Journalists, experts call for more accurate, in-depth coverage of immigration during opening panel of 9th Austin Forum

When it comes to immigration coverage, the importance of in-depth reporting, going beyond stereotypes, and avoiding the use of dehumanizing terms like "illegal" are just some of the themes that emerged during the panel discussion that opened the 9th Austin Forum on Journalism in the Americas.

The panel, "Covering International Migration in Central and North America," and a digital exhibit of photos, "Cruzando Fronteras en las Américas/Crossing Borders in the Americas,"kicked off the annual gathering of journalists and experts in Austin, Texas. This year's Forum, Sept. 8-10, is themed "Media Coverage of Migration in the Americas."

Immigration coverage in the United States, said Jose Luis Sierra of New America Media during Thursday's public panel session, chaired by Charles Hale, director of the Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies, is "poor and biased." Immigration, he said, "is an issue covered with a lot of hypocrisy and a lot of cliches...The mainstream media doesn't really cover immigration issues or immigrants. They just cover the bad part of the picture."

Cecilia Alvear of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and UNITY Journalists of Color, said reporters need to do a better job of checking facts and making sure the issue is covered accurately, especially considering how many ideological groups provide "information" that is biased, yet masked as "facts." Further, she said, immigration and Latinos are not synonymous, yet so often the media cover immigration, ignoring the fact that Latinos care about education, health care, housing and all the other issues that "other Americans care about, too."

Many panelists said the media need to drop the term "illegal," not because it is politically incorrect, Alvear said, but because it is inaccurate and grammatically incorrect. As Oscar Chacón of the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities said, everyone is a violator of the law, because who hasn't gone over the speed limit or rolled through a stop sign? "But we're not called illegals for that. 'Illegal' is almost exclusively used to refer to people who are Mexican or Mexican looking...There is obviously a racial connotation about the way we talk about immigration."

Falling back on terms like "illegal," or using the same sources, is just part of the problem of immigration coverage, which panelists lamented lacks investigative journalism and a "personal side" of immigration coverage. Further, there is a decided lack of information about the U.S. responsibility in reasons behind immigration, as well as a lack of reporting on the links between human rights violations of migrants in Mexico and organized crime. As Fabián Sánchez of i(dh)eas said, immigration authorities and organized crime are in collusion. He highlighted the case of a journalist making the dangerous trip riding on top of a train with migrants who was attacked by Mexican officials. One federal police officer now is in jail, and arrest warrants have been issued for four others, he said.

Panelists also discussed issues of bias and objectivity. Julián Aguilar of the Texas Tribune noted that often readers say that because he is Latino, he is incapable of fairly or accurately covering immigration. At the same time, he noted, the "Dream Act" kids -- undocumented students raised in the United States -- tell him that he can't understand their plight since he was born in the United States. As such, he said, balance is so important, and journalists need to "fight through the rhetoric of the left and the right."

Sierra said he has experienced the same criticism. "As a Latino journalist, I can't think like a white guy," he said. What he writes, he said, is "balanced," but "I'm not sure there's such a thing as objectivity," he said.

The Austin Forum, organized by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas and the Latin American and Media programs of the Open Society Foundations, continues Friday and Saturday with more discussion -- by invitation only -- about the ways media are covering migration. The complete program is available here.

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