispanic assimilation"

Shortly after veteran journalist Tom Brokaw sparked a controversy with his call for Latinos in the U.S. to better “assimilate,” the Knight Commission released…


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The 27-member organization named transparency, diversity, and philanthropy among the key elements needed in 21st century journalism -- three things veteran journalist Tom Brokaw didn’t necessarily uphold with his comments on Jan. 27, which stereotyped Latinos and asserted that Latinos haven’t worked hard enough to assimilate.

Trust, media, and democracy are three pillars of our country that should go hand-in-hand, says a recent report from the Knight Foundation, despite the fact that in recent years many believe that the connections between and among these elements in public life has, in fact, disintegrated.

During the founding days of this nation, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution first outlined the importance of the free press in the United States, and protected it by stating that Congress can make no law prohibiting it. The free press has always played a crucial role in maintaining the democracy of the land.

However, today, as the number of media platforms continues to increase and move towards a digital-first existence, the level of distrust towards the media has increased, as well. Trust in the media is reaching an all-time low, and when there is distrust in the media, there is also a distrust in democracy.

“For any democracy to survive and flourish, no single principle is more fundamental than the free and robust exchange of ideas – especially when we disagree,” Amy Gutmann, President of the University of Pennsylvania and one of the 27 commissioners, commented in an email to AL DÍA.

“Each and every American depends upon excellent journalism, honest reporting, and the complete and accurate representation of stories because we all are the beneficiaries of democratic self-government,” she continued.

In connection, U.S. media consumers also rely on journalists being honest, complete, accurate, objective, and unbiased. However, even the most respected and seasoned journalists may not always execute these practices.

During an appearance on Meet the Press late last month, NBC News senior correspondent Tom Brokaw said, “I... happen to believe that the Hispanics should work harder at assimilation. That’s one of the things I’ve been saying for a long time… they ought not to be just codified in their communities but make sure that all their kids are learning to speak English, and that they feel comfortable in the communities.”

Comments like these, from one of the most respected journalists in U.S. media nonetheless, only add to the level of distrust many people have today in the media.

The Knight Commission on Trust, Media, and Democracy recently published a 200-plus page report on very topic.

“Democracy and the news media are inextricably intertwined, and it is clear that both are in crisis,” the report states.

According to the report, in 1976, 72 percent of U.S. adults said they trusted the media to report news “fully, accurately and fairly.” Now, that percent has declined to 41 percent.

The Commission recommended 10 specific actions that journalists, media distributors, the government, and American citizens can take to restore the public’s trust in media and democracy.

The recommendations are:

• Practice radical transparency.

• Expand financial support for news.

• Use technology to combat disinformation.

• Diversify news organizations.

• Online services must take responsibility for protecting their users.

• Online services should track and disclose sources of information.

• Empower people to make technology work for them.

• Provide students of all ages with basic civic education and the skills to navigate online safely and responsibly.

• Reach across political divides.

• Encourage a commitment to a year of national service.

Each of these actions require a multi-step process that allow multiple sides to work on the forward progression of the media.

However, while these recommendations are great, they are just that -- recommendations, not bulletproof solutions.

The landscape of news media in the U.S. has evolved dramatically over the past 300-plus years. Through this evolution, we’ve seen newspapers decline in favor of television news; television news decline in favor of the internet; and the rise of the internet lead to digital-only news platforms. With every stage of this evolution there has been one common goal -- to improve the quality of journalism, as an entity.

However, social media has started to play a large role in journalism, as well. Where many people are turning to social media to get their latest news information, journalists are also more reliant on social media to provide news. But beyond that, this new age of media has also provided journalists a new platform to say things.

While Brokaw went on a nationally televised show when he made his comments about Hispanic assimilation, he took to Twitter to apologize for those comments, only after hearing the backlash that ensued shortly thereafter. Though some would argue simply that the rise of social media has played a role in the declining trust in American media, it also allows readers and audiences to actively voice their feedback to mainstream media narratives with pointed, direct, and public critiques.

The report states that social media “presents opportunities for political engagement on both the institutional and individual level. But it also makes possible the weaponization of information in ways that promote conflict and confusion.”

Restoring Trust in the Media

While the report states that the diminishing level of trust can likely to attributed to the overarching decline of trust in a range of social institutions, the commission found six factors that would be uniquely responsible for that decline.

They are:

• The proliferation of news sources

• Media disintermediation

• Confusion between news and opinion

• Spread of misinformation and disinformation

• Decline of local news

• Politicized criticism of media

The recommendations of transparency, innovation, and diversity and inclusion can help lead to a restoration process of trust in the media.

Gutmann iterated that it’s urgent that the media work to help people discern truthful news from fake news. She also said diversity among journalists and in the newsroom is another essential part of the media industry’s success.

“We call on the media for speaking across multiple perspectives and for including the widest range of talent. Inclusive talent will both improve reporting and increase trust in the media across America,” she added.

The Required Diversity in the Newsroom

That need for diversity in the newsroom itself has been glaringly apparent in many recent events, including Brokaw’s recent comments on the purported lack of assimilation of Latinos in the U.S. and his comment that white Americans don’t want “brown grandbabies.”

“I think his ill-informed comments were further evidence that the Latino experience in the United States remains foreign to even one of the most veteran journalists in America who has spent decades covering the American Society. Which is why we need better representation of Latinos in newsrooms across the country,” Mariela Morales, Programs Analyst at The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, said in an email.

Journalists and media consumers each have an important role in restoring the level of trust in the media. It starts with having diverse voices in the room that can make sure the operations of their media organizations provide fair, fact-based information to the public.

According to the Knight Commission, having diversity in the newsroom will ensure a diverse set of beliefs that more closely resemble the diversity of the U.S. population. Once that becomes an imperative, it can go a long way towards re-establishing a healthy level of trust in the media and our U.S. democracy.

Concerns in the Industry

To get a better sense of the reaction among media leaders and Latino leaders in the industry following the Brokaw comments, AL DÍA sought out the thoughts of several individuals, asking about how Brokaw’s comments can be viewed in light of the recent Knight Commission Report.

The comments below reflect concern among those in the industry about not just the comments from the veteran journalist himself, but also the implication that they are a symptom of the lack of diversity in media and the need for greater transparency and a more varied set of voices among media leaders.

Angharad Valdivia, Professor at the College of Media at University of Illinois

In terms of diversity in the newsroom, this is something that is clearly important. It requires a critical mass because having just one or two token people of color doesn’t necessarily make a difference, because the values of the newsroom themselves are racialized and gendered. So, it really requires a presence that is above a tokenistic presence, and we have not been able to make those changes stick in the past few decades.

I would, unfortunately, say that there may be more than one major newscaster who has those beliefs, they’re just more careful to articulate them than Tom Brokaw was. And I would also say that these are very, very troubling and concerning beliefs because the fact is the U.S., a) is a nation of immigrants; b) Latino/Latina people are very hardworking; and c) nobody else is asked to assimilate, other than Latinos.


Hugo Balta, President of National Association of Hispanic Journalists

The comments Brokaw made asserting that Latinos need to better assimilate was disappointing from a well-respected journalist. In the statement NAHJ released shortly after I drew attention to such an anti-American concept and inaccurate claims of assimilation, I reinforced Yamiche’s rebuttal within this conversation asserting that Hispanics are no less American for embracing their culture and ancestry, but instead are stronger citizens in a country that is increasingly multilingual and multi-ethnic. The Knight Commission report which addresses the circulation of misinformation and the public’s distrust in their news sources, recommends increasing diversity in newsrooms to combat the spread of disinformation. With the incredible amount of disinformation about immigrants and the Latino community circulating, it is especially imperative that Latino journalists are a voice in these conversations to counter prejudices and ignorance statements and are recognized as leading reliable sources for news coverage.


Sarah Glover, National Association of Black Journalists President

NABJ is a proud partner of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. We stand with them in their commitment to diversity, as we too have been committed to diversity at all levels since our founding in 1975. It is critical that journalists ensure to refrain from comments that can be interpreted as stereotypical of any people or person. We implore all journalists and news organizations to ensure they participate in training that promotes embracing diversity and sensitivity to how persons of all races are addressed and described.


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