How the Media Covers Immigration Issues

Left to right: Rong Xiaoqing, Erica Pearson, Jehangir Khattak (Photo by Jiwon Choi for Voices of NY)

Left to right: Rong Xiaoqing, Erica Pearson, Jehangir Khattak (Photo by Jiwon Choi/Voices of NY)

When it comes to covering the sensitive subject of immigration, both mainstream media and ethnic publications face some challenges.

At a panel discussion sponsored jointly by the New York Immigration Coalition and the Center for Community and Ethnic Media at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism on February 13, a panel of three journalists who report daily on immigrant issues shared their observations, trials and tribulations covering immigrant stories.

The panel included Rong Xiaoqing, a reporter at Chinese newspaper Sing Tao Daily, Erica Pearson, a reporter at the New York Daily News, and Jehangir Khattak, Senior Editor at Voices of NY and Communications Director of the Center for Community and Ethnic Media. Panel moderator Thanu Yakupitiyage, communications coordinator for the NYIC, also weighed in on her role as a liaison between an umbrella advocacy group and the press.

The three panelists detailed how they find stories about immigration and immigrant communities, how they make stories on ongoing immigration policy battles stand out, what they look for in a story pitch and even their routines and processes in wading through pitches from different immigrant advocacy groups and individuals. As different as their publications are, the panelists’ opinions overlapped on some issues.

At the heart of every good story on immigration, the panelists agreed, is a story of a real person whose life has been affected by immigration policy. This is one area where advocacy organizations can serve as a key link between the media and immigrants with stories to tell. Pearson said that when advocacy organizations pitch stories to her, she always wants to know if they can put her in touch with someone who has a relevant personal story.

“We’re always looking for real people,” Pearson said. “I could spend an entire week looking around for people, but advocates usually know people with stories.”

Working for an ethnic media outlet, Xiaoqing said, she has to be even more specific. When reporting on immigration policy, she needs to seek out illustrative personal examples from Chinese immigrants in particular.

“In the ethnic media, we have a very strong focus on our own community,” said Xiaoqing. “So if you pitch me a story on immigration and you have a person who’s Spanish, it doesn’t work. You have to find someone who’s Chinese for my paper to take the story.”

But Khattak, as an editor who sifts through stories from every immigrant community in New York, said that one thing he’d like to see the ethnic press do more is take a cross-cultural approach to reporting immigrant issues.

“What I don’t see enough of is reporting on cross-cultural lines,” Khattak said. “If one community or ethnic media is reporting on another one, that can promote cross-cultural dialogue. So, for example, a Spanish publication should not only have to report on Spanish speakers all the time.”

The panelists also offered advice for individual immigrants looking to share personal stories with the press. Above all, they said, be open and natural. “Think about what you’re comfortable sharing, and what you’re not. Talk to your family,” said Pearson. “And then relax and talk naturally. It’s much better not to read something that other people have helped you work on. It doesn’t translate in the story in a way that’s as impactful.”

Xiaoqing said that she had her own frustration reporting on the DREAM Act, legislation proposed to grant conditional permanent residency to certain young immigrants who had graduated from U.S. high schools. Xiaoqing said that she contacted multiple “DREAMers” thorough one advocacy organization, and each one she talked to provided the same, prepared line: “It’s not my fault I’m here, it’s my parents’ fault.”

“I prefer when people talk to me using their own words,” Xiaoqing said. “Otherwise I feel I’m talking to trained people saying lines that other people told them.”

Thanu Yakupitiyage of the NYIC (Photo by Jiwon Choi/Voices of NY)

Thanu Yakupitiyage of the NYIC (Photo by Jiwon Choi/Voices of NY)

And immigrants who’d like their stories to be told in the press shouldn’t be afraid to use color and detail, she said.

“If you come to me with your story, be prepared for me to ask detailed questions to make your story as unique as possible,” Xiaoqing said. “If you say you came to this country two years ago, I’ll probably ask if it was a summer day, what you first saw when you got here.”

The panelists wrapped up by talking about how immigrant advocacy groups might land more positive immigration-related stories in the press. The answer? Pitch positive stories.

“Sometimes it can be harder to find positive stories than struggle stories,” said Pearson. “But sometimes a great, positive story comes through and I report on it.”

“This is something that advocates can do better at,” said Yakupityage, of NYIC. “A lot of times there are such horrible stories and we’re inclined to share those. But there are such positive immigrant stories out there too. We can be sharing those as well.”

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