Covering Immigrants & Immigration: Tips from Experts

Following our workshop, “Covering Immigrants & Refugees,” the Dart Center caught up with speakers Cindy Carcamo, Michael Matza, Gary Pierre-Pierre, and Maria Sacchetti, who spoke about linguistic issues, identity protection, and how the immigration beat has changed, while sharing invaluable tips for working journalists.

Ariel Ritchin: How has immigration coverage changed since you've been on the beat?

Cindy Carcamo, Los Angeles Times: One of the main ways my beat has changed has to do with language. The Los Angeles Times announced new guidelines for covering immigration a few months back, and we try our best to provide as much context as possible when reporting on immigration.

Michael Matza, Philadelphia Inquirer: I think it is fair to say that immigration coverage has grown in importance as the immigrant-rights movement has adopted the framework and tactics of the historical civil rights movement for racial equality.

AR: What are the linguistic issues that come up in referring to your subjects, and how do you reconcile them?

CC: I stay away from using labels, words like “illegal” or "undocumented." Instead, I describe the situation.  For instance, I would say “John Smith, who is currently in the country illegally.” Or “Jane Smith came to the U.S. legally and overstayed her visa. She is now living in the country illegally.”

MM: The Inquirer, like many other media organizations, recently made changes to its Stylebook.  While we publish the phrase “illegal immigrant” as part of a direct quote, we use “undocumented immigrant” in writing our stories. Better still, we try to provide context. We say, for example, “a Peruvian woman who came to the U.S. as a tourist and overstayed her visa,” or “a Mexican man who hiked through the desert and snuck across the border into Arizona.” The more specific, the better.

No language rules are perfect, however. As a retired newswoman once casually pointed out to me, certain unauthorized immigrants are not “undocumented”— it’s just that the documents they have are fake.

Garry Pierre-Pierre, The Haitian Times: The issue is larger than a reporter's scope. What terms we use are often decided by editors, and even by publishers. A reporter should always try to describe a person's status as precisely as possible.

AR: Are there any evolving issues in the protection of identities of undocumented immigrants? How do you resolve them? 

CC: I think it’s important to let sources who are in the country illegally make the decision for themselves as to whether they want their name in print. I make sure to let these sources know that the story will be available for everyone to see. If they are ok with this and want their name out there, then I abide by their wishes. If they fear their name will grab the attention of authorities and don’t want their name available to the public, I understand that, and make adjustments—I’ll often just use their first name, or leave their name out entirely.

MM: More and more, immigrant activists, even those without legal status to be in the country, want to be identified by their real names and photographed for news stories. As journalists I think we have an obligation to warn them of the potential consequences of media coverage, including unwanted law enforcement attention and ramifications of worldwide distribution on the Internet. But if a subject knows all of that and opts to go forward I think we should respect and honor that choice.

Because the editorial process is collaborative, not every editor will agree. And sometimes, prior to publication, the subject may want to withdraw consent to be identified. By my reckoning that is okay: Subjects own their own life stories, even though their vacillating may complicate our lives.  So, when photographing someone in that situation, it is a good idea to also make a photograph in silhouette in case the need arises to obscure the person’s identity.

GPP: This is a constant issue and reporters should be sensitive to the dangers, real or imagined. Being undocumented is a precarious existence for many immigrants and they want to protect themselves when speaking to a reporter. Again, there are many ways to identify a source without revealing his or her name. In some cases, pseudonyms are a good option, so long as you make it clear to the audience that the identity has been changed in order to protect the source. 

AR: What are your top tips that you feel a reporter needs to know to cover immigration?

CC: I think it’s important to immerse yourself in the beat. Forge relationships with gatekeepers and people who are very involved in these particular immigrant communities. For instance, meet with leaders of hometown associations and touch base with them on a regular basis. Just casually chat with them—sometimes those conversations spark the best story ideas.  

MM: When preparing to interview someone from a country that you are not familiar with, it is a good idea to use sources like the CIA Factbook and the BBC’s Country Profiles to gather background about its government, geography, economy, dissidents, etc. This can also be useful in trying to vet the veracity of information about faraway events.   

When working with a translator, always ask for verbatim quotes in the first person. Some translators will listen for a few moments and then say, “He says he held a few jobs after coming from Sudan a few years ago,” when a better translation might be: “I came from Sudan in 1999 or 2000 and worked as a taxi driver, gardener and electrician.” Don’t accept summaries. Ask translators to speak word for word in the subject’s voice.

Another hint: Before too long after the start of an interview establish whether you can use the person’s name in the story, otherwise you may spend a long time acquiring information that you can’t put on the record. It is surprising how many times a subject will see you taking copious notes for 20 minutes and at the end say, “Oh, you’re not going to use my name, right?” 

GPP: I believe it's best for reporters to cover immigrants instead of immigration. The immigration policy debate should be deftly intertwined with voices to make the point. This is a topic that has become most polarizing and misunderstood, and the people's individual stories are what will connect readers with the larger issue, hopefully leading to a more nuanced debate.

Maria Sacchetti, Boston Globe: Approach people on the street and talk to them. Hang out in cafés and other places that they hang out in. Leave your business card and cell phone number behind, and let people know that they can reach you anytime, day or night. Spend more time in jails—you can set up an account to get collect calls from prison—and in immigration courts—immigration lawyers are great resources, and one day in immigration court will blow your mind. 

When you file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), make sure you really tailor your arguments. Make it clear that you want to examine the government’s actions in these cases. If there is a question of the government’s integrity, you should mention that as well. It can also be helpful to read examples of FOIAs online or in lawsuits to see how others have handled them. There are links to our lawsuit at the Globe, which should be helpful.

AR: Are there any particular pieces that you'd hold up as models, your own or someone else's?

CC: I’ve covered immigration at the Los Angeles Times since 2012, and before that at the Orange County Register. I would recommend checking out a long narrative I wrote for Slake: LA, where I chronicled the first 48 hours of a man after his deportation to Guatemala. 

As for model pieces, I suggest in-depth reads—particularly books that touch on immigration. 

At the moment, one of my favorite books that touches on immigration and the complex relationship between the U.S. and Mexico is Alfredo Corchado’s Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter's Journey Through a Country's Descent into Darkness (Penguin Press 2013). Corchado, Mexico bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News, is an intrepid reporter with a keen eye for detail, which shows in this read—a true story that starts off with a threat against his life. But it’s really a beautifully told story about his deep love for a conflicted country. It’s a must-read for those who want to understand how Mexico got to this point in its history. 

MS: I would suggest reading our series “Justice in the Shadows.”