Expert Commentary

Covering the Latino immigrant community: Tips from Maria Hinojosa

Tips for reporting on the Latino immigrant community and mental health issues from award-winning journalist Maria Hinojosa.

Maria Hinojosa leads a seminar at the Shorenstein Center. (Susan Mahoney)
Maria Hinojosa leads a seminar at the Shorenstein Center. (Susan Mahoney)

Maria Hinojosa is an award-winning journalist best known for her work as anchor and executive producer of the long-running weekly NPR show Latino USA. For the 2018-2019 academic year she is the Walter Shorenstein Media and Democracy Fellow at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, of which Journalist’s Resource is a project.

JR recently took the opportunity to sit down with Hinojosa and learn more of her thoughts on reporting on the Latino community and immigration in the current American political climate. “It means as a journalist being prepared to shed your biases, or at least kind of look at them in the light of day,” Hinojosa said.

For reporters looking to broaden their immigration coverage, Hinojosa has a recommendation: stories about mental health issues, which, she says, are widespread among immigrants and the broader Latino community.

“I haven’t seen a lot of coverage of immigrant mental health issues for mainstream journalists,” Hinojosa said. “There has to be an understanding that there is a low-level psychological impact of living in a country… where an administration is actively trying to perform erasure on your existence.”

Telling the story of immigrant mental health requires reporters to establish trust with their sources while also maintaining appropriate boundaries.

“I think, frankly, the only way that I’ve been able to crack this story of immigrant mental health is actually building a tremendous amount of trust. And that takes a lot of time,” she said. “I guess for senior editors that means giving your journalists the opportunity and time to do that and recognize that it’s a valuable part of this story.”

While good reporting requires empathy, active listening and establishing a certain level of intimacy, “covering mental health issues is always a challenge because you have to be careful of boundaries,” Hinojosa said. “I would hate for somebody to think that I am their therapist or I am their best friend… So you have to be careful, right? You’re not giving counsel to them.”

That said, she believes reporters need to heed a tenet often applied to both medicine and journalism: Do no harm. And that may mean giving sources information about mental health resources.

“If you’ve created an open line of communication, this subject then may say, ‘I’m feeling incredibly suicidal today,” she said. “What does a journalist do in that moment? This is a question that I haven’t had to face very often, but my immediate reaction is that when that happens, my part of ‘do no harm’ means I cannot in good conscience let somebody tell me that they’re going to kill themselves and not do anything about it. So there’s a line … I can’t come to your house and hold your hand and get you into the hospital, but I can say, here’s a number to call, you know, please reach out to somebody.”

She added that mental health organizations can also be useful sources to journalists. “There are organizations that are specifically dealing with people of color and mental health issues, and so, you know, go there,” she said.

Hinojosa also offered the following tips for how to avoid common pitfalls in media coverage of the immigrant community – and how to get the story right.

What to avoid: Using common terms (like “illegal immigrants”) that dehumanize broad populations.

“For decades, immigrants in our country have been called by the most respected journalism organizations in our country as being illegal human beings,” she said.

Even after the Associated Press stopped sanctioning the term “illegal immigrant” in 2013 Hinojosa noted that “many news organizations had a big problem with, and still have a big problem with, making a judgement, a statement, about not using that term because they feel that if you don’t use the term ‘illegal immigrant,’ then somehow you are an activist journalist. And that’s where you’re getting it wrong, and the reason why is because a person is not an illegal person, an action is illegal, so from the very basics of grammar it is incorrect.”

How to get it right: Actively challenge these common terms in your reporting, and consider whether there are better descriptions.

“This is a very difficult thing for journalists to do, because we so deeply do not want to be perceived as being political in one way or another,” Hinojosa said. “But I posit that what we are living through today in the United States of America requires a very different kind of mindset than what we might consider normal.”

Along with “illegals,” Hinojosa believes the term “family separation” is a misleading understatement.  “In the case of children being, in quotes, ‘separated,’ this is a government term. For example, families being separated at the border, it’s a government-approved term,” she said. “It is a factual term to describe what is happening, but there’s something else.  It’s actually children being ripped apart from the arms from the hands of their mothers and fathers, it is children being torn apart, it is families being violently divided… These statements that I’m making here are very uncomfortable for every journalist… I, though, am reticent to use the government’s terms to describe what’s going on and I feel that it is precisely my role as an independent journalist to question the terms that these things are being given.”

What to avoid: Contributing to Latino invisibility in the media by missing opportunities to bring immigrants’ stories into your work.

“Ana Maria Archila, who is one of the two women who stood in an elevator and stopped Senator Flake from going up and confirming the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh… is actually an immigrant from Colombia,” Hinojosa noted. “Until we interviewed her… no one had up until that point asked her [about that], even to just say ‘so where were you born, so you’re an immigrant, you speak with an accent,’ not in a bad way, but just to inquire,”  she added.

“It’s just another way in which the immigrant side of a story is made invisible and not important. And I’m not saying it has to be like, oh my gosh, she’s an immigrant, but simply to recognize the complexity of her character… she is just deemed unable to speak for herself in the national news and an opportunity to hear a Latina with an accent talking about her political activism, [is], you know, gone.”

How to get it right: Ask about immigrants’ backgrounds, but be sensitive and accommodating.

“Sometimes I think that journalists feel like they cannot ask about a person’s background,” she said. “I think that part of what journalists have to learn how to do is to ask these questions with a certain level of awareness and sensitivity so the question is not, ‘So, where are you really from?’ but rather, ‘Tell me a little bit more of your backstory.’

“There has to be also an element of sensitivity, because you never know what the immigration status of the person may be, and you have to allow them the opportunity to define themselves how they want to be defined, whether they are undocumented, whether they were being anonymous, whether they have papers, whether they, like me, are immigrants who became American citizens. Allow people to identify themselves to you. And I think that we have to understand now that all bets are off and this is where it’s a very challenging time for journalists in the sense that if people go public with their stories they are at risk… and it adds another layer to our job because, you know, giving anonymity to somebody or changing somebody’s name is a challenge for us, but we have to be willing to play in those spaces or else we will have no immigrant voices.”


In addition to her own LatinoUSA, Hinojosa highlighted the following media outlets for their exemplary work, and also mentioned a few reporters who she considers important sources for immigration coverage:


For more about reporting on immigration, check out these tips from Angilee Shah, senior editor for Global Nation.

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