How covering undocumented immigrants changed my standards for journalism

This winter, I drove to LaGrange, Georgia, to report on a policy that makes it impossible for residents without Social Security numbers and government-issued identification to get water service for their homes. LaGrange, a small city, may be best known in other parts of the country for an apology, offered by its police chief in 2017 for his department’s historic inaction in the 1940 lynching of a black man. It is also a city where ICE regularly conducts raids in residential neighborhoods with concentrations of Latino families, according to those residents.

In LaGrange, I interviewed a middle-aged immigrant, an undocumented construction worker, over lunch at a restaurant. This was my first time in decades of reporting that I’d interviewed a person whose undocumented status was a major focus of the story. We sat in a private spot, so no one would overhear our conversation.  

In my story, which was recently published by In These Times, I refer to the undocumented person as Emilio, though that is not his name. I describe him as “in his fifties,” a father of two children and a husband, an individual whose history with LaGrange goes back more than 20 years. I do not use the names of his children or his wife. I do not name his family’s neighborhood. I do not detail his jobs, past or current. I omit the name of the restaurant, as I have here, as well.

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Those details and omissions were the product of a careful negotiation, which followed our hour-long interview. From the outset, we had agreed that I would not use his real name. Once our interview ended, I reviewed with him every detail he had shared verbally, as well as visual details he had shared just by sitting across a table from me.

I explained to Emilio I would not tell readers what he looks like, such as the shape of his hands and his face. Could I give his precise age? No, he only wanted me to say he is in his fifties. Could I write about difficult personal details he had shared, details that would let readers know why water service is so essential to his family? No; to be more specific could give away who he is and might prompt his deportation. Could I say what region of his country he’d immigrated from? No; I could only say he was from Latin America. I couldn’t talk about the cadence of his Spanish, what dish he chose to eat, what he wore, how he walked, whether he smiled, what his eyes look like. His is a very small town; as unlikely as it may seem, the right combination of a few personal details would risk pointing a giant red arrow at his head.

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Had I interviewed a candidate for public office at that same table, I would never have afforded him or her the opportunity to edit the scene or our conversation; I would see that as an ethical lapse in my duty to voters and residents and my audience. This story was different. Of necessity, I had to undo a foundational teaching from my journalism education: be as specific as possible.

For Emilio, I couldn’t make the reader see. I had to find a way to communicate the essence of this man after removing signifiers of his humanity detail by detail

 

IN THE 1980S, I attended the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Professors taught students to illustrate policies by gathering personal experiences from sources and offering those anecdotes to readers. The more detail I could offer, the better I could place a reader in another person’s shoes, the more I could reveal about the human impact of a damaging policy.

To make that point, teachers and mentors often mentioned Gene Roberts, a famed editor for The New York Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer who began his career covering the civil rights movement in North Carolina and Virginia.  In “What makes a great reporter,” a column for the now-defunct Washington Journalism Review, Roberts described a blind editor at the News-Argus, the Goldsboro, North Carolina paper where Roberts began:

He was tall, 6 foot 7, he walked with an aluminum cane and wore a battered fedora that must have been a relic of the days when he could still see movies like “The Front Page.” Many is the day Henry would have a story read to him, and then call in a member of his staff, often called Roberts, and enjoin: “Make me see. You aren’t making me see.” It took me years to appreciate it, but now I think that Henry’s demand may be the ultimate test of great reporting.

For Emilio, I couldn’t make the reader see. I had to find a way to communicate the essence of this man after removing signifiers of his humanity detail by detail, in much the same way the policies he grapples with do.

After I interviewed Emilio, I reached out to Jack Doppelt, the Medill journalism professor who had taught my legal reporting class at Medill in downtown Chicago 32 years ago. “We do our best, but we are off because we can’t put ourselves fully in the shoes of somebody who’s at risk,” said Doppelt, whose current research concerns whether vulnerable populations should be covered differently and, if so, how. “And we have to go through not just the question of losing specificity, but the question of how do we actually include things in the story that still make the story alive and important.”

I had handled those questions with Emilio’s help. While Doppelt called such an act generally unethical, he also said the consequences of publishing an identifying detail, even unwittingly, could be dire. “I believe with vulnerable populations that it should be done,” Doppelt told me. “Not only is it okay, it should be done.”

Ultimately, I found the specifics I needed in Emilio’s inner life. I asked him for his emotional reaction to the circumstances in which he found himself. How did he feel when he discovered that his city was denying him a water account? He had lived there for years, after all, and worked and raised his children in the US.

“At first, you feel impotent and sad,” he told me. “Because these are services everyone needs and they deny it.” Those words, while brief, give him his humanity—and, I hope, won’t give him away.

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Allison Salerno is an independent print and audio reporter based in Athens, Georgia. Her recent work has appeared on NPR stations, on Southern Foodway Alliance's Gravy podcast, and in In These Times, among others. Her website is allisonbsalerno.com.