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Best Practices

When President Trump signed the travel ban in January 27, 2017 it threw families across the world into chaos. As airports and passengers tried to navigate the new and confusing status quo, news media’s initial coverage of the ban had an outsized focus on two things: analysis of Trump’s new ban from experts on immigration policy and dispatches filed by journalists who were flocking to the airports to document the chaos.

It was during this initial news cycle on the travel ban that the founders of Borderless Magazine found there wasn’t enough reporting focused on the personal experiences of the immigrants trying to navigate the complex and, at times, dangerous immigration policies currently in effect. As we began our reporting and started talking to at-risk immigrant sources, we very quickly realized that we needed a set of ethical standards to specifically address the unique dangers facing someone who is a refugee, asylum seeker or of undocumented status who chooses to share their story with journalists for publication.

The Society of Professional Journalists’ code does advocate for minimizing harm to sources by both balancing the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort and showing compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage. However in practice, due to the unique risks our sources face, the Borderless team created an addendum to that code that places an emphasis on not just filing a news report on an immigrant’s situation, but also including our sources in the Borderless storytelling process.

Above all, we call on ourselves and other journalists to avoid “the second wound” — the hurtful impact that thoughtless, inaccurate and careless reporting can have on vulnerable immigrants often fleeing war, instability and tragedy. As journalists we have an obligation to protect sources, not jeopardize their psychological state or immigration status.

To this end, Borderless makes sure to not specify a person’s immigration status unless it is relevant to the story. Immigration laws are complex, and our storytelling format doesn’t state as a fact that someone has violated the law without sufficient attribution. Our narratives seek to provide relevance and context and avoid being careless with language. We strive to be specific whenever possible in describing an individual’s status by using phrasing like, “She entered the country to attend college but overstayed her student visa” or, “He was brought here as a child by his parents, who entered the U.S. without a visa.”

The majority of the sources we interview are not in positions of power. So unlike an elected official or law enforcement source they don’t come into regular contact with news media. Because of this we don’t assume our sources understand the complexity and danger of immigration law and how going public with their personal narrative may impact their lives.

In every interview we are sure to explain not only how their story will be shared to the public, but also the potential consequences — like Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents using news articles to identify and detain people. During our reporting and editing process we explicitly ask sources what could put them or their family in danger, either here in the United States or abroad.

This is why we work with our sources to help them tell their story in their words using transformative storytelling techniques. We want to empower sources to tell their story their way after living through difficult, often dehumanizing experiences especially during conflict. We want them to know that their lives — and stories — add great value to this world.

First and foremost, we’re cautious of trauma triggers while reporting. Fetishizing someone’s trauma, especially in the context of war, is a betrayal of not only the source’s trust but adds to the dehumanization of immigrants as a group of exotic “others” who are separate from “mainstream” society. We treat all our sources not as victims but as survivors.

During our reporting process we empower sources by sharing their stories before publication. In order to provide anonymity and humanize our sources, we also collaborate with artists to create illustrated portraits of the people we interview instead of relying on photography.

Want to implement our approach? Here’s a detailed list of our best practices:

Before the interview

  • Use transformative storytelling. Ask a source for input in how their story should be told.
  • Don’t assume that a source understands the complexity and dangers of immigration law, or how the story could impact their status or security. Go above and beyond to protect your source’s identity.
  • Ask what could put them (or their family) in danger both here and abroad. Be careful not to endanger a source’s family members overseas.
  • Be aware of identifiers that could jeopardize their immigration status.
  • Ask where is the most comfortable location to do an interview. Go to a safe space for them and you.
  • If you plan on bringing another reporter or photographer, let the source know in advance.
  • There is nothing dignified about taking photos of vulnerable people who don’t look and feel their best.
  • Discuss what images will accompany the story before the interview. Photography can be a source of stress. Empower sources to help you capture the right image — be it an illustration or photograph — to accompany their story.

During the interview

  • Be cautious of trauma triggers. For instance, don’t ask someone “feels” about a difficult or horrible experience in their life. You can start the interview with asking them what they do and don’t feel comfortable talking about today.
  • Go in person when possible.
  • Explain why you are asking certain questions.

Before publication

  • Don’t sensationalize traumatic events.
  • Budget in enough time to do edits with a source.
  • Empower a source by sharing your story or quotes with them before publication.
  • If you are unable to share the story, make sure the source is aware of the tone and read them their quotes.

Looking for more guidance?

Here’s what other organizations recommend when covering immigrants and immigration:

Los Angeles Times

  • Avoid terms like “illegal immigration” and “illegal alien.”
  • Don’t specify a person’s immigration status unless it is relevant to the story. Immigration laws are complex. Don’t state as a fact that someone has violated the law without sufficient attribution.
  • Be specific whenever possible in describing an individual’s status: “She entered the country to attend college but overstayed her student visa.” OR “He was brought here as a child by his parents, who entered the U.S. without a visa.”

Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma:

  • Be careful with tricky immigration terms like “benefit,” “temporary,” and “relief.”
  • Provide context in your stories and use precise language to describe immigration statuses.
  • Become familiar with immigrant organizations and groups working in your area and get to know them. Mutual trust is important for building relationships.
  • Expect that new immigrants will have some history of trauma. Take breaks during interviews and redirect conversation if interviewee is overwhelmed.
  • Fact check in a respectful manner, keeping in mind that an immigrant may not be able to share their whole story with you due to immigration proceedings or concerns for their safety.
  • Warn immigrants of the possible consequences of using their names and identifiers in a story. If they understand these and still want to use their names, respect their decision.
  • Establish ground rules early on in an interview. You don’t want to spend 20 minutes interviewing someone only for them to say that you can’t use their name or that their comments are off the record.
  • One day in immigration court will blow your mind. Get to know immigration attorneys.
  • Cover immigrants, not immigration. Use their voices to shed light on immigration policy and studies.
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Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma’s Ethical Reporting on Traumatized People:

  • Show respect, even in the “media scrum.”
  • Take no for an answer.
  • Get the facts right. Accuracy in reporting a trauma victim’s circumstances is paramount.
  • Get “informed consent” where possible. How do we know that person (the traumatized interview subject) is in a solid emotional space to make a decision that is actually going to live with them for the rest of their lives?
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Nieman Reports, How to Do an Interview — When Trauma Is the Topic:

  • It’s just a totally different landscape when dealing with someone who’s been traumatized than say, a public figure. They don’t know the rules or the cat and mouse game.
  • Time is crucial. It’s insulting to a victim to go in and take their story and leave and put it in the newspaper without having that relationship — without them being able to say this is OK and this is not.
  • Take time to build trust.
  • Learn the language of the community that you’re reporting on.
  • The most important thing is to let people tell the whole story so they know that you’re willing to listen to it. Don’t cut people off, stop halfway through their story.
  • Make sure that sources understand that they could go through a pretty emotional experience during the interview. You want to make sure that there’s full disclosure about what they might go through so they can mentally prepare.
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