Journalists issue call for more humanized, in-depth coverage of migration at 9th Austin Forum on Journalism in the Americas

After gathering Sept. 8-10 for the 9th Austin Forum on Journalism in the Americas, more than 50 journalists and experts from 20 countries throughout Latin America and the Caribbean have decided to look at ways to collaborate across countries, covering immigration in a more humanizing, balanced way, recognizing that immigration is a regional issue that is about more than just reporting on people crossing borders with or without papers: immigration coverage means stories need to be written about the migrants themselves, families, historical explanations for migration, investigations into government policies, health issues, economic and social factors, education, housing and myriad other components that make up migration.

This year's Forum, themed "Media Coverage of Migration in the Americas," organized by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas and the Latin American and Media programs of the Open Society Foundations, opened Thursday evening with a panel, "Covering International Migration in Central and North America," and a digital exhibit of photographs on migration in the Western hemisphere, "Cruzando Fronteras en las Américas/Crossing Borders in the Americas."

During the opening session, panelists like Cecilia Alvear of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and UNITY Journalists of Color, Jose Luis Sierra of New America Media, Oscar Chacón of the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities, and Julián Aguilar of the Texas Tribune noted that journalists need to do more in-depth, investigative reporting on immigration, going beyond stereotypes and avoiding the use of dehumanizing terms like "illegal." As Sierra said, immigration "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."

The Forum continued Friday, opening with a keynote address from José Luis Benítez of the José Simeón Cañas Central American University in El Salvador. Benítez lamented that despite immigrants' key role in the social and economic fabric of Central America and Mexico, journalistic coverage of this transnational population is often framed as sensational crime and tragic victimization, or national heroism. Rather than continually relying on official government sources who always tell the same old story, he said, reporters also need to do a better job of interviewing migrants themselves about their experiences. Further, he noted the importance of providing both historical context and accurate representations of the risks and consequences of migration.

Other themes that emerged in Friday morning's panels were that journalists need to go beyond myths and stereotypes. As Julie Lopez of Plaza Publica in Guatemala noted, Central Americans aren't just migrating for a better life -- they're migrating because "the state fails to care for it's citizens, forcing them to look outside their borders," and that's what the media should be covering, Lopez said.

Panelists also said that what contributes to the superficial, stereotypical coverage is a lack of numbers and data. Ana Arana of Fundación MEPI in Mexico called for the creation of a Latin American database, similar to the Pew Center, that could help reporters do a better job at covering immigration issues. "The problem is a lack of quantitative information and graphics to help journalists understand the topic quickly," Arana said. "As a result, they depend too much on experts without hard facts."

Another panel Friday looked at innovative initiatives in immigration coverage, such as reporting the topic from a collaborative, long-term multi-platform approach. For example, Carlos Dada and Oscar Martinez of the digital newspaper El Faro in El Salvador noted how the year-long project "En el Camino," (On the Road) about Central American migrants in Mexico, resulted not just in articles published on the website, but also radio broadcasts, a book of stories, a book of photos, a documentary film, and even conferences. But as Dada pointed out, these are "extremely expensive projects" that need time and resources, but that this kind of journalism is "more necessary than ever...These kinds of prjects are not financially sustainable. We need to find new methods of financing."

Friday afternoon's keynote speaker, Fabián Sánchez of the organization i(dh)eas detailed the human rights abuses -- ignored by the media -- that migrants suffer as thy make their way from Central America through Mexico.

But immigration isn't just an issue in Mexico and Central America. Panelists on Friday and Saturday also discussed migration in South America and in the Caribbean.

For example, Paraguayans, Bolivians and Peruvians are migrating to Argentina or Chile, Brazilians are moving to Paraguay, and Colombians are forced out of their lands by armed groups, heading to Venezuela, Mexico or Panama. But despite the fact that almost all of the countries in the hemisphere both receive and send migrants, "there is a discriminatory and xenophobic" component in the press, said Gabriel Michi of the Argentine Journalism Forum (FOPEA). For example, Michi pointed out a headline from an Argentine newspaper that read, "Fatal Accident in Flores: Two people and one Bolivian die."

Often, the press either victimizes or praises ex-pat migrants living abroad, but treats those foreign migrants in their own country as law breakers. "Bolivians think that Peruvian immigrants are hard workers, but disloyal and violating the law. While Bolivians in Argentina are portrayed as workers, exploited person living far from their families, said Raúl Peñaranda, editor of the newspaper Página Siete in Bolivia.

Meanwhile, the Chilean press ignores the immigration issue, said Silvia Viñas, editor of Global Voices' Latin America site.

In the Caribbean, "journalists themselves have fallen prey to the stereotypes," said Wesley Gibbings of the Association of Caribbean Media Workers, citing the lack of coverage on the discrimination of Haitians for labor visas. And as Gotson Pierre of Alterpresse in Haiti said, "Haitian media does not generally report about Dominicans; Dominicans don’t report on Haitians.” Similarly, María Isabel Soldevila of Listín Diario and Pontificia Universidad Católica Madre y Maestra said, “The dehumanization of the [Haitians] is a common theme in the [Dominican]

During Saturday's keynote speech, Sandy Close of New America Media highlighted immigration coverage in the ethnic media in the United States, criticizing what she called a "communication apartheid” between ethnic and mainstream media. She pointed out that ethnic media--especially Hispanic media--are growing, even in the face of the economic downturn that has exacerbated the crisis in the mainstream media, because communities need it. “The Million Man March was completely organized by black media,” Close said. “If you think the mainstream media spent any time promoting that event, think again.”

Just has has been done in previous years of the Austin Forum, the discussions and recommendations from this year's gathering will be made available in an e-book available in the Knight Center digital library. The book from the 8th Austin Forum on Journalism in the Americas, "Coverage of Drug Trafficking and Organized Crime in Latin America and the Caribbean," is available for download in English or Spanish here.