Twenty years ago, the American press did a commendable job of covering the civil rights movement, but newspapers now are doing a "poor" job of explaining today's complex civil rights issues, a group of editors was told yesterday at the annual convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

"With race issues so much more complex, the public needs education," said Eleanor Holmes Norton, law professor at Georgetown University. "The print press has the capacity to look at the complexity of these issues . . . and carry the public a long way to erasing these issues by the end of the 20th century."

Norton, along with Julian Bond, a Georgia state senator and host of the public affairs television show "America's Black Forum," and journalist Wallace Terry, discussed "The Black Experience in America and How We Cover It." (James Baldwin, the essayist and novelist, was scheduled to participate on the panel but travel complications prevented him from attending.)

Asked how well the media has covered the Reagan administration's policy on civil rights, Norton said, "Poorly. To cover the Reagan reentrenchment is far more complex than the years that led to the civil rights laws."

The panel agreed that the nation's newspapers and broadcast media left a vacuum of representation and interpretation in covering minorities. "This story in my view remains untold," said Bond. "I get the general feeling this subject is not of great interest to the readership or writership."

Terry, author of "Bloods," an account of the Vietnam War from the perspective of black soldiers, said blacks had been underrepresented in the coverage of the 10th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. Terry recalled looking through a recent news magazine report on Vietnam and seeing "only one black soldier pictured and only one reaction by Bobby Seale, as if he represented all of black America."

One problem, Terry, a former Time correspondent, emphasized, is the dearth of minority professionals in the news business. According to the ASNE's annual survey of minority employment, released earlier this week, minorities represent 5.72 percent of journalism employes, down from 5.76 percent last year.

Terry also criticized the ASNE for a lack of minority representation on the convention's panel on cultural reporting. There exists, he contended, a "parochial, condescending and stereotypical view of blacks in the arts."