Q&A: Reimagining Immigration News

How Define American used North Carolina as a case study for national coverage.

As demonstrated by this month’s elections, immigration will continue to be a hot-button ballot issue as we near the 2024 Presidential Election. Unfortunately, national news coverage often lacks the nuance and accuracy that stories about immigration and immigrants deserve.

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To highlight the ways news media covers — or doesn’t cover — immigration across the United States, Define American researched North Carolina’s journalism landscape over the course of a year. And late last month, they released a report of their findings.

Newsletter Manager Holly Rosewood talked to Liz Robbins and Jose Antonio Vargas of Define American about why they chose North Carolina, how they created the report, and the ways journalists can use it to improve immigration coverage. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

For readers who are unfamiliar with it, could you start by telling me about the report? What did you study and why?

Liz: We wanted to choose one state that was not close to the border so it could replicate what local news operations are doing around immigration and show that immigration is not simply a border issue as we have been seeing throughout the media for so many years. Jose and I were talking about which states we should look at and we decided to go with North Carolina because, as I wrote in [the report], it really is a bellwether for the rest of the country. 

It’s among the states where you’ll see the fastest-growing immigrant population. It’s not the fastest — that would be North Dakota by percentage of Latinx immigrants — but what you’ll see in North Carolina is an increase of two times the number of immigrants moving to the state from 2000 to 2020. It’s also a swing state and it’s in the South, so there’s so much to talk about, starting with stereotypes of the South. 

But what I also loved about North Carolina is it has a really robust, nonprofit news system. McClatchy is owned by a hedge fund and owns the two largest papers in the state, so we wanted to study how they are including diversity, equity, and inclusion into their reporting. Unfortunately, McClatchy did not let us interview any of their reporters or editors.

Jose: I’ve grown up in newsrooms since I was like 17 years old, so being a journalist is really core to my identity. The first thing I did after coming out as undocumented was travel across the country and the first place I went was Alabama. I was in Alabama for a month and a half. Not just Birmingham, which is a large city, but Tuscaloosa, which is home to the University of Alabama. And it’s interesting, because when we talk about immigrants — documented or undocumented — we always think of it as a coastal issue, a city issue. 

But all you have to do is look at the numbers and see that, all throughout the South and all throughout the Midwest, the demographic changes brought on by immigrants and their families that we saw on the coasts are now happening all over the South and in the Midwest. The numbers are bearing that out, but whenever immigration comes up as an issue, it is always seen as a New York, California, Florida conversation or a national conversation. So for us to find a reporting approach that is based in the South where you’re seeing Latina/Latino immigrants but also Asian, that was, to me, one of the big findings. 

This report shows that Asian immigrants are the fastest-growing immigrant group and the fastest-growing racial group in the country. We’re mixing the approach of traditional research, landscape analysis, audience surveys, and on-the-ground reporting with the help of Victoria Bouloubasis, who’s in North Carolina. You have a very integrated, comprehensive, holistic approach as to how a specific state like North Carolina reports on its immigrant population.

Jose, you mentioned being surprised that Asian immigrants are the faster-growing immigrant group. What most surprised you from the research, Liz?

Liz: I would agree with Jose that the lack of coverage of the AAPI community surprised me. 

The other surprise is the story I led off with in The News Ecosystem [section of the report]. It showed how inadequate translation and language access is in this state. Lisa Sorg [a reporter for NC Policy Watch] realized that people didn’t have internet access so she asked for a budget [to translate and distribute digital news]. She got [the stories] translated and then she hand-delivered them with notes to people. It made me realize how inadequate this system is if we’re not actually centering communities by using translators. 

One more thing — there were so many surprising things — the most jaw-dropping stat is that there are nearly 300 media outlets and there were only six reporters reporting on immigration full-time in 2021. Now it’s three.

Jose: I have to say, that is just crazy to me. When I was at the Washington Post from ’04 to ’09 there used to be a thriving set of weekly local sections. And so many of the stories were actually about immigrants — immigrants in sports, businesses, and school systems. You saw immigrants integrated into the coverage, not as a Republican-Democrat issue. I’m glad that nonprofit journalism is thriving but, at the end of the day, for-profit newsrooms are still the dominant news organizations in the state of North Carolina. And if that is the case, they’re leaving a lot of money on the table by not addressing immigrant communities and othering immigrant communities. To me, it’s an economic issue that news organizations in a state like North Carolina ought to be addressing.

We hear this conversation (or excuse) that publications don’t have funding for an immigration beat reporter. But the report suggests that having a separate desk isn’t the way coverage should be done.

Instead, you offer a solution: Educate, integrate, collaborate. What does that look like in practice, and how can journalists start doing it?

Liz: When I was a sports writer, I was trying to integrate sports into other topics to make [the stories] even more interesting. That’s what I’m doing here. Integrate is number one and you do that with number three [collaborate]. What we want to do is educate newsrooms and news leaders to show how the rest of their staff — not just one designated person — can integrate immigration. And you do that by understanding the laws and also the historical tendencies, the demographics. Very specifically, our goal from this report was to go into local newsrooms or even just have discussions to say, “All right, so how do we do this? What do you mean by collaborating or integrating?” Sometimes, it’s acknowledging that legacy newsrooms and other newsrooms don’t have the resources. Instead, train everybody so that they can get the language right. 

Let me skip to collaborations now: This is where, I think, you’re seeing the best advantages in nonprofit newsrooms. We talked about collaborations at SPJ this weekend, and one of our panelists was a three-time LION Award winner for Enlace Latino, Paola Jaramillo. They collaborated with Southerly. They realized, “We’re a five-person newsroom. Let’s collaborate with another five-person newsroom to get the resources together.” 

I also show [in the report] WFAE [a public radio station in Charlotte] collaborating with the Spanish language news service La Noticia, an inter-newsroom collaboration. I think that legacy news operations are realizing this is possible, because Paola told us that she wants to be able to publish her stories in the News and Observer [a McClatchy-owned paper in Raleigh], which is great, but it needs to be consistent. It can’t just be a one-off and you need funding for it. Most importantly, you need buy-in from the editors on this.

Jose: That is what I want to hold on to here: Reporters can only do so much. At the end of the day, editors are the ones that have to assign and edit these stories. And that is why our approach is. “How can we be a resource? How can we be of help?” I think that’s something that we as an industry ought to really be addressing more. How can we be a resource and how can this research actually inform some of our choices? At the end of the day, U.S. organizations can’t cover everything, but I think the examples that Liz gave are really instructive. The intersection of so many of these communities is such a rich, fertile ground for news organizations to live in. How are the Latino communities and the Asian communities intersecting in a state like North Carolina?

What personal experiences do you bring to this work?

Liz: I was an intern at the Washington Post in the sports department, and spent 15 years covering sports, including as an NBA columnist at the New York Times. I think, no matter what you’re reporting, you’re always reporting about people. You’re not reporting about games as much as what’s going on in the players’ minds. I always apply that to whatever I do and it’s been my ethos since the very beginning. People, not policy. 

The story that I really fell in love with in our research was a sports story. This is in Morrisville, the cricket piece. I was talking to our research director Sarah E. Lowe, who directs the research for all of our operations, and I said there’s something about this story that seems to bring in other readers. It’s told very simply, but powerfully, and it was a business story and an immigration story. 

What this showed in our audience survey was so key. We had more than 1,000 people across the state surveyed and one of the things they were surveyed on werre their attitudes about immigrants. 46% of them believed the stereotypes that immigrants were a burden on resources and that some were criminals. After reading this story, nearly 100% of the people who read it said that the people in the story are good citizens. It just reinforces the idea that if you integrate, you make your stories relatable. 

Jose: I’m undocumented, I’m gay, I’m Filipino. I would hope that those things actually make me a better journalist because I come from a very specific place, not something that I have to hide and make less important.

Let me give you one little anecdote. I was at the San Francisco Chronicle as a junior reporter when Gavin Newsom started marrying same-sex couples at city hall. Our editor at the time Phil Bronstein made an announcement saying that if you’re a gay journalist, photographer, or reporter, you probably shouldn’t cover it because you would have a bias. I remember going to his office — and Phil was a finalist for the Pulitzer covering the Philippines and I’m Filipino, so I had a certain kind of comfortability with him — and I actually said to him, “Phil, you’re straight, right? Does that make you biased? How come my identity makes me biased and yours doesn’t?” 

That’s the kind of intellectual rigor and journalistic rigor that I think newsrooms have to be practicing. Not running away from something and using objectivity as some sort of flag but actually interrogating what we are talking about. When I started Define American 11 years ago and came out as undocumented, the hardest thing that I had to deal with, given that [being a journalist] has been part of the way I’ve seen myself since I was a teenager, was journalists themselves actually saying to me that I was no longer a journalist and that I had disgraced the industry that I’m a part of because I lied. 

By the way, they’re totally right. I lied to get jobs in this industry. But what I was trying to undo was ask, “Why did I lie?” Why do people have to do that? To me, that’s a question that, when it comes to undocumented people, our industry still isn’t asking. I would make a claim — I don’t know if Liz would agree with me here — that the changing demographics of America as it relates to immigrant families is probably the largest untold story of the past 20 years. I would argue that we have not connected these dots. 

We keep trying to make things siloed when, in reality, they’re actually all happening at once and they’re all intersecting. We think it makes us more fair or it makes us more objective, but the world is a messy place and I think, in some ways, it is our job as journalists to actually cover that messiness, not to make things black or white or to box things up. That’s not our job, in my opinion.

Liz: What’s so important in this report is that we uplifted community reporting. Legacy news usually reports about and they’re just starting to realize they’ve got to write for the community, like Enlace Latino or the Telemundo Charlotte station does.The pandemic really showed that journalism is “for” and “with” and “by” — not about. 

Jose: When I got started in journalism, I started with a local newspaper. And it was my job to cover the school board, if there was a fire cover the fire … you’re actually a part of a community. I think, in some ways, [national outlets are] missing that and I think local journalists remind us of that.

One of my favorite quotes about journalism is by playwright Arthur Miller who said, “A good newspaper is a country talking to itself.” I wonder if a lot of newsrooms actually know where their readers are or make assumptions about who they think they are.

This conversation was edited by Curtis Yee.

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