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Immigration Journalism Fellow discusses work on unaccompanied migrant minors and media coverage of immigration
Ian Gordon was selected as an Immigration Journalism Fellow in 2013 to cover the current system in place for processing (and often deporting) unaccompanied border-crossing children, many of whom experienced trauma during or after their entry into the United States. In the July / August 2014 Issue of Mother Jones, Gordon published "70,000 Kids Will Show Up Alone at Our Border This Year. What Happens to Them?"
On September 19, Gordon joined the French-American Foundation for its Partners and Funder Luncheon to discuss his work and the importance of the Foundation's Fellowship to promote complete and responsible media coverage of immigration and integration. Jones is the copy editor at Mother Jones and a reporter who covers immigration, sports, and Latin America. His reporting has taken him throughout the Caribbean and Central America, and his work has appeared in ESPN the Magazine, Wired, and Slate.
Ian, thank you for talking to us about your experience as an Immigration Journalism Fellow of the Foundation and the great work you produced for Mother Jones. You published your work on migrant children just before the nation and President Obama really started to pay attention to this phenomenon and emphasize the political significance of undocumented migrant children coming to the United States without adult supervision. What inspired you to cover this topic?
Ever since I lived in a rural community in the Guatemalan highlands in 2006, I’ve been interested in migration and deportation, particularly of young people. When I went to UC-Berkeley to get my master’s degree in Latin American studies several years later, that’s what I studied: return migration and deportation to rural Guatemala. So I was pretty familiar with the region and the migration trends even before getting started on this project. But it was my wife’s work in the Oakland (California) Unified School District—she’s an art teacher at Oakland International High School—that brought me closer to the issue of unaccompanied child migrants and the trauma they encounter before, during, and after their journeys to the United States.
What was the reaction to your story specifically?
The response has been incredible. Because it deals with kids and teens, it’s the kind of piece that resonates with so many people. Not only that, but we published the story just as it was becoming a national issue—right after President Obama called it a humanitarian crisis. I can’t even tell you how many emails I received over the summer from concerned readers who wanted to help these kids, whether that meant donate to charities working with them or even permanently adopt one or more child migrants.
What was your reaction to the media hype that quickly came to this subject? Did this hype reflect an actual crisis or sudden shift from what you had observed in your reporting, or was this an example of flash attention being paid to an issue that had already been in formation?
It has been surreal, to be honest. When I first received funding from the French-American Foundation to do this reporting, I realized that the topic was totally off the radar of many immigration experts and scholars. It really was a small niche, particularly when compared to larger issues like comprehensive immigration reform and even the DREAM Act.
So it was a bit strange to watch the story become a national news story practically overnight. All of a sudden, there were child migrant experts on every cable news show! A lot of that had to do with the visuals coming from the Border Patrol stations, where kids were crammed in before being turned over to Health and Human Services. Seeing those images really cemented the story in a lot of people’s minds, I think.
How would you place the reaction to your story and the general media and political outcry that followed immediately thereafter in the greater fabric of media coverage of immigration? How do you think the media do in covering issues of immigration generally? Is coverage realistic, holistic, nuanced, political?
Everyone wanted a piece of the story, of course, and politicians were no different. The attempts to spin it in every direction—the kids were here because of a failed system, they were proto-terrorists, they were vectors of disease, they were proof of a failed War on Drugs, etc.—were dizzying. I think there were many outlets that managed to balance human stories with complex political and societal ones. Unfortunately, there were also many outlets that struggled to grasp the intricate legal issues surrounding unaccompanied child migrants and really did their readers and viewers a disservice.
Immigration is a tough topic to parachute into. It’s not surprising, then, that the reporters and outlets that did the best job covering unaccompanied child migrants were also the reporters and outlets that already do a great job covering immigration as a consistent beat.
More generally, I’d say that media coverage of immigration is realistic, holistic, nuanced, and political—it’s all of those things, and more, because the media isn’t just one monolithic thing. There’s the national media and local media and ethnic media and newspapers and magazines and radio and TV and so on, and they all have their own ways of presenting complicated stories. That said, I think there could be more, and more consistent, coverage of immigration, not just the story of people crossing borders but also of transnational communities and identities. For a country with such a foundational immigration history, we have a fairly shallow understanding of how immigration has worked and continues to work on different levels in the United States.
How could media improve their coverage of immigration, a relatively complex issue that ranges from the political discourse on this subject to the everyday experience of migrants themselves?
Ultimately, this is a question of devoting reporting resources to an important beat. If you do, you’ll get wide-ranging, surprising stories that transcend borders and upend the traditional narratives. If you don’t, you’ll always be starting from scratch when a big immigration-related story hits, and you’ll spend most of your time re-reporting the work that other outlets have already produced.
What impact do programs such as the French-American Foundation’s Immigration Journalism Fellowship and Award have on journalism, the diversity of subjects covered and ideas expressed?
More than anything, I think these sorts of fellowships give reporters the material (and even psychological) support to dig deeply into a story and see it to its natural end. So often there’s a return on investment question in journalism: Will the product be worth all this work? When a reporter has financial backing for reporting trips, outlets are more likely to give him or her a little bit of rope—“Sure, see what you can do.” Without that support, those stories might not happen.
Many say journalism is in the midst of a crisis in terms of funding and business models that are rapidly trying to adjust to new technology and media? What has been the impact on the art of journalism?
We’ve seen a number of new media models in the past few years, and it bears watching to see what will emerge next. But journalists are much more energized than they were when I left undergrad with a journalism degree in 2003. Back then, everyone was lamenting the death of newspapers. So much has changed. These days, digital-native journalists and the technology itself have fundamentally changed the way we produce and read content. I’m far more optimistic about journalism, and even journalism funding, now than I was a decade ago.
You work for Mother Jones, a non-profit media outlet that follows a non-traditional funding model? How does a non-profit publication alter coverage and journalistic possibilities?
Some of it has to do with having a super-engaged readership, which we’re lucky to have at Mother Jones. Our tagline is “smart, fearless journalism,” and we pride ourselves on our history of hard-hitting investigative journalism, from the Ford Pinto story in the late ’70s to the Mitt Romney 47 percent story last election cycle. I think our nonprofit status, and the fact that we don’t feel beholden to corporate advertisers, has helped link our work with an audience looking for real reporting in a soundbite-heavy media world.