Posted on October 18, 2004

Opening the Door to Better Immigration Stories

Mary Sanchez, Poynter Online, Oct. 12

The latest work by the reporting duo of Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele published with a challenge: Journalists must cover immigration better.

“I began (reporting) in 1956 and never have I seen a more badly covered subject, and there is no question it is a political correctness issue,” Barlett said. “I find that offensive as a reporter.”

Barlett, half of the twice Pulitzer winning partnership, formed the conclusion reporting on the September 20 Time magazine cover story, “American’s Border: Even After 9/11, It’s Outrageously Easy to Sneak In.

His 34-year reporting partner Steele concurs.

“This is not just a victimless crime as people like to portray illegal immigration,” Steele told me in a phone interview. “But to tell that story would run headlong into community groups in that arena and a general reluctance to take on a controversial story.”

Editors and reporters do need to stiffen their journalistic backbone to cover immigration well. And they also will need to shift from the traditional reliance on hard numbers, concise economic formulas, and think tank studies.

Few of these things exist when you’re talking about immigration. And the ones that do often conflict with one another, largely because immigration is such a polarized issue.

One side leans far toward seeing all immigrants, but especially Latinos illegally in the country, as harmless, humble, poor workers.

The other side argues the same immigrants can be blamed for every economic and social woe.

The truth is somewhere in the middle. But proving it is another thing.

Even Barlett and Steele took some criticism for their story.

Former U.S. Immigration and Naturalization head Doris Meissner questioned some of the statistics, especially the number of illegal immigrants and their cost to social services and the economy.

Meissner, now a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, wrote a letter to the editor of Time, which was co-signed by her INS successor, James Ziglar.

The leadership of the advocacy group The National Council of La Raza wanted to meet with Time editors to voice similar complaints and address the overall tone of the piece.

The opinion of the general public? They were thrilled.

Time magazine has received more than 600 e-mails and letters. Barlett and Steele are not including in their tally nearly 100 identical letters that were apparently part of a letter-writing campaign, although those letters also supported the story.

The responses from individual readers were largely in praise of the 12-page story that detailed the effects of illegal immigration on the people who live at the border, especially in Arizona, where government policy changes several years ago redirected the flow of illegal migrant border crossers.

To many readers living near the U.S./Mexico border, the work was recognition that a mainstream media organization took their problems seriously.

The disparate reactions back up Barlett and Steele’s contention that deeper, better reporting on immigration is needed.

The general public, and probably many reporters and editors, are woefully under-educated about immigration policy and the complexities of the problem.

In that context, groups like the D.C.-based La Raza aren’t crazy to worry that pieces like the Time published can fuel backlash against the immigrants themselves.

But that doesn’t mean papers shouldn’t be doing this sort of work.

They just need to do it thoroughly.

Time focused on showing the negative impact of illegal immigration and tracked its root causes: immigration policies that keep the door open by not cracking down on those who hire illegal immigrants, or finding a way to bring the needed workers here legally.

“We as journalists should be hammering away at this,” Barlett said. “And when we don’t, we let the politicians off the hook.”

In that way, the authors say journalism is complicit in the problems of immigration.

Barlett and Steele also wrote about a side of illegal immigration that counters the common assertion of the illegal immigrant as a hard-working person simply trying to better his or her life. They described immigrants who commit violent crimes and showed the border as a place where terrorists can find easy access into America.

Both images can be true. So both should be found in newspapers.

Barlett and Steele chose their focus by deciding such balance is not available.

They found many stories that show the immigrant as the victim: the dangers they face in crossing the desert, exploitive workplaces where they toil, and articles about anti-immigrant efforts.

Both Barlett and Steele said those were all legitimate stories.

But they argue the other side of the story should be told as well.

“Almost nobody has written a story like we have written,” Steele said. “What people write about are the hardships.”

Barlett contends that much of the hesitancy can be laid at the feet of editors unwilling to take on a controversial subject.

“Editors are pandering, absolutely pandering,” he said.

In many cases, Barlett is likely right.

Editors have to get comfortable with openly listening to critics without automatically flinching under the charge of “racism.” A good defense: Editors who trust their reporters to know the nuances and complexities of minority communities. The bedrock of journalism — accuracy — can stave off critics who huff and puff, alleging racism if there is no other legitimate complaint.

But too often, editors make decisions as if they believe one or a few angry minority voices represent all minority readers. That is not the case.

Minority readers deserve and expect thorough, accurate reporting about their communities even when the truth is difficult to hear.

“Editors are pandering, absolutely pandering,” said Donald L. Barlett. Another reason these stories are often untold is that the hardship story, once language barriers are bridged, is simply an easier story to tell.

As Barlett and Steele found, there are no hard numbers which everyone agrees can be used to measure the impact of illegal immigration. That alone means this story will have to be approached differently by editors and reporters.

Much of the criticism Barlett and Steele took dealt with the number of illegal immigrants in the country.

They said the number could be as high as 15 million. Other estimates have put the figure at eight to 10 million.

The fact is, no one knows. Barlett and Steele said they came at their estimates by taking into account many factors: The opinions of people living and working at the border, government and think tank observations, and the fact that the U.S.Census 2000 is already outdated and likely an undercount.

Another figure Meissner took issue with was the estimate for the number of new illegal immigrants entering the country annually. Barlett and Steele said the number is possibly three million. Other reports put it at about 500,000 people.

Again, each side can present their evidence, but neither can actually prove its contention.

So if an editor insists on hard statistics that all agree on, good luck getting anything about immigration into the paper.

Ditto for a newspaper that wants to wait until a government or university study is released. Those are often five years or more behind the action.

Barlett and Steele ran into that problem trying to assess the costs to provide medical care to illegal immigrants.

A Time researcher called hospitals around the country for cost figures, but couldn’t get any figures because the numbers aren’t tallied. So doing that story requires that it become anecdotal or it simply doesn’t get done.

All of this might make an editor skittish about printing a story.

Add in the possibility of agitating a minority group, Hispanics. Knowing a community well would be a good start.

Being fearful of that community will not.

But legitimate groups that study immigration will readily admit there are problems with the current system, and that immigrants can be the source of problems and the scapegoats.

Legitimate organizations do not want loaded words used. They want context offered to show how a problem was created and grew. And they want images that do not simply paint immigrants as the cause of all social evil.

Too often, instead of going this extra mile, newsrooms just take a pass.