IMMIGRATION COVERAGE IN U.S. LACKS BALANCE
In June 2000 I accepted an assignment from the Washington, D.C.-based, non-profit, public policy group NumbersUSA.com to read stories about immigration. I was asked to measure them for fairness and balance according to the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics.
The Code states that reporters should “provide a fair and comprehensive account of events,” should “support the open exchange of views, even views they find repugnant,” and “distinguish between advocacy and news reporting.”
NumbersUSA.com is not a disinterested party. The organization believes that federal immigration policy is not well defined and has contributed to population growth and wage disparity in the U.S.
But the question is not what one individual or one organization thinks about immigration. The issue before me was whether or not reporters remain true to their own professional standards when writing about immigration.
The answer is “No.” In the last eighteen months, I have read more than 1,500 immigration stories. None were truly balanced and many quoted only sources that favored more immigration.
The nation’s most respected newspapers – The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times as well as dozens of others – frequently ran front-page stories with as many as six sources supporting more immigration and none with opposing points of view.
The topics covered in immigration stories are worthy of honest debate. Should the U.S. grant amnesty to millions of illegal aliens? Does the U.S. need a guest worker program? Are illegal immigrants deserving of driver’s licenses? These are valid questions that deserve in-depth reporting.
But in story after story, readers got only one point of view.
Calls made and e-mails sent to reporters in an attempt to begin an “open exchange of views” were not acknowledged. Nor did editors respond. Even the Ombudsman, whose job it is to reply to reader inquiries, did not weigh in.
I was disappointed at the across-the-board reluctance to discuss, even briefly, the opposite side of one of America’s most important and controversial social policies. Apparently, reporters have no interest in hearing how they might write a more professional immigration story.
My frustration grew even deeper when I approached the Society of Professional Journalists, the Committee for Concerned Journalists and the American Society of Newspaper Editors with my findings.
While none disputed my conclusion that immigration stories often presented only one side of the debate, none would let me write a summary of my project for their Web sites or magazines.
Time and again I was told that I had an “agenda” and that the organization would be accused of bias if I were given a voice.
Is this the definition of “an open exchange views?”
The odd thing is that poll after poll shows that Americans favor a reduction in legal immigration and an end to illegal immigration. Americans are also overwhelmingly opposed to amnesty in any form.
Why do reporters advocate for more immigration? They do not advocate on behalf of any other social policy.
Apparently, more immigration is perceived in the newsroom as a good cause. Those of us who favor reform are marginalized or dismissed.
The bottom line is that readers, who reporters profess to serve, consistently get only one side of immigration stories.
DOING OUR JOB MAKES US ‘AMERICAN’
The answer to the cover question in the December Quill – “How American should we be?” – should be “100 percent.”
Only a thoroughly American journalist can appreciate the culture that nurtures the principles that guide us as we try to determine how well our leaders serve us. I don’t see that confessing our Americanism is incompatible with those principles. The First Amendment is a precious American right. It gives us the privilege to exercise our press freedoms.
I’m one of the World War II generation and spent the last half of the 20th century as a reporter, editor and news executive in both print and broadcast.
I am thoroughly disappointed that the question was even raised. As I consider the question and read through the December issue, I wonder if today’s generation of journalists are rootless navel gazers. The answer to the question should be a no-brainer.
Fred B. Walters