Immigration and the Uses of Personal Journalism

Immigration is still a major concern for NPR listeners, if my e-mail is any indication.

There are a lot of concerned and anxious people. Rumors of a police roundup of undocumented immigrants, the release of a Spanish-language version of the national anthem, a national May 1st immigrant walkout and the possibility that some sort of legislation is in the works, all contribute to listeners' questions and concerns about NPR's coverage.

"Fresh and Sincere"

Saul Moscovitz wonders whether NPR will ask:

…who gains from illegal immigration? NPR is avoiding asking who benefits as it seemed to me. The obvious answer (is) cheaper wages for large corporations!

NPR's reports on the Spanish-language version of the U.S. national anthem, "Nuestro Himno," pleased some listeners like Daniel O'Neill:

As a teacher, accustomed to listening to overblown renditions at sporting events and classes of students listlessly singing our official national anthem daily, I was surprisingly moved by "Nuestro Himno." I found it a fresh and sincere expression of affection for our nation.

Cara Sims on the other hand, thinks that NPR hasn't given enough airtime to those who oppose liberalizing immigration:

I wouldn't feel so strongly if there had been more than the most lukewarm passing nod to providing those of us who don't agree with legalizing illegals, an opportunity to express our position.

"Define 'immigrant'"

Sandy Schleuter thinks the word "immigrant" needs some clarification:

What is meant by this term? Do you only mean illegal immigrants…from Mexico and points south? Immigrants who come here to become citizens? Immigrants who come here just to work for a few years and then return home? I would appreciate if you would be clearer on your definitions — especially as much of my family are immigrants - legal, now citizens, and from other than the Americas.

Listener Ken Hutchins agrees. He think that NPR needs to employ more subtle distinctions instead of the one-term-fits-all word "immigrant" for all who enter the United States regardless of legal status:

…the implication of using a term "immigrant" gives a certain legitimacy to the so-called illegal immigrants, much the same as those that have pursued legal methods to enter and stay in the U.S.

I think the listener-critics have a point: It may be a useful form of journalistic shorthand to refer to all newcomers to the United States as "immigrants," but there are layers of complexity to this story that NPR needs to acknowledge. Not all who arrive here fall into simple, collective categories. Proponents who advocate or oppose amnesty or a guest-worker program prefer simple descriptions. Political arguments are more easily made when complexities are ignored or downplayed. But NPR has done a good job overall.

In my experience, news organizations that must report on a single issue for more than a few weeks fall into certain patterns: If the story shows no signs of ending, then phrases that once required explanation when the story first emerged, are now assumed to be universally understood. That may not always be a correct assumption.

This is what may be happening now with the immigration story. I think some regular explanation of the issues and the language around those issues may be necessary every few days. As with any complex issue, NPR has an obligation to avoid falling into the use of catchphrases and shorthand. But with a story like this, it is easy to forget that the issues remain complicated and nuanced. And listeners may need a primer on those issues from time to time on the radio. There is a good one on the NPR Web site, and listeners should also be pointed in that direction more frequently.

Should NPR journalists reveal all?

Speaking of immigration, some NPR staffers think that, in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I, too, am an immigrant. I came from Canada nine years ago and became a U.S. citizen last September.

That may or may not be a useful piece of information. Listeners and my colleagues can judge whether my columns on this (or any other issues) showed any predilections.

Listeners have been asking (with some increased urgency) about whether journalists, in general, need to be more transparent about their personal backgrounds, politics and extracurricular activities. Some feel that only by knowing that information can they judge whether a correspondent is being fair.

Listener Jim Driscoll and I had a lengthy exchange on this issue. It began with Mr. Driscoll's question:

Does the management of NPR view its staff makeup equally balanced between people who are perceived to be conservative and those liberal?

OMBUDSMAN:

I think if a reporter gets too close to a story ... or appears to be giving undue attention to an issue or a politician, then his or her editor has an obligation to see if the reporter is still able to handle the story. It's not hard to notice, I agree, when a journalist is starting to sound a little too hostile or a little too sweet. Time for reassignment!

The newsroom culture is always involved in some form of self-criticism ... sometimes in a mocking way ... and sometimes with acid, too. Journalists who pound the bully pulpit just don't last long in this environment.

MR. DRISCOLL:

…if (I) run a newspaper & hire reporters and opinion writers — over time, without ever making an inquiry, I will form a clear and most often accurate perception of their attitudes and inclinations. If I sense an imbalance in the way my staff is drifting — as people leave I would make efforts to look for new people that may have displayed contrary patterns in their previous work… So semantics aside, does management at NPR dare to analyze itself or does it easily forbid itself to do so for countless reasons?

OMBUDSMAN:

I always assumed that an employer may not ask an employee for his or her position on any matters of public controversy since that may imply that management might use that information to promote or demote.

No employee of NPR (or any other journalistic organization of good repute) should abuse their position to advocate or pound the bully pulpit. If they want to do so, they should leave journalism and go join a lobby group.

I always thought that it is called a "secret" ballot for a reason. In my opinion, the public should judge NPR journalists on the quality of their work, not on whether we know if they boycott California grapes, shop at Wal-Mart or choose to live in a right to work state.

I appreciate Mr. Driscoll's concerns. But does having the complete story about a journalist add or detract from the quality of the journalism? In some cases, it might be useful. But for the most part, I think it's nobody's business. Journalism needs to be judged on the merits of the product, not the personal beliefs of the reporter.

Powerful Reporting on NPR

In a week of intense reporting and forceful listener responses, I want to point out two stories that gave me (and many others) pause about the power of radio and its deep ability to make meaningful human connections:

First, an extraordinary two-part report by NPR's Kathy Lohr looked at the effects of the war in Iraq and on the people who live in and around a military town in the south. It aired on Morning Edition on April 27th and 28th.

Second, as part of the series about Americans abroad, NPR's Michael Sullivan reported from Vietnam on one young woman from Seattle whose parents came to America as refugees. The daughter of these immigrants has gone back to Vietnam to work as a journalist for the state-run broadcaster. She comes with the best values of American journalism and is now working inside a system still struggling with the legacies of war and dictatorship.

Both reports were powerful pieces of radio.

In the swirl around the war and immigration, these were two reports that had listeners tell me, "this is why we listen to NPR."

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