Speaking honestly to heart and brain about immigration

Daily Herald Editor John Lampinen called several senior editors and staff to a meeting this week to discuss the newspaper’s policies on reporting about immigration. It’s one of the most controversial topics of our day, and in our news stories, we want to give readers, whatever their personal stance, the most accurate information we can without appearing to try to sway them toward one point of view or another.

The editors left the hourlong meeting with one overriding observation: We have more to discuss. The topic is too varied and complex to establish concise, consistent, unambiguous rules in a single meeting. Obviously, then, I’m not going to be able to handle it all in a single column, either, but, as with our meeting, let me give it a start.

The first issue to take up is how we refer to the legal status of individuals. Our policy is to be as specific as possible in describing immigration status for stories in which that is an issue. and if the status of individuals is not clear from the context of a story, we strive to make it clear.

But our writers and editors are not the sole monitors. We use at least four wire services or syndicates for coverage that may involve immigration, each with its own policy. The entry in the 2019 Associated Press Stylebook is nearly two pages long. We may veer from its proscriptions if we encounter situations that don’t meet our standards for accuracy, clarity and sensitivity, but we generally follow its main tenets.

These are, one, to apply the adjective “illegal” to actions, not people, and, two, not to describe people violating laws without attribution.

So, when it’s called for, our stories describe “people who are living here illegally” rather than “illegal immigrants” or especially something pejorative like “illegals.”

And, as AP’s policy recognizes, it’s important to remember that many stories related to immigration aren’t about just an issue but a crime. So, we use the same language to discuss it as we would any crime, of which people are presumed innocent until proved guilty in court. The Daily Herald and other responsible media always refer to people arrested on charges of committing a crime as “suspects” or describe them as being accused of a crime. This standard naturally applies to ICE raids or other stories about arrests or detention of people accused of being in the United States illegally.

Reporting on immigration is further complicated by the many ways in which immigrants’ statuses differ. Some people, especially many involved in the current border issues, are asylum-seekers who are not breaking any law. Some enter the country illegally in hopes of getting asylum because they are refugees from violence or political retribution of some sort. Some enter the country legally on visas and stay longer than their visas allow. Some are children whose status is not clear because they were brought here illegally by their parents and are covered by DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

In many stories regarding the situation at the border, the specific status of immigrants may not be specifically described because it is either already clear or can’t be known. To the best of our ability, we strive to portray circumstances as clearly and accurately as possible and let readers make their own judgment calls about what is appropriate or inappropriate, legal or illegal.

Immigration has been a hot-button issue in the United States and the Chicago region for decades. It has been with us so long that we can sometimes forget the pictures of tens of thousands of demonstrators flooding the streets of Chicago and other cities in 2006. And like any issue that persists over so many years, it has seen changes in tone and approach.

Today, no one with a heart can see images from the southern border and not be moved, and anyone with a brain knows that the solution to what is happening there and in our country at large is complex and multifaceted. We want our reporting to speak both to the heart and to the brain. In a single hourlong meeting, we did not find the perfect strategy for doing that, but we did make progress. And we did reinforce a commitment that even if circumstances make it difficult to shape a specific, easily digestible policy statement, our actions always will stem from a commitment to truth, honesty and objectivity in our reporting and our presentation.