Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Hazards in Covering Immigration Stories


San Diego — Immigration stories can be difficult to cover and remain balanced. It’s a “hot-button” issue and awkward for some Anglo reporters with little, real-life experiences with other cultures.

America is a nation founded by immigrants, and we have immigrant values embedded in our national psyche. They should also be in our news stories. Balance is so important.

“Immigrants always have been the canaries in the mine shaft — an early warning system about the health of the U.S. economy,” wrote columnist Linda Chavez, who is also an author.

“The greatest passion generated during the immigration debates over the past few years concerned illegal immigration (and especially along our Mexican border),” Chavez wrote.

“Children of Latino immigrants are doing well on most measures. They fare better on most health indicators (except obesity) than native-born Americans, despite being less likely to be covered by health insurance,” Chavez reports.

Immigrant children “who graduate from college actually earn slightly more than their native-born counterparts,” the Latina columnist explains.

“The overwhelming majority of Latinos born in the U.S. to immigrant parents are able to speak English well … In fact, Asian immigrants are slightly more linguistically isolated than Latinos.

“Contrary to the impression that Latinos remain poor no matter how long they’ve lived in the U.S., upward mobility is still the rule, not the exception. And some studies show that immigrants, including those who are undocumented, pay more to the government in taxes than they receive from the government in benefits.”

We in the news media need to tell these stories, and not just report on the inflamed, distorted and often false political rhetoric.

It is incorrect, as a matter of law, for a journalist to use the phrase “illegal immigrant” or “illegal alien” when referring to specific individuals. Under our federal Constitution, the doctrine of innocent-until-proven-guilty means that only a judge in court can say that a person is “illegal.”

We need to make sure that we interview community leaders in the immigrant cultures when working immigration stories, to maintain ethical balance.

In addition to being associate editor of Zenger’s Newsmagazine, Leo E. Laurence is a Member, SPJ Nat’l. Comm. on Diversity and Latino Journalists of California and the editor of San Diego News Service ( This article originally appeared on the international Web site of the Society of Professional Journalists []