Journalists need to become aware of their own biases when covering migration, panelists said at Knight Center’s 2nd diversity conference - Journalism Courses by Knight Center
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September 16, 2022

Journalists need to become aware of their own biases when covering migration, panelists said at Knight Center’s 2nd diversity conference

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Self-exploration exercises, including immigrant journalists in newsrooms and telling stories for immigrants (and not only about immigrants) are some of the tips to promote a more diverse and inclusive coverage of migration, according to panelists who took part in the Second Latin American Conference on Diversity in Journalism.

The opening panel of the second day of the conference, on migration, brought together Ángeles Mariscal, Mexican journalist and contributor for Chiapas Paralelo and Aristegui Noticias; Patricia Mercado, director and founder of the Mexico-based digital news outlet Conexión Migrante; and Héctor Villa León, Venezuelan journalist living in Peru and co-founder of Cápsula Migrante. They talked about migration with moderator Freya León, trainer at Puentes de Comunicación and editor of Efecto Cocuyo.

Ángeles Mariscal began the talk with an invitation to ask how narratives are constructed in practice. That is to say, starting out with a kind of “self-exploration” exercise in which journalists get to understand how those values “that permeate their whole being” and that are part of each person on a daily basis are shaping the narratives when covering issues such as migration.

According to her, when migration and its coverage is usually discussed, the topic stays at the level of an analysis of public policies or best practices in journalism to cover migration. But little is said, she said, about the journalist him or herself.

“This part of self-analysis is extremely important, [to ask ourselves] from what point of view I’m creating narratives day by day, what are my views, who do I choose to interview and who I don’t. If there is a group of immigrants, if there is a caravan, the journalist always, always, always chooses. And we choose what we consider important,” Mariscal said. “What I want to put on the table is what optics are you looking through. Our journalist self is watching and becomes part of the coverage.”

It is possible that looks full of xenophobia, racism and discrimination are part of the journalists, she said while giving a figure: 56% of people in Mexico acknowledged having had racist and discriminatory attitudes. The figure, which is part of Mexico’s National Discrimination Survey, also shows that this discrimination is directed against people with different skin color, economic conditions or culture.

“We have to ask ourselves if we are not also part of this series of [anti] values, taboos, and cultural views,” she said.

In the media, migration is usually brought out as a factor in the competition for resources, in the incidence of violence and crime, and even in harm to a population. “Little do we stop to see how much the journalist had to do with it and not the editor [of the news outlet]. Whether we are the ones who are putting on the table these situations that are detrimental to the integration of the immigrant population, respect for their rights and their positive inclusion in society.

Héctor Villa León, who in addition to being a journalist is also an immigrant in Peru, called on large traditional media as well as native digital media to include immigrant journalists in their newsrooms, or at least have a close knowledge of this topic.

In Peru, for example, some media’s coverage of the Venezuelan community’s migratory wave led to the stigmatization of those arriving in the country. Although it was not the language used in the media, social media echoed this stigmatization. It was common to use the word “veneco” in a derogatory manner, Villa León said.

In the midst of this difficult situation, which was later compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, Cápsula Migrante was created. Its purpose was to provide this population with the necessary information to help them cope with their condition as immigrants and with the pandemic. According to Villa León, the pandemic made the situation even more complicated for Venezuelan immigrants who, in addition to not receiving the necessary help, did not receive information.

“It was a very complicated context for all countries, but Venezuelans practically did not exist for the media,” Villa León said. “There was a huge information gap.”

The journalist insisted that in order to avoid these information gaps and stigmatizing narratives, immigrant journalists should be included either as part of the editorial staff or as consultants. He also agreed with Madrigal on the need to look internally and strive to avoid narratives that discriminate.

“Journalists, above all, should make adjustments to be less stigmatizing and help integrate immigrants to the country,” Villa León said.

Panel on migration during the Second Latin American Conference on Diversity in Journalism
Panel on migration during the Second Latin American Conference on Diversity in Journalism (Photo: Screenshot)

The strategy of Patricia Mercado, of Conexión Migrante, was from the start of the news outlet to speak for immigrants and not about immigrants because she understood them to be a “population that is constantly vulnerable.” From governments through public policies as well as from the media through their narratives on migration.

Mercado, for example, spoke of contrasting figures between racialized immigrants (from Mexico, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Venezuela, among other countries) and Ukrainian immigrants seeking to enter the United States. While 12,000 humanitarian permits were processed for Ukrainian persons between January and April 2022, 9,600 applications had been processed for racialized persons located on the northern border of Mexico since March 2020.

Without ignoring the seriousness of the war in Ukraine, Mercado did call for an analysis of the coverage of this difference.

“What kind of coverage did we make at the time and what kind do we make on migration in the continent?” Mercado asked. “We must start thinking about what kind of coverage we do as media and what empathy we have or don’t have around the migration phenomenon. Starting out by not calling them ‘illegal’ in the news and then by telling immigrants’ stories of effort, struggle and success. Not only stories of when they are caught, deported or die.”

She stressed the need to better understand the phenomenon, not only to cover it better but also with respect for the human rights of immigrants.

Mercado spoke of the differences among Latin American immigrants within the United States. For example, the very different conditions between those who have documentation and those who do not. She said that this leads to a lack of empathy among immigrants themselves. This is an aspect that the media should not overlook either.

She also stressed the need to talk about migration not only from the point of view of the insecurity and violence that generates it, but also about issues such as climate change, which also contributes to migration. For this reason, she called on the media not to get stuck with “platitudes.”

“[Not] to cover immigrants only when tragedy strikes, only when it is fashionable, only when politicians are interested in talking about them,” Mercado said. “When the tragedy ends, the coverage also ends. We need to present a different face of migration, to help us accept and understand a phenomenon that is here to stay.”

The Migration panel is available here on the Knight Center’s YouTube channel.