During hearings in Los Angeles on the events surrounding last year's rioting, part of the attention focused on the media.
"Several people asked me why we were interested in the media," said Cruz Reynoso, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which held the hearings.
"The media have everything to do with civil rights," he added, explaining that the media "set the national agenda for issues to be debated" and they define "who we are."
Speaking at a meeting devoted to "The News, Latinos and Civil Rights" during the National Association of Hispanic Journalists annual conference in Washington, Reynoso told of various portrayals of Latinos in and by the news media, as recounted by various witnesses.
What this means for the Civil Rights Commission, he said, is that it is vitally important for civil rights advocates and the media to work together.
While the Latino community in Los Angeles depends on the Spanish-language media, the mainstream media are still a source of great power, he said.
There is a need not just for Latino reporters but also writers and producers and others behind the scenes who make the decisions about what gets covered, he added.
Growing up, Reynoso said, there always were Spanish-language media in his home, but outside the home, in the mainstream press, "it was if we were invisible."
The Spanish-language media, he added, is not enough to reach the consciousness of the community as a whole.
"In this country, we are in a great experiment," Reynoso stated, "to see how people who are different in race, language, ethnicity and other factors can live together.
Although it will be difficult, Reynoso thinks it is an experiment that can be won, with the help of the media.
"You are a vital part in making sure all of us recognize all Americans ... [in] binding America together," Reynoso told the NAHJ attendees.
New York Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez said he has had many battles with editors during his 16 years as a journalist over his activism in the Puerto Rican community.
Even in the early years of the Puerto Rican civil rights movement in New York, which was "barely covered," Gonzalez said, its leaders understood the "tremendous power and influence of the mass media to determine what people will think about.
"That power has been held closely," he added, noting that "the battle to open it up is one we must wage.
"Throughout your careers, there are editors and publishers and owners who will tell you differently, [that youl must be |objective, above the fray,' " Gonzalez said. "I am challenging that assumption."
Gonzalez urged Latino journalists to continually "be concerned with what happens in our community" and to "insist that coverage be more equitable and balanced."
As one whose organization was the focus of media attention, Dolores Huerta, vice president of the United Farm Workers, said, "Mass-based organizations do not get the kind of coverage they should," especially when they are composed of minorities.
Huerta told the NAHJ that the only time the UFW could get coverage was when there was a strike, and even then, a peaceful action was portrayed as violent.
The media, she explained, "never really reported the type of organization going on or the benefits we were trying to achieve."
Further, portrayals of the workers often pictured them as illegal aliens and never told the "true story of the farm workers who go out and toil in the fields to feed the nation and they can't feed their own family."
Huerta told of stories that vilified the workers but never came down on the growers for refusing to negotiate or providing unreasonable working conditions. …