By Debra Kaufman
Special to TelevisionWeek
Immigration is a hot topic for the media as a whole-but it’s so hot for Hispanic journalists that they need flameproof gloves and thick skin to pick through the complexities of an issue that may hit uncomfortably close to home. Dealing with expectations and perceptions from mainstream media and the public has become a daily, often onerous, task.
“When you’re covering immigration, you have to prove yourself, that you’re being balanced on the issue,” said veteran Univision news anchor María Elena Salinas. “You’re being scrutinized because you’re Hispanic. It’s bittersweet. On the one hand, it’s great that the Hispanic community has woken up and is reacting and fighting in a peaceful manner for their rights as human beings. But the backlash is so horrendous, and I think it’s a major setback. There’s so much focus on the southern border that it’s become a racial thing.”
Verónica Villafañe, president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, agrees with Ms. Salinas’ assessment. “Anecdotally, some reporters have been accused of leaning one way or the other,” she said. “It’s a difficult topic to cover, especially for Hispanic reporters. There’s a question of being humane in the coverage, and being as objective as possible.” The expectation of partisanship paints Hispanics with a broad brush, ignoring the fact that Hispanics in the U.S. hold a wide range of views on the topic.
“You have to make sure that you’re reflecting the variety of opinions out there,” said Jose Rios, VP of news for Fox station KTTV and UPN affiliate KCOP-TV in Los Angeles. “We’ve covered the marches here in L.A. but we also went down to the border with the Minutemen. We want to make sure that our coverage is inclusive.”
Mr. Rios pointed out that for many journalists the issue of immigration is personal and emotional because it has involved members of their own families. But he said having a close emotional familiarity with immigration issues doesn’t keep journalists from being objective. “People are required to report on all kinds of things that they have an emotional bond to. Many times I want to trash the Lakers, but I refrain,” he quipped.
In addition to enduring heightened scrutiny of their coverage, Hispanic journalists may also find themselves considered “experts” on the topic merely because of their ethnic background. “You’re expected to talk about issues like immigration whether or not you’re an expert,” said Ms. Salinas. “I’ve been doing a lot of interviews with PBS, Fox, CNN, and they assume that because I’m in Spanish-language media that I have a certain position.
“I have a position, but it’s because I know the issue and have been covering it for 25 years, not 25 weeks or 25 days as many in mainstream media have. What I’m saying is that I’m adding to a debate that for too many years has been a monologue in which Hispanic immigrants are being blamed for everything in this country,” she said.
The National Association of Hispanic Journalists takes a strong position on the correct terminology to use in the immigration debate. “We’re very opposed to using the term ‘alien’ or ‘illegal alien,'” Ms. Villafañe said. “We favor the term undocumented immigrant. No person is illegal and a lot of journalists are now using illegals as a noun, which is grammatically incorrect. We’re not here to promote illegal immigration, but we consider that certain terminology is inappropriate.”
The backlash has been vitriolic, Ms. Villafañe said. “You have no idea the amount of hate mail we got when we sent out the press release about what we considered the proper terminology to use in the immigration debate,” she said. “We’ve had some columnists and reporters question whether Hispanic journalists are accurate or partisan. It’s not just the undocumented immigrants feeling the brunt of the hatred. It’s overall.”
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson will address issues surrounding immigration at this week’s NAHJ convention, Ms. Villafañe said. “It’s making sure we have all the tools and context,” she said. “It’s about being better prepared to listen to different points of view.”
Veteran anchor Henry Alfaro noted that immigration is not a new issue, recalling his coverage in the of an anti-immigration demonstration held in 1977 at the border by the Ku Klux Klan, led by David Duke. “Journalists should delve into the history of these major problems,” he said. “Yes, it’s a hot topic now, but it has been for a long time. From what I’ve seen, many of these journalists aren’t well equipped to deal historically with these problems.”
He proposed stories that highlight the positive contributions of Latino immigrants. “They don’t talk about the Latino children of illegal immigrants fighting for this country. They don’t talk about the children of illegal immigrants who have gone to college and fulfilled their parents’ dream. Do they go talk to the president of the American Restaurant Association, who said an anti-immigration bill would ruin them? Do they talk to American farmers about what this will mean?”
Mr. Alfaro takes it as a given that prejudice and racism taint the conversation, but he holds young Hispanic journalists responsible for making the contacts, digging up the history and pushing for stories that will give voice to their own community. That, he said, will bring balance to the otherwise skewed coverage of a hot-button topic.
“We live in a time when people want to see their own opinions reflected back at them,” Mr. Rios said. “But the biggest issue isn’t what the coverage has been, but what our representatives have done. Ultimately, the bill out of Congress will determine what happens.”