Scott Stanford: Naming illegal immigrants
Newspapers struggle with hot-button issue
April 26, 2006
Steamboat Springs — The April-May edition of American Journalism Review raises the issue of whether newspapers should name names when it comes to illegal immigrants.
The article tells the story of Gloria Rubio, a mother of three in Tulsa, Okla., who was featured and photographed in a Tulsa World story about a service that helps legal and illegal immigrants pay taxes. Rubio, an illegal immigrant, talked openly about her desire to pay taxes. A month after the story appeared, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers arrested Rubio and initiated deportation proceedings. ICE had received a copy of the Tulsa World story in the mail. It was sent anonymously.
Rubio’s story is similar to Jesus Apodaca’s. Apodaca was profiled in a 2002 Denver Post article because he was valedictorian of his high school class and earned a full ride to college. He also admitted in the story that his family was in the country illegally. U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo responded by asking immigration officials to investigate the Apodaca family.
There are other examples in which newspaper stories and/or photos have led to problems for illegal immigrants that likely would not have occurred without the media attention.
This issue matters now because illegal immigration is perhaps the biggest hot-button issue in our country. When was the last time a politician — at the state or national level — made a campaign stop in Steamboat without talking about immigration?
As the immigrant population in Northwest Colorado has risen, so, too, has the number of stories we have written about this issue. This week, Alexis DeLaCruz will write about the impact, if any, “A Day Without Immigrants” is likely to have here. The nationwide event is Monday. Illegal immigrants are being asked to stay home from work.
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My hope is that DeLaCruz will be able to talk to illegal immigrants for her story. If she does, we won’t use their names. I will want to know who they are and be able to verify their stories, but the newspaper won’t name or photograph them.
Here is why this is problematic: Survey after survey shows that readers hate anonymous sources, and that such sources are one of the main reasons readers question a newspaper’s credibility. Readers also perceive that we use such sources all too frequently.
In truth, the Steamboat Today rarely quotes sources without naming them. However, there are specific cases when doing so is necessary. A rape victim would be an example. Illegal immigrants would be another.
Last summer, we published a major series on illegal immigration in Northwest Colorado. The first story in the series profiled Jorge Rodriguez, who worked in Steamboat Springs’ restaurants for 18 months before returning to his family in Torreon, Mexico. We identified and photographed Rodriguez and his family. Since he had returned to Mexico, we saw no risk in using his name and photo, but I can tell you that until he was home safe in Torreon, he was extremely nervous about talking with a reporter.
We also told the story of Juan Lopez, who endured an arduous journey from Honduras — much of it on foot — to come to Steamboat Springs for work. Juan Lopez is not the man’s real name. We withheld his name because at the time the story was published, he was still in Steamboat Springs. He shared Rodriguez’s nervousness.
In the American Journalism Review article, Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism suggests a test for deciding when to withhold names: “Does the information I’m getting by promising confidentiality outweigh what I’m withholding to get it.”
In the illegal immigrants’ case, my answer is “yes.” We must tell honest, compelling stories. But in doing so, we should not unnecessarily put people at risk of losing their jobs, being deported or going to jail.
From the Editor appears Thursdays in the Steamboat Today. Send questions to Scott Stanford at sstanford@steamboat pilot.com or call him at 871-4221.