The Fourth Estate is under siege. Newspapers try valiantly to maintain readership as advertising revenues plummet. Mostly free access to digital versions of print articles causes young and old readers alike to prefer Web-based media. The short-form writing of USA Today — embraced by readers in a hurry — and the public’s preference for color and graphics over text combine to weaken demand for the kind of in-depth reporting that wins Pulitzers. Pressures mount to present a “balanced” report, even when one side of the argument is illogical or extreme. Bloggers — some of whom may lack commitment to traditional journalism’s code of ethics — publish stories that scoop traditional reporters even if confirmation of the facts is rushed or ignored.
Immigration, perhaps more than any other subject, challenges professional journalists. The law is complex, obscure and difficult to understand and even harder to explain. Immigration procedures are varied and the decisions of courts and bureaucrats often seem arbitrary, inconsistent or otherwise inexplicable. Stridency and bias on both sides of the immigration debate frustrate efforts to uncover the real facts. Deadlines and word limits make thorough and accurate reporting elusive.
There is reason, however, to be hopeful. In 2010, the Atlantic Philanthropies joined with The New York Times to support journalism institutes that try to improve reporting on a variety of important topics, including immigration. One such effort, “The Changing Face of America – Immigration from the Ground up,” co-sponsored by the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley and the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at the UC Berkeley Law School, will soon present a five-day intensive for journalists. Last year’s program is viewable online.
I spoke at last year’s event on the topic, “Jobs Americans Can’t (Won’t) Do. Balancing Labor Market Needs with Worker Rights.” As shown in the video below, I maintain that reporting on our nation’s dysfunctional system of immigration requires heavy lifting. I offered a case in point, the Department of Labor’s convoluted process of labor market testing which requires deep digging into legislative history and the discovery that bureaucrats have created political cover for themselves while perpetrating a cruel hoax on U.S. workers and the public.
Another respected venue is the Institute for Justice and Journalism (IJJ) which has been offering fellowships to immigration journalists since 2003. The IJJ’s Immigration in the Heartland web site offers a wealth of excellent articles. The next IJJ program will be in April and will focus on the 2012 elections, with the deadline for applications on January 17.
Some reporters excel in immigration reporting — Miriam Jordan (The Wall Street Journal), Julia Preston (The New York Times) as well as Suzanne Gamboa and Amy Taxin (Associated Press) — to name a precious few. Others rise to the top through editorial writing on immigration, such as Lawrence Downes (The New York Times), among the best of all. Many others have embraced the task with energy and passion by devoting themselves to reporting on immigration reform, such as Phuong Ly, who established Gateway California, “a nonprofit that helps journalists connect to immigrants,” and Julianne Hing of Colorlines. Probably the most courageous proponent of better immigration coverage by journalists is Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize winner who outed himself as an undocumented immigrant since childhood.
As the 2011 Fellows gather at UC Berkeley in November for the second annual institute (also titled,”The Changing Face of America – Immigration from the Ground up”), immigration aficionados and the public can look forward to better and still better reporting on the complex and life-changing issues arising in this turbulent Nation of Immigrants.