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American Journalism Review
Naming Names  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   April/May 2006

Naming Names   

Newsrooms are struggling with the dilemma of whether to use the names of illegal immigrants. Anonymous sources are under fire as threats to credibility. Yet identifying undocumented immigrants could lead to their deportation.

By Lucy Hood
Lucy Hood (, a former reporter for the San Antonio Express-News, is a Washington, D.C.-based writer.     

Correction appended

Gloria Rubio is an upstanding member of her community in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The mother of three young children, she and her husband are active in parent organizations at their children's schools. They volunteer at church, at a local drug-free program and at other community groups. Rubio, an undocumented immigrant born in Mexico, is also diligent about paying her taxes. She told reporter Ginnie Graham of the Tulsa World that she considered it a demonstration of loyalty and support to her adopted country.

Rubio was the subject of a story Graham wrote in March 2005 about a tax service in Tulsa that caters to both legal and illegal immigrants. Graham hoped to shed light on a segment of the city's burgeoning immigrant population that contributes to both state and national tax rolls. "The intent of the story was not to find an illegal immigrant," she says, "but to showcase this service that helps immigrants to assimilate and pay taxes."

Graham, who covers the social services beat, had written about undocumented immigrants before. At times she'd withheld a name at the request of an immigrant or an agency that had facilitated an interview, but whether to use Rubio's name in this particular story was never an issue. Rubio had spoken to community groups about paying taxes; the tax service had handpicked her to be a spokesperson for the story; and when Graham asked her if she had a problem with her name and photograph appearing in the paper, Rubio said no. "And we asked her again," Graham says.

About a month after the story ran, agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement showed up at Rubio's house. They arrested her and began deportation proceedings after ICE's Oklahoma City office received an anonymous letter containing a copy of the story.

A year later, Graham still wonders what she could have done differently. "If this were to come up again, I would make it abundantly clear what the consequences would be," she says. "We tried to do that with this case. We asked her several times, 'Are you sure?' We explained she'd be on the front page and her picture would be there...

"I still have a hard time with that case," Graham says. "It obviously didn't turn out the way I wanted."

Rubio's story illustrates a dilemma faced by an increasing number of newsrooms in areas where large immigrant populations are integral parts of the community. These immigrants make news for all the same reasons � good and bad � as anyone else. Some graduate at the top of their class, run large, multinational corporations or, as members of the armed forces, risk their lives in defense of the country. Others engage in gang activity, hold up convenience stores and cause fatal accidents while driving drunk.

They also make news because as immigrants they're effecting change at every layer of society. They're altering everything from the way teachers teach to the way preachers preach. Census data from 2004 put the immigrant population at nearly 34.3 million, almost double what it was in 1990. Immigrants now make up 12 percent of the population and, according to a study by the Pew Hispanic Center, an estimated 30 percent of them are in the country illegally.

Of the undocumented, 78 percent are from Latin America, most of them from Mexico, and in unprecedented numbers they are going to places they've rarely gone before. "The highest growth of Latinos in the country is not happening in the big cities," says Rafael Olmeda, assistant city editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and vice president for print of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. "The largest percentage increase was in Raleigh, North Carolina. I love saying that, because it just shocks everyone."

In addition to North Carolina, they're going to Georgia, Nevada and Arkansas, as well as Utah, Tennessee and Iowa. And in many of these places, immigration has become a hot-button issue, pitting those who want to help immigrants assimilate against those who want them to go away. In fact, it's become a contentious issue nationwide, the result of both the immigrant influx and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Five years ago, "The climate was a lot different," says Daniel Gonz�lez, an immigration reporter for the Arizona Republic. President Bush had just been elected, and one of the first things he did was meet with Mexican President Vicente Fox. "It looked like immigration reform was going to happen that year," Gonz�lez says. But it didn't, not that year, or the next, or the next.

It still hasn't happened. Meanwhile, antiterrorism legislation has brought immigrants under greater scrutiny, and anti-terrorism sentiment has spilled over into anti-immigrant sentiment, making immigrant sources � especially the undocumented � more leery about appearing in the press. "People are much more reluctant to be interviewed," Gonz�lez says, "and much more reluctant to let us use their name."

Richard Ruelas, a metro columnist at the Arizona Republic, says Arizona is one arena where immigrants have been thrown into the spotlight by divisive efforts to restrict their rights and/or send them home. "The rhetoric heats up," Ruelas says, "and that's when you see a tendency for the people to want to stay quiet."

In short, the undocumented are retreating, becoming less willing to talk, while interest in immigrant issues is on the rise. That means reporters and editors often must decide if they are willing to conceal the identity of an illegal immigrant if that's what it takes to get the story. And if they do, how do they do it? Do they use the first name, or the last? Which details do they include and which ones do they leave out? Is it ethical to use a name, even with permission, if it could get someone deported?

It's analogous to writing about rape victims, whistle-blowers and people living under repressive regimes. Figuring out if, when and how to do that can be a daunting task, and with the credibility of journalism at a low point, if not an all-time low, it's even more difficult today. A 2005 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that newspapers' credibility with readers had fallen by 30 percentage points since 1985, when 84 percent of those surveyed said they believed most of what they read in their daily newspaper. That figure was 54 percent in 2004.

Some journalists believe that in the wake of fabrication scandals at such news organizations as the New York Times and USA Today, anonymous quotes should be used sparingly. "Survey after survey shows that readers think we just make up these quotes," says Owen Ullmann, deputy managing editor for news at USA Today, where a strict sourcing policy was put in place after the lies of former reporter Jack Kelley came to light in early 2004. "We try hard," Ullmann says, "to see if we really need to apply anonymity at the cost of reader skepticism or disbelief."

Editors will confront such balancing acts with increasing frequency as the immigrant issue moves to the forefront of debate, Ullmann predicts. "We'll be writing quite a bit about it in the coming months," he says, and each decision will be made on an individual basis. If another source can provide the same information, then there's no need to rely on an undocumented � and unnamed � immigrant. But "we've read stories before about people who are virtually treated as slaves or who suffocate in a truck," he says. "If one of them survives and tells an eyewitness story of their ordeal, I could see us granting them anonymity in that case."

According to Tom Rosenstiel, the director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, the decision to use a name or not hinges on a simple test � not an easy test, but a simple test: "Does the information I'm getting by promising confidentiality outweigh what I'm withholding from my audience to get it?"

The Society of Professional Journalists' ethics code says journalism's top priority is to report the truth. Journalists should "identify sources whenever feasible," the code says, yet they should use "special sensitivity" when dealing with inexperienced sources, and they should "show compassion for those who may be adversely affected by news coverage."

Says Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, "You have to assess the risk and make a decision that minimizes the harm to that individual but maximizes the ability to tell the truth."

The Arizona Republic is published in Phoenix, a city of 1.3 million people 150 miles north of the Mexican border. Like most other newsrooms, reporters and editors at the Arizona Republic make sourcing decisions about illegal immigrants on a case-by-case basis. But unlike most other newsrooms, the one at the Arizona Republic has a long tradition of covering immigrant issues and a long history of dealing with undocumented immigrants.

Phoenix is a major stopover for immigrants � legal and illegal � coming into the United States from Mexico. While many simply pass through on their way to destinations farther north, many others stay and settle in the Phoenix area, which is currently home to a foreign-born population of 304,000. Of the 810,000 immigrants statewide, an estimated 500,000 are undocumented. Of those, several have appeared in the paper, but never under a false name and very rarely without any name at all.

"We almost always try to name people," says immigration reporter Gonz�lez. In his six years covering either Latino affairs or immigration, Gonz�lez says he can't recall using an unnamed source. And the paper has a strict policy against the use of pseudonyms, so he typically works with � or around � the real name. "Mexican people have two last names," he says. "Sometimes we might use the least common of the two names."

Sometimes, he uses just the first name, or the first name and an initial, as he did in an October 2005 story about Javier P. and his wife, Janet, the parents of three children "who jumped a wall in Nogales in 1992," and, despite their illegal status, have become taxpaying members of the American middle class. Part of a four-day series, the story goes into great detail about the family. "They live in a tidy three-bedroom, two-bath house in a quiet northwest Phoenix neighborhood with leather sofas in the living room and a pickup and SUV in the garage," Gonz�lez wrote.

But he also chose to omit certain details, particularly ones that might have tipped off the neighbors. He didn't, for example, include the make and year of the truck or the names of the schools attended by the children. "We have all these details," Gonz�lez says, "which as a journalist is what you strive for, but you have to strike a balance."

Quite often, however, it doesn't become a balancing act. Both Gonz�lez and columnist Ruelas, who also writes extensively about immigration, have used the complete names of undocumented immigrants, and as far as they know, there have never been negative repercussions for sources in their stories or anyone else's at the paper. "There's such a large number of undocumented immigrants," says Gonz�lez, "it would be hard to figure out what Juan Martinez we're talking about."

Not only that, but the prevailing wisdom among immigration reporters and some attorneys is that the authorities are not likely to waste their time tracking down undocumented immigrants just because their names appear in the news stories. Ruelas says immigration officials have told him (unofficially) that they're not really interested in individual cases. "They're looking into smuggling operations," he says. "They concentrate on the big stuff. It's almost like the drug war. They're not concerned with the guy with the joint. They're concerned with the guy bringing in the truckload from Mexico."

But that's not always the case, Poynter's McBride says. Law enforcement officials may take action for any number of reasons. They may very simply have a visiting official to impress; or, as was the case in Tulsa, they may receive an anonymous note urging them to take action; or they may perceive a real threat. "Once you point out to law enforcement officials that someone is breaking the law," she says, "you sort of back them into the corner."

A case in point involved Raleigh's News & Observer. In March 1998 it published an in-depth story about an undocumented grocery worker named Julio Granados. The paper's purpose, McBride says, was to write about a growing community that was largely invisible to most of the N&O's readers. But the story attracted the attention of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (ICE's predecessor), and INS agents raided Granados' workplace and arrested him, four coworkers and a customer. (See "Too Much Information?" June 1998.)

At the time, then-Editor Anders Gyllenhaal (now editor of Minneapolis' Star Tribune) wrote an article saying those involved in the story thought they had taken all the appropriate steps, but in retrospect, the paper should have done things differently. "The fact is," he wrote, "we could have painted just as exhaustive a portrait of Granados without providing a road map that seemed to incite agents to make an example of someone who stands out merely because their story was published."

It's paramount that reporters be aware of the risks involved when they interview undocumented immigrants, McBride says, and they must know that there are no simple answers. "Journalists call us," she says, "and they want the rule." But there is no rule. Instead there's a process, one in which the reporter must evaluate whether the source is likely to be fired, deported or harassed. Is the source capable of assessing the risk? Does he or she understand the legal implications? "You have to ask a lot of questions," McBride says, "including what your own journalistic purpose is."

Gonz�lez, who has gone through the process many times, explains to his sources in as much detail as possible what the story is about, and he tells them very clearly what the consequences might be. At times, he says, the undocumented are willing to take the risk because they believe the story addresses an important issue. And some give their consent out of bravado. "It's important in those situations," he says, "to always make it clear that the person understands there could be an implication." And "once you've done that, you've done your job."

Across the country in Charleston, South Carolina � 1,500 miles from the nearest border crossing into Mexico � the city's burgeoning immigrant population is a very new phenomenon. Drawn by jobs in construction and landscaping, the immigrant community has rapidly become an integral part of the local economy. It grew in Charleston County by nearly 200 percent, from 5,832 to 15,409, between 1990 and 2004. "If you took away the ones that are illegal," says journalist Dave Munday, "we suspect it would kill the whole economy."

Yet until last spring the immigrant population was "fairly invisible," says Munday, a reporter at Charleston's Post and Courier. While the paper and other local media outlets have reported on the demographic shift in their midst, coverage of the immigrant community was sparse, Munday says, until a local politician brought the issue of illegal immigration to the forefront. Before that, there was rarely a need to ponder the pros and cons of naming undocumented sources. "I happened to be thrust into it," he says, "when the Rotary Club had a golf tournament."

It was a fundraising event the paper originally planned to mention in a blurb, but it morphed into a human-interest story when Munday learned that the proceeds would go toward a lifesaving heart operation for a young boy from Mexico. Munday didn't expect that it would become anything more than that, not until he visited the boy's home and learned that the family was in the country illegally. He returned to the newsroom, he recalls, "and said, 'Now what?'"

He checked with immigration officials, who told him they were typically busy chasing criminals and didn't have the time to pursue a single undocumented immigrant in North Charleston. He also checked with the Rotary Club, which did not have a problem with mentioning the boy's illegal status. But the family did, so Munday ultimately identified the boy only by his first name, Oscar, and mentioned that the family was undocumented. The alternative, he says, was that "we don't have a story at all."

That alternative � coupled with a growing inclination of immigrants to shy away from public exposure � concerns some journalists. There's a tendency "for the people to want to stay quiet," says the Arizona Republic's Ruelas. It's the result of heated anti-immigrant rhetoric, he says, and it worries him because it means that important stories will not be told, and other stories will be told in a way that skews perceptions. Take, for example, an undocumented high school student with stellar grades who is trying to get into college, or the college graduate prepared for a professional career. "It can be an education to some readers," Ruelas says, "to see a name and a face and not have it be a stereotype they associate with illegal immigrants."

Olmeda, of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, agrees. "I would hate to see good stories not told because of these considerations," he says. But there are other considerations.

"I don't advocate running out there," he says, "getting names, addresses and a picture, along with a map about how to get there for the ICE, all of which would be truth but not journalistically necessary."

Then again, he says, "It's not our job to protect the world... If you're here illegally, you're running the risk. As a journalist, I am not your risk. Your risk is what you've done."

It's easy to go back and forth. What's difficult, Olmeda says, is striking the proper balance between the need to tell the truth and an obligation to protect the people who are put in precarious positions because of that need to tell the truth.

"Is there a quick answer to that?" he muses. "Heavens no!"

Lucy Hood (, a former reporter for the San Antonio Express-News, is a Washington, D.C.-based writer.

Correction: A photo caption on page 57 of "Naming Names" misidentifies Owen Ullmann, USA Today's deputy managing editor for news, as Daniel González, an immigration reporter for the Arizona Republic. AJR regrets the error and apologizes to both men.



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