Together we could increase the impact of our work and the understanding of a human drama

Ronny Rojas
Mar 13 · 7 min read
March 4, 2019. A border agent speaks with a Central American boy who traveled with his family to request asylum in the U.S. The family was taken to a processing center in Juárez-El Paso./ Photo courtesy of Almudena Toral.

Immigration has been a controversial topic throughout most of U.S. history. The fierce debate of the last four years has become distorted with strong rhetoric that benefits politicians and powerful groups and institutions on both sides of the ideological spectrum. Nevertheless, the failings of the country’s immigration system remain almost intact.

There has been new interest in covering immigration by large news organizations in the U.S. Just days before Trump was sworn in as president in January 2017, The New York Times opened positions to strengthen its immigration team, acknowledging that “no domestic issue will be more essential than immigration in the coming years.” At the investigative powerhouse ProPublica, all of the 100 stories tagged under “Immigration” on its site were published after September 2017. And just one month ago, The Washington Post announced its plans to build a new immigration team.

And even as big media organizations ramp up their efforts to cover this issue, the past years of downsizing and layoffs means we still have fewer journalists in newsrooms than ever before to face the challenge of covering this complex, sweeping and very human issue.

I think collaboration could be the answer to offer the public a comprehensive immigration coverage in the Trump era, as well as to expand the scope and impact of our stories.

Over the past few months, as part of my work as a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University, I have been exploring how we can foster alliances among established media organizations, small newsrooms and local reporters, to do more and better investigative reporting around immigration.

I’ve talked to 20 journalists across the U.S. and in countries where most of the immigration is flowing into the U.S. I also received input from 30 reporters who responded to a short online survey I circulated a few weeks ago.

Here are some of my takeaways from these conversations:

There is a need for collaboration.

Every reporter I spoke with agrees on this basic idea. If reporters team up to work on the same issues in different cities, they could begin to paint a more complete picture of how widespread some problems really are.

Collaboration brings a greater understanding of the stories we work on. The transfer of knowledge, experiences, methodologies and technical resources among newsrooms and individuals is invaluable. Partnerships with local newsrooms that have covered immigration for years could increase trust in our reporting, and avoid simplistic narratives. “Understanding the nuances of the immigration system is a challenge,” says my Stanford co-JSK Fellow Akilah Johnson, who covers race and immigration for The Boston Globe.

Akilah is right. Just listing the federal agencies that play a role in promulgating or enforcing immigration policies — Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the U.S. Department of State plus dozens of Police Departments working along with ICE — you can get a sense of how complex immigration is for a reporter to cover.

The problem is that, with some exceptions, we are not seeing much collaborative work happening right now among journalists who cover this complex issue. “It seems that there is a deeper conversation about immigration on Twitter than across newsrooms,” says Damià Bonmatí, an experienced immigration reporter now with AJ+ in Washington,D.C.

Big media outlets should tap the talent of local experienced reporters.

Journalists in national news organizations who cover immigration stories should consider where they might get much-needed help: local reporters. There are colleagues out there who are better prepared, who’ve been covering the borderlands for years, who have access to local sources and data, and a better understanding of the intricacies of what is at play for immigrant communities and the people impacted by immigration. “It is the local media and the ethnic media who have been fighting this battle for years and trying to set an agenda,” said Eileen Truax, an experienced freelance journalist who has covered immigration and U.S.-Mexico relations for several years.

Such local expertise cannot be overlooked. Imagine the benefits of having local reporters who know their way around the courts, the political scene and the local neighborhoods, working alongside colleagues who have a wider view of the system and technical skills to work on massive databases.

A group of immigrants can be seen from a distance as they are arrested by Border Patrol agents in Sunland Park, New Mexico, on March 3, 2019./ Photo courtesy of Almudena Toral.

A project manager is a fundamental piece of the puzzle.

Collaborations are not self-managed. The key to a successful collaborative project is a good partnership manager. This person should be willing to coordinate the work almost full time. Strong and respectful guidance, trust, and constant communication are necessary to motivate the partners. “Project management is exhausting. It requires energy.” Someone must have a vision of where we’re going and what our ultimate goal is,” said Marina Walker-Guevara, another co-JSK Fellow at Stanford, and deputy director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), a global network of investigative journalists who collaborate on in-depth investigative stories such as the Panama Papers.

We have to build bridges across borders.

There is a sense of disconnection among American reporters and colleagues abroad. The language barrier, the reporting procedures that may vary from one country to another, may put up some hurdles to effectively collaborating with people you don’t know. Some of the most brilliant journalists I know are in Latin America, where I come from. In recent months I have received dozens of messages from Latin American journalists interested in working with colleagues in the U.S. We have to build a formal communication channel to connect people.

As a first step, I envision a public database to share our profiles and contact information. There have been successful cross-border collaborations on immigration in recent years. Perhaps the most impressive is the bilingual multimedia project, “From Migrants to Refugees,” a partnership between the U.S.-based Spanish-language outlet Univision Noticias and the Salvadoran investigative site, El Faro. Also, The Texas Tribune joined forces last year with the Guatemalan investigative site, Nomada, to report on a family separated at the border.

We need a coordinated strategy on seeking public information.

Journalists covering this topic find that Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) systems that journalists and citizens use to request public records are very hard to crack. These are very secretive and opaque agencies. A coordinated effort around FOIA and securing immigration information by media organizations would be of great value. Perhaps we even need to create a small division focused on information requests to serve all the media outlets and freelancers who are interested.

In 2017, the Columbia Journalism Review published an interesting article on FOIA best practices that may be useful in the meantime. Former JSK Fellows Djordje Padejski and Michael Morisy have also done their part to facilitate access to public records with their projects FOIA Machine and MuckRock.

The benefits of collaboration are beyond the obvious.

In my survey and interviews, here is just a sampling of the possibilities of collaboration that the reporters mentioned. With this many possible benefits, we really need to give it a try.

  • “Mass solid data collection” that could be analyzed and shared with the group
  • The possibility of getting funding to do more ambitious work and projects with high levels of complexity
  • “Inclusion,” and “reporting from a place of dignity”
  • The “opportunity for freelancers to be part of a team with more resources and to receive more mentorship and editorial guidance than they usually have”
  • “Reaching a bigger and more diverse audience”
  • “Our chance to contribute to policy improvements”

But, a good story is essential to bring people together.

Having a good story in hand is key to attract the attention of reporters and editors. When launching a collaborative project, we must have something concrete, a clear idea, a pre-reported story.

In 2018, when I was at Univision, my data team worked on an important story that could help a lot of immigrants facing deportation. We knew we needed to reach a bigger and wider audience. So, we partnered with our colleagues at the Spanish language podcast Radio Ambulante –co-created by 2017 JSK fellow Carolina Guerrero– to turn the story into a podcast episode. Before reaching out to them, we did solid previous reporting that allowed us to offer a clear, attractive story. We then went out to finish the reporting together. It was a great experience for both teams.

“We have to show ‘the carrot,’ an attractive story that makes journalists want to leave what they’re doing to come work on a collaborative project,” says my colleague Marina Walker.

Immigration reporting is not ethnic journalism.

The immigration beat in many newsrooms has usually been assigned to Hispanic journalists, most of them women, making it seem like these are only Latino issues. In some other cases, there are general assignment reporters who parachute in and out, because of the way the news cycle goes.

Hispanic and other minority reporters are usually the ones sitting on the very few panels dedicated to these issues at the big national journalism conferences across the country. These events are the perfect place to connect, and the place where ideas for collaboration emerge. But the reality is that it’s mostly white editors who have the power to green-light a collaborative project.

A lot of reporters with whom I have spoken have told me that it is their editor’s skepticism that killed some of their collaboration efforts. Bringing those white editors to the table is fundamental. Immigration is not for the back pages anymore; it has become a central part of the U.S. news agenda.

Over the next four months at Stanford, I plan to continue exploring ideas to create a solid network of immigration journalists who can have a bigger impact with their reporting. There are many questions still unanswered. If you are a journalist covering immigration or would like to do investigative reporting around this issue, I’d love to talk to you. You can either answer this short survey (it will help me a lot), or reach out on Twitter @ronnyrojas or send me an e-mail: ronnyrojas@stanford.edu.

JSK Class of 2019

Insights and updates from members of the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships Class of 2019 at Stanford University

Ronny Rojas

Written by

Costa Rican. 2019 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University. Before: Univision, OCCRP, La Nación. @ronnyrojas

JSK Class of 2019

Insights and updates from members of the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships Class of 2019 at Stanford University

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