Trust and inclusion in immigrant narratives

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By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor

Liz RobbinsA highlight of the incredible month I spent on that Thursday back in March at the NC News & Information Summit was chatting with Liz Robbins, and learning a little about her work researching local news ecosystems and immigration reporting. Her latest work deeply involves our North Carolina community.

Robbins was a New York Times reporter for 19 years — starting in sports, where she covered the NBA and the Olympics, and later reporting on immigrant communities and immigration policy. After teaching immigration reporting at Columbia Journalism School, she became director of journalism partnerships at Define American, a nonprofit founded by Pulitzer-winning reporter Jose Antonio Vargas that works to humanize the narrative around immigration. 

During one Summit session, after our first chat, she quietly walked to the back of the room where I was standing and slipped me something. It’s a toolkit she produced with Define American on the use of anonymous sources in immigration reporting, and the care we need to take while building trust with people who literally put their lives on the line to talk to us. It felt a little like a sacred scroll in my hands — “Sorry, I can’t let you keep it,” she whispered — and as I read it, I grew even more impressed. This thing covers every contingency, every question I would ever have. It’s people-centered, mindful, thorough, eminently useful — something every reporter, including those who don’t “cover immigration” as a beat, should read.

(In case you run into Robbins and she still lacks a spare copy, you can download it now — Quoting Immigrants: A Media Toolkit for Anonymous Sources.)

Robbins told me she was at the Summit at Elon not just for the “best blueberry muffins and cookies” (“In my decades of press box food, I know my foodstuffs,” she said), but to meet some “top industry minds” and inform her research into North Carolina’s ecosystem of immigration news.

I wanted to know more, so we agreed to stay in touch. An email exchange produced this Q&A about what she’s up to:

EF: What makes North Carolina a case study for local news about immigration?

LR: Because it’s 1,500 miles from the southern border, with a growing population of immigrants and children of immigrants shaping the state’s economy. The demographic changes to both Hispanic and Asian populations mirror what’s going on in the rest of the country. Plus, North Carolina’s a swing state, and we’ve seen how important (and non-monolithic) the Latine population can be in elections. [Note: Define American adopts “Latine” because it is the most inclusive term, instead of “Latinx.”] The nonprofit news organizations in North Carolina are vibrant, reaching audiences often underserved by legacy news operations. 

EF: Who’s working with you on this?

LR: Media Ecosystems Analysis Group, a nonprofit arm of Media Cloud, is producing a content analysis of representative news outlets across the state and how they cover immigration.

Carolina Demography will be supporting us with key statistics, including charting all foreign-born residents and the growth of the Latine and Asian populations over the past 20 years. 

The University of Florida’s Center for Public Interest Communications is conducting an audience survey to see how the framing of certain stories about immigration may change people’s attitudes and beliefs.

Finally, we are interviewing reporters, editors, and community members for a magazine-length narrative. I am working with Durham journalist and filmmaker, Victoria Bouloubasis, who has been covering immigrant communities in the state for more than a decade. Juan Diego Reyes, a Colombian-born photographer based in Asheville, will be contributing his sensitive visual journalism.

EF: What have you found in your reporting so far?

LR: I’ve been impressed with how nonprofit media covers issues central to immigrant communities, from health services to language access, from farmworkers to politics. Enlace Latino NC uses five different platforms to engage their audiences. How much of a reach do they have compared to legacy outlets, though? Newspapers and television generally report on immigrant communities in a piecemeal way, and often when crimes involving immigrants happen. One exception I can recall was Laura Brache’s fun piece last summer in The News & Observer on the cricket craze in the Triangle.

EF: So how can we, the readers of this newsletter, help your research?

LR: We’d love to interview reporters or editors willing to speak to us about their experiences. What are the conversations happening in newsrooms that make it encouraging or challenging to cover immigrant communities or immigration policy? What are the stories you are most proud of? What stories on immigration do you wish you could do if you had more resources?

Please send your answers to any or all questions via email to lizrobbins@defineamerican.com. Or DM me on Twitter (@bylizrobbins) if you want to go on background.  

EF: What’s next?

LR: We’re aiming to launch our research in fall, and after that we’ll bring our recommendations into newsrooms across North Carolina. Our goal is not to criticize but to understand the barriers newsrooms face in making their coverage more inclusive. In that way we can help them produce more accurate, sensitive journalism about immigrant communities.   

Learn more:

◼️  Read more about Robbins’ work on the sourcing issue in her piece for Columbia Journalism Review in February: Know the Risks: A Guide for Journalists on Quoting Immigrant Sources.

◼️  How does immigration actually work? Understand U.S. Immigration From the Border to the Heartland is a free, self-directed Poynter course you can start anytime. [Learn more and enroll.]