A high-level editor once told me that of all the journalistic values he thought were critical to running a top-notch newsroom, racial diversity ranked, like, fifth on his list.

For him, the more traditional principles of "excellence," "truth," and "integrity" took precedence.

Frankly, I was shocked - not because of his honesty, but because of his ignorance. There can be no excellence, truth, or integrity in covering the news without a diverse newsroom.

That's what the Kerner Commission concluded in 1968 when, as the nation moved toward "two separate societies - one black and the other white," it warned that "the journalists' profession has been shockingly backward in seeking out, hiring, training, and promoting Negroes. ..."

Forty-three years later, the industry faces the same uphill battle in identifying, hiring, and retaining minority journalists. Certainly, there was no shortage of discussions on the topic among members of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), which wrapped up its annual conference this weekend in Philadelphia.

One obvious question came up over and over again:

At a time when news industries continue to downsize and, in fact, are struggling to survive, how can they possibly keep diversity a priority?

A look at the numbers says they haven't. According to the American Society of News Editors (ASNE), the percentage of minorities in newspaper newsrooms slipped for the third straight year, to 12.79 percent. Even more alarming was that 441 newspapers reported zero minorities on their full-time staffs.

On the broadcast side, NABJ and the NAACP have blasted CNN for having all white anchors and hosts on its evening prime-time programming. It's no secret that most minority anchors are relegated to weekends on national broadcasts.

"One CEO told me that not only is diversity on the back burner, it's not even in the kitchen," said Dori J. Maynard, president of the Robert C. Maynard Institute, which has trained thousands of minority journalists in its 33-year existence.

Editors may have stopped paying attention, yet anybody who has paid attention to the 2010 Census knows that the real question isn't whether diversity can survive in pared-down newsrooms, but rather whether pared-down newsrooms can survive without diversity.

After all, minorities now make up 36 percent of the U.S. population. If, according to ASNE, a "fair and attainable goal" is still hiring a percentage of journalists equivalent to the population, the industry has a long way to go.

"While the nation is getting browner, the industry is getting whiter," Maynard notes. "We need to know about other communities . . . and we need a newsroom that has the cultural confidence to understand those communities."

In a city like Philadelphia that is majority minority, white reporters often cover neighborhoods of color - as they should.

The problem is, reporters parachute into those neighborhoods mostly to cover crime, an imbalance that makes residents leery.

"Some people seem to be more encouraged when they see a black reporter," says Phillip Lucas, an African American who covers breaking news for the Philadelphia Daily News. "They may not respond to white reporters the same way. It's sad that it's that way, but that's the way it is."

It works the other way around, too, says Jan Ransom, who covers City Hall for the Daily News.

"When I was in a Russian neighborhood [in the Northeast], I couldn't get much," says Ransom, who's black. "They looked at me a certain way.

Lucas and Ransom, both 23 and graduates of Howard University, represent the newest generation of digitally trained journalists with multimedia skills. They could easily join the 19 percent of minority journalists among the 1,581 surveyed by ASNE who ply their craft online.

Whether shaping the news inside the newsroom or covering it outside, online, on television, or in print, diverse perspectives bring a richness and depth that can only enhance coverage.

Not to mention provide a safety net that can preempt boneheaded mistakes.

I can't ever imagine an editor of color giving the OK to run that offensive New York Post cartoon depicting the Obama administration (and, by extension, the president himself) as a crazed monkey that was killed by police over the stimulus package.

Even more egregious was the Post's lame apology - if you can call it that.

"Sometimes," the paper said in a statement, "a cartoon is just a cartoon."

Well, no. Journalists set the tone for how the nation reacts to news, how it responds to a president. You could easily connect the dots to understand how a chimp depiction could lead to a member of Congress comparing the president of the United States to a tar baby.

Diversity still matters. And while the media have a responsibility to cover the news with excellence, accuracy, and integrity, they also have an obligation to report with cultural authority if they want to stay relevant to the communities they cover - and to themselves.

Not only does it make good business sense, but also, in an increasingly polarized society, maybe, just maybe, it offers an opportunity, as Maynard says, "for the news media to help us understand each other."

Annette John-Hall is an Inquirer columnist. Contact her at ajohnhall@phillynews.com

or 215-854-4986.