Covering Immigration Fairly

Timothy J. McNulty
From the Chicago Tribune's Public Editor

Read the article online.

The words and photos prompt chagrin and vitriol among some readers. They resent the coverage of demonstrations in which illegal immigrants and their supporters protest new enforcement legislation now in Congress. They believe the newspaper is too sympathetic to lawbreakers, too willing to be enticed by a human-interest story and perhaps by political correctness.

The voices that complain about our coverage cannot be written off as just racist or the perpetually resentful. The language some use may be off-putting, but the issues they raise deserve attention.

Readers who want stricter immigration enforcement claim our coverage of demonstrations here and around the country is too positive. They are upset at the prominence of the stories and the photos. That, however, is news coverage, and I suspect we would give as much prominence to any group of 100,000 demonstrating in the Loop, whatever the cause.

Much of the enterprise in our reporting is in the telling of the stories of legal and illegal immigrants and the hardships they endure to make it into this country, plus their ability to become successful once they are here.

The newspaper's lead immigration writer, Oscar Avila, and a half-dozen other reporters have been diligent in keeping readers abreast of Chicago's immigrant communities. Their tales are compelling. We are a nation that prides itself on being built by immigrants who often arrived with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

People open their hearts to those who strive for a better life and endure separation and exploitation in order to build a better life for themselves and their families. But the changing job picture, especially with globalization and jobs moving abroad, is adding to a national anxiety.

The immigration story is one that the Tribune is determined to tell. "We cover immigration as one of the two or three top stories in the city today," said Steve Kloehn, a deputy metropolitan editor. "It's a story that tells us where we're going to be 20 and 30 years from now." The newspaper's Washington bureau and its national and foreign correspondents also contribute to the ongoing immigration report.

But reporting on immigrant groups, both legal and illegal, tends more to the personal than it does to the systemic issues of society. It does not address the problem that some readers see with our coverage.

Many of the complaints about coverage are valid: We have written well about the people who are illegal immigrants and about the politics of the debate, but not as well about the impact illegal immigration has had on society. The fault lies not in the stories we report, but in the stories we ignore.

The newspaper writes about the politics of illegal immigration in both news and opinion pages, but too often fails to focus on the problems created by illegal immigration. Some of that is understandable. Those who want stricter enforcement are rarely able to provide concrete and direct examples or to personalize the plight of citizens who suffer because of illegal immigrants.

They rarely produce the citizen who is out of work--or making only $6 an hour--because illegal immigrants take the jobs and drive down the pay scales. They talk about higher costs for health care and education consumed by illegal immigrants--but can't show it as a line on your tax bill.

The role of illegal immigration in the workplace, how it drives down wages, does not get wide coverage. We don't write as much about the business owners who seek out illegal immigrants because they can be paid less and are easily intimidated by threats of disclosure.

While there are mentions and even occasional stories, not often do we highlight the consequences of illegal immigration in the public schools, or the stress it puts on health care, especially emergency room services at public hospitals.

We have noted the rise of the private militia group called the Minutemen both in the Southwest and in Illinois, but the rise of gangs among illegal immigrants gets only occasional attention. The fairness issue to those immigrants who wait years for legal entry is only a footnote in our coverage.

Polls show that American attitudes have shifted noticeably in recent years. A majority appears to be forgiving and welcoming to those illegal immigrants already here, but the surveys also show less and less tolerance for allowing that flow to continue. We have to be mindful and report on the reasons behind that change.


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