Covering immigration: What reporters get wrong and how to get it right

As senior editor for Global Nation, the immigration vertical for Public Radio International, Angilee Shah knows how difficult it can be to find information about immigration in the U.S.

Take, for example, immigration court, which is known formally as the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR).

“There’s no PACER for EOIR,” Shah explained, referring to the government-run Public Access to Court Electronic Records system. Rather, EOIR requires journalists to file a Freedom of Information Act request for every individual case. “Even though some of the findings and some of the rulings that happen at EOIR are extremely punitive or life-changing for people … it operates as an administrative court, which means the records are not open the way they are in our judicial system,” Shah said.

When reporting on immigration, Shah noted, “every single question has a completely different answer about where you might find what you’re looking for, data-wise.” So she made a list and shared it with the public: a Google document with over 70 immigration data sources. She has also created a number of tip sheets that explain how to find stories using these publicly available data sources.

The challenges of reporting on immigration aren’t limited to issues of data access. As with many topics, it’s too easy for reporters to miss important stories. Shah spoke with Journalist’s Resource about what journalists can get wrong when covering immigration, and how they can hone their approach.

WHAT JOURNALISTS GET WRONG: Their stories lack context.

“Even if it’s two sentences giving you a sense of the scale of the issue,” she said, “having just that little bit of context can really help readers understand, you know, whether it’s an isolated incident or something broader.”

HOW TO GET IT RIGHT: Add information that provides historical background.

“Put things in the broader context of the trajectory of our immigration system,” she said. “It’s really tempting, I think, at this moment for journalists to say the Trump administration is doing x, y, z. I think it’s really important for journalists to ask the question, ‘When did this program start?’ Or, ‘When did this issue start?’ Or, ‘Historically is this actually a break in how the United States has treated immigrants?’

“This is not all happening in a vacuum. There’s actually a lot of historical precedent for the immigration impulses we’re seeing now.”

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