By Michelle Phillips
The issue of illegal immigration has become so polarizing that the media are severely challenged in trying to cover it objectively, according to members of the SPJ International Journalism Committee.
Even the terminology has set off debate in media circles: illegal vs. undocumented, alien vs. immigrant.
Politicians have long used illegal immigration as a tool in their campaigns, according to Ronnie Lovler, outgoing chair of SPJ’s international committee.
When they take a stand on the issue, it forces the public to take one side or the other, she said. Lovler is the associate director of the Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism at San Francisco State University.
“It’s a key issue, and people will align themselves one way or another,” agreed Pueng Vongs, diversity chair for SPJ, and an online producer and editor for the Bay Area News Group.
Vongs and Lovler cited gubernatorial ads in California and the senate campaign in Nevada as signs of interest in the issue.
The troubled economy has also made illegal immigration a volatile subject, especially in California, said Lovler.
The media has unfortunately not done a good job of cutting through the political jargon surrounding the issue, according to Vicente Calderón, an editor for Tijuanapress.com.
“The public only gets a perspective for or against,” Calderón said, and most of the time the media is simply “repeating the stereotypes.”
Calderón said that the primary problem facing the media is a lack of hard facts. While plenty of research is being done on the issue, it is not repeated enough for healthy debate, and the facts tend to be colored by opinions, he said.
“It just pushes buttons on both sides,” he said.
Political choices and policies have also complicated the issue for the public. Policies in the past have not worked to stop immigration and instead have pushed the immigration flows into places like Arizona, according to Calderón.
“The U.S. is not managing this well, so it pushes the public to extreme responses,” he said.
Calderón said that the issue is not getting the coverage it needs in the United States especially considering how pertinent it is to politics and the economy.
The lack of balanced coverage, he said, further complicates and polarizes the issue.
“We have a responsibility as journalists to help people understand the changing face of America,” Lovler said.
The media, in general, has not gotten the story, she said.
Ricardo Palos, incoming committee chair and project manager for the Center for Public Integrity, said several media outlets are worried about reader backlash no matter which way they tell the story.
“It’s all covered by hate,” he said. “We need to cut through everything that’s been thrown around.”
Palos said journalists simply need to cover the story, and get straight to the facts in their reporting.
Calderón said that this would be easier if reporters were careful to recognize their own biases, and check them with first-hand investigation.