Expert Commentary

Covering immigration: What reporters get wrong and how to get it right

Angilee Shah, senior editor for Global Nation, the immigration vertical for Public Radio International, spoke with Journalist’s Resource about what journalists can get wrong when covering immigration, and how they can hone their approach.

statue of liberty

As senior editor for Global Nation, the immigration vertical for Public Radio International, Angilee Shah knows how difficult it can be to find information about immigration in the U.S.

Take, for example, immigration court, which is known formally as the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR).

“There’s no PACER for EOIR,” Shah explained, referring to the government-run Public Access to Court Electronic Records system. Rather, EOIR requires journalists to file a Freedom of Information Act request for every individual case.  “Even though some of the findings and some of the rulings that happen at EOIR are extremely punitive or life-changing for people … it operates as an administrative court, which means the records are not open the way they are in our judicial system,” Shah said.

When reporting on immigration, Shah noted, “every single question has a completely different answer about where you might find what you’re looking for, data-wise.” So she made a list and shared it with the public: a Google document with over 70 immigration data sources. She has also created a number of tip sheets that explain how to find stories using these publicly available data sources.

The challenges of reporting on immigration aren’t limited to issues of data access. As with many topics, it’s too easy for reporters to miss important stories. Shah spoke with Journalist’s Resource about what journalists can get wrong when covering immigration, and how they can hone their approach.

WHAT JOURNALISTS GET WRONG: Their stories lack context.

“Even if it’s two sentences giving you a sense of the scale of the issue,” she said, “having just that little bit of context can really help readers understand, you know, whether it’s an isolated incident or something broader.”

HOW TO GET IT RIGHT: Add information that provides historical background.

“Put things in the broader context of the trajectory of our immigration system,” she said. “It’s really tempting, I think, at this moment for journalists to say the Trump administration is doing x, y, z. I think it’s really important for journalists to ask the question, ‘When did this program start?’ Or, ‘When did this issue start?’ Or, ‘Historically is this actually a break in how the United States has treated immigrants?’

“This is not all happening in a vacuum. There’s actually a lot of historical precedent for the immigration impulses we’re seeing now.”

HOW ELSE TO GET IT RIGHT: Drill down on the details in government press releases.

“The other thing that’s important is to ask probing questions about government press releases,” Shah said. “Ask government agencies to clarify the definitions of how they’re counting people, how they’re counting cases, offer specifics to really define those very precisely … Ask the question, ‘Has your definition of this particular stat changed?’ Especially when you see big jumps in numbers.”

For example, “[U.S.] Border Patrol issued this startling statistic about an increase in attacks or aggression against its agents, and it turns out they counted one incident, like, 130 times,” she said. “Normally they’d count it like somebody got into a fistfight with an agent … that would be one act of aggression. They counted every single act in that one event.

WHAT JOURNALISTS GET WRONG: Their stories lack the voices of those most affected by immigration policies.

“About providing context, the corollary to that is making sure you get actual immigrants and people affected into your stories,” she said. “Both of those things are important. Those immigrants might be able to provide you the expertise and the context. Those are not mutually exclusive things, but they both need to be in there, one way or another.

“It’s really important to always talk to people most affected by policies, and a lot of immigration stories … they actually leave out the immigrants who are very affected.”

HOW TO GET IT RIGHT: Show the impact of those policies. 

“I think for our audiences and our readers, it’s really important to see what those policies actually do to people. That doesn’t mean they’re going to say policies are wrong or right, but they’ll at least know what the effect is, and I think that’s really basic and really important.”

WHAT JOURNALISTS GET WRONG: They approach their coverage from a criminal justice angle.

“People expect there to be a paper trail, the way there often is in criminal justice, and in our immigration system, it’s really important to understand that a paper trail is much harder to find, both for individual cases and on the whole of the system,” Shah said. “There are just so many places to go looking for that sort of information, where the government actually puts something on paper.”

HOW TO GET IT RIGHT: Know where to look for information, and how to ask for help.

“Some of the most comprehensive data sets we have about [Immigrations and Customs Enforcement] and EOIR come from TRAC, which I always highlight, because it’s an amazing resource — the Transactional Records Clearinghouse at Syracuse University,” she said, adding that the organization spent years suing for some of the data sets it now shares with the public.

“So, what I’ll say is, make your FOIA request, make your appeal if you’re not getting the information that you think you should and should be public, but know that it’s an uphill battle, and you’re going to depend on these other organizations to fight those battles.

“Between TRAC and the American Immigration Lawyers Association, those have been the most successful places to get big data sets. Once in a while news organizations have been able to get them too, but it’s a long assessment, often, if you’re looking for big anonymized data sets.”

WHAT JOURNALISTS GET WRONG: They parachute in just to cover immigration crises, to the exclusion of broader immigration coverage.

“It’s an error to only talk to people when there’s a crisis or when there’s violence,” Shah said. “I think it’s really important to just spend time, to understand people.

“I think a lot of people think of immigration coverage as immigration system coverage. It’s more than that.

“Our immigration system is government agencies and how people interact with them. It’s about legislation and politics. It’s about trade, often the economic story.

“I think immigration, in terms of an actual concept, is about pop culture. It’s about food. It’s about language and education and health care. It’s about all parts of this country which immigrants affect and touch, which is everywhere.”

HOW TO GET IT RIGHT: Outside of assignments, get to know the community.

“Go hang out at the churches, go hang out at the masjids,” she said. “Spend time there. A lot of people are really, really generous even if you’re not working on a story.”

HOW ELSE TO GET IT RIGHT: For news organizations, better coverage starts with diverse hiring.

“Maybe that’s a broader sort of word of caution to news organizations, which is to not parachute journalists into communities or places — either cities or cultures — that they are unfamiliar with,” Shah said. “Which means having a diverse staff is really, really important for good immigration coverage. Having language capacity is important for immigration coverage. That the lives of immigrants are not an oddity to the person covering stories about them.”

HOW ELSE TO GET IT RIGHT: Look beyond politics and border control; immigration touches many beats.

“Immigration or immigrants is such a broad category,” Shah said. “You could, I don’t know, open up Netflix and look at the international section. You’ll find all these people in the U.S. making this content; that’s an immigration story in a way, too. Or even that Netflix has deals with international production houses; that’s a story about immigration in a lot of ways as well.

“And I think those stories get missed because journalists follow politics very closely. It’s important to understand how people actually live as well, and change the U.S., and how the U.S. changes them.

“Immigration could be a part of almost every beat, or arguably, every beat in the United States. I can’t think of something that isn’t touched by immigration.

“If you look at immigration only from covering politics or only from covering government agencies, then you miss a whole, major part of what immigrants’ lives are actually like, and what their contributions or their effects on U.S. society actually are.”


For reporters looking for starting points on the immigration data sources document, Shah highlighted a few key resources:

Beyond the list, Shah suggested that immigration law clinics, often operated by local university law schools, can be helpful: “I’ve found some of those professors to be amongst the most generous people in terms of explaining things to journalists,” she said.

She also pointed out a few examples of media outlets doing great reporting on the subject of immigration, with the caveat that many other places are doing good work, too: “Often they’re local places, niche sites that are covering communities that have been ignored for a long time,” she said.

Her picks include:

About The Author