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From AJR,   June 1998  issue

Too Much Information?   

A profile of an illegal alien in Raleigh's News & Observer led to the man's arrest. Should the paper have revealed his name, workplace and immigration status?


By Sharyn Vane
Sharyn Vane has written and edited at papers in Colorado, Florida and Texas.      

Julio Granados agreed in January to allow Raleigh into his life.

He let News & Observer reporter Gigi Anders come to the bodega where he worked, to the home he shared with other Mexican immigrants – even to the shrine he'd built in a nearby thicket of trees. He told her all about sending money home to his family in Mexico and his lonely life in America.

On March 8, readers of the North Carolina daily opened their Sunday papers to find "Heart without a home," two full pages on Julio's life. And two weeks later, they learned of the postscript: Granados, 21, and five other illegal aliens at the El Mandado market had been arrested by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Agents in Charlotte had seen the N&O's article – which mentioned Granados' undocumented status and included details about where he lived and worked – and decided to arrest him.

Incensed, the Hispanic community blamed the N&O. And some of the paper's own reporters and editors were asking whether the newspaper had acted responsibly and whether it had weighed the ramifications of its actions before publishing the story.

In the weeks after the story ran and Granados was arrested, Anders received dozens of calls – including death threats – at home and at work. The paper published letters decrying the story as "irresponsible journalism" that "destroyed this young man's life." Anders and her editors met with the staff as well as with members of the Latino community to talk about what the paper did and why it did it. Executive Editor Anders Gyllenhaal wrote a Sunday column praising the piece but acknowledging there were things editors might do differently next time.

Central to the story of Julio Granados and its aftermath is the paper's role. How much responsibility do journalists have in ensuring that their sources – particularly those who aren't media savvy – fully understand the potential consequences of a page one story?

"Our goal here was not to do anything but try and explain this person's life,"

Gyllenhaal says. "We certainly didn't mean for this to happen."

News & Observer Features Editor Felicia Gressette had noted an increase in the numbers of immigrants working in and around the city. This was a new phenomenon for white-bread Raleigh; Gressette thought it made sense to humanize these faceless workers.

"If you live here in the Triangle, it's increasingly clear that there's a growing Hispanic population. You see Hispanic people more and more," Gressette says. "And for an awful lot of people, middle-class whites, it's outside of their frame of reference. We wanted to do a story that would get inside the life and world of someone who had come to the Triangle."

She assigned the story to Anders, a Cuban-born features reporter fluent in Spanish who had profiled other Hispanics in the community. Anders knew exactly where to look: the El Mandado bodega in north Raleigh, a sort of crossroads for the area's growing Hispanic population. Over lunch, she explained to proprietress Ana Roldan what she was looking for and asked Roldan if she knew anyone who might fit that description.

"She didn't hesitate," Anders recalls. "She said, 'Julio. He's perfect. He's exceptional.' "

And he was exceptional, Anders would find out. Though a bit bemused as to why the News & Observer would be interested in him, he gamely let Anders and photographer Robert Miller join him at work at El Mandado as he unpacked crates of mangoes and stocked shelves with stacks of tortillas, at home as he strummed his acoustic guitar and hummed "Ave Maria," and in the woods behind his house as he struggled through the brambles to a makeshift altar with a statue of the Virgin of Guadelupe. A former seminary student, he – as articulate and thoughtful in their Spanish-language interviews, detailing memories of Mexico made painful by their distance from his current life.

Anders was excited. She knew she had the makings of a great profile on her hands. But she admits to being worried when she asked Granados about his U.S. work status and he told her he had no papers.

"I felt my heart sinking because I thought, 'He's going to pull out,' " Anders remembers. "But he didn't. I said, 'OK, do you understand that your name is going in this story? And your picture? Do you understand what this means?' And he asked, 'Do they read the N&O in Charlotte?' Charlotte is a synonym for the INS. And I said, 'Yes.'

"He said, 'Might I get deported?' I said, 'You might.' And he said, 'Well, if that's what happens, then I guess it's my destiny.' That's the word he used – destiny."

Granados says he doesn't remember it that way: He told the N&O in April that he gave Anders permission to use his name but not his status. "My name, yes," he said. "But not the fact that I'm here without papers."

Still, Anders feels she gave Granados fair warning. "This is, to my mind, a full-grown person making his own decision," she says.

She continued reporting, keeping Gressette up to date on her progress. Eventually the story became a contender for Sunday front page play. Projects editor Rob Waters wondered aloud at a news meeting exactly what Granados had been told.

"I remember thinking that this would be at least an implicit invitation to the INS to come get this guy," Waters says. "I just made a very simple comment asking if this had been considered and whether Julio himself had been told of this. It wasn't really explored; I was simply raising one question, and I think I remember being told that those questions were being raised."

The story went to press.

"I think that there was some naiveté on our part about what the reaction would be," Executive Editor Gyllenhaal says. "Part of what happened was that a lot of people in the community are divided on the whole question of undocumented workers, and some of them who are opposed called the INS and said, 'You look at this, you've gotta do something about this.' I don't think we thought that was going to happen... We just didn't think the thing through."

Sixteen days after the story ran, INS agents arrived mid-morning at El Mandado, loading Granados and five others into a van for the trip to jail. Anders got a hysterical call at home from Roldan and promptly called Gressette to let her know what had happened. Word began filtering through the newsroom, and Gyllenhaal and Managing Editor Melanie Sill called a meeting. Some 50 to 60 staffers showed up for the hour-long session.

"It was not a relaxed meeting," Anders says, describing pointed queries on how much Granados really understood about what might happen to him after the story ran. Had a trusting 21-year-old immigrant been exploited? How much had she talked with Granados about the INS? And what had she told the Roldans?

"It was quite a healthy crowd," says state government editor Linda Williams. "A lot of people asked questions. I think people were concerned, and they expressed those concerns."

Williams was one of those people. She says that when she read Anders' story that Sunday morning, she instantly thought, "Oh my God, he's going to be deported." While Anders may have talked with Granados about the potential repercussions of the profile, Williams says, she also should have talked with Roldan and her husband, Marco, about the story's implications for them.

ýThe people who own the store – why were they not quoted in the story about why they were hiring people illegally? How do they justify hiring him?" Williams asks. "Maybe you can just think in the absence of any knowledge about what happened that the reporter sat down and went through and gave them all the opportunity to comment, but it appears that these people didn't know what was going on... It looks like we didn't give them the full opportunity to comment."

Williams also says the minute detail in the story was a road map for government agents. "We're telling the public we're neutral, we can't take sides. I think we erred by including all that information. We actually look like an arm of the INS," she says.

If the newsroom was concerned, Raleigh readers were downright angry. They barraged the paper with letters, and they weren't fan letters. "Irresponsible journalism resulted in the arrest of Julio Granados, the hard-working Mexican featured in your March 8 article," fumed Eunice Brock and Charles Tanquary of Chapel Hill. "This feature story could have been written equally forcefully without showing Granados' face or revealing his name and place of employment."

"I am sure he will enjoy being back in his homeland, courtesy of the N&O," wrote Charlie Ramirez of Apex. "Whatever happened to journalistic integrity?"

The Roldans say Anders misled them about how much detail she would include in her story. "She said, 'I will not write something like that. I will not write something to put Julio or your business in any trouble,' " Marco Roldan insists. Anders says she made no such pronouncements to the couple.

INS agents say they received copies of the Granados article from two sources. But Charlotte-based agent Scott Sherrill says it was more than just the front page play that triggered action. "There were some things in there that made us feel like it was important that we do this," Sherrill says. "The fact that he claims he was smuggled across the border... It implies in there that he eluded arrest by the Border Patrol by running after he was smuggled across the border. That makes it a little more of a serious violation."

Gyllenhaal tackled the controversy in a column on March 29, "Lessons in a story gone wrong." He defended the piece as a "powerful package." But he acknowledged that the fact that the story was so detailed led INS agents to Granados at El Mandado. And he said that the N&O didn't think hard enough about the impact of such a story on "one largely powerless, fairly ordinary young Mexican."

He says that the paper could have left out the name of the market, one crucial detail that might have kept the INS from acting.

Others aren't so sure. Anders points out that because the story was indeed so acutely detailed, leaving out the name of the market would have made the N&O look like it was deliberately trying to hide Granados from the INS – something the paper wouldn't do for other lawbreakers.

"I think a lot of people felt this way because the story was sympathetic... If Julio was a wife-beater or a gang-banger, we wouldn't shield him," Anders says.

That's a view shared by Roberto Suro, a deputy national editor at the Washington Post and author of "Strangers Among Us: How Latino Immigration is Transforming America."

"One thing that makes me uncomfortable is this idea that someone who is just a straightforward illegal alien, basically for economic reasons, somehow deserves some kind of protection," Suro says. "How much do you get in the business of making judgments? What if you're writing about people who use and sell drugs – you won't ID a user, but you would ID a seller? You're making a judgment that one violation of the law is somehow less serious than another."

Suro also questions whether someone like Granados was truly ignorant of the backlash potential of such a story: "He was certainly conversant with the law as it applies to be here illegally. To have gotten as far as he did – to go across the border all the way to North Carolina, he had to have had a fair knowledge of the law as it applies to the foreign-born and what's required to avoid getting caught. I mean, he may not have understood the U.S. tax code, but where it mattered, he knew."

What he may not have understood was how likely the INS was to come after him, says Leonel Sanchez, who covers immigration and Latino issues for the San Diego Union-Tribune. In an area like Raleigh where immigration is still relatively new, it's likely that someone like Granados would stand out as a target more than in areas where Hispanic faces are quite common, Sanchez says.

"It's a very sensitive matter, and you really have to take into account the demographics of the place," he says. "San Diego is conservative, but it is a border town and Hispanics have a bigger political role. They're likely to make noise if something like [the Granados arrest] happened."

Even so, Sanchez says, Union-Tribune editors have decided to withhold information about undocumented workers in some stories. He used only first names in a piece about throngs turning themselves in to the INS office, after extensive discussion with editors, because of concerns that using full names might alert employers. In another piece, about a family of 10 seeking citizenship, editors decided to use full names but describe where they worked as "a laundromat" or "a factory."

Gressette says the paper's responsibility is simply to deal honestly with subjects about their potential risks. "If they consent, it's our obligation to tell it," she says. "I think where the process went awry was in not discussing what the ripple effects could be... As part of our process we should have discussed whether we should not name the place."

ranados is now free on bond posted by the city's Hispanic community as he awaits a deportation hearing in Atlanta in July. He told the N&O in April that he wants to stay in the United States to work. There has been no resolution to the questions posed by his arrest, and the debate his story sparked is far from over.

"There is still a difference of opinion in the newsroom," Gressette says. "There's no consensus about what we did wrong or about what we should have done."

Within a week of the N&O's newsroom meeting, editors and Anders gathered again to discuss the ramifications of what happened to Granados – this time with about 25 area Latinos. "There's a level of trust that you want with all your readers," Gyllenhaal says. "That level has been hurt by this as far as some of the Hispanic community is concerned."

The two-hour session generated a fair amount of finger-pointing as well as discussion of how the newspaper could better cover the Hispanic community. Though no promises were made, Sill, the managing editor, is well aware that those community leaders will be watching – and reading – to see what the N&O does. A follow-up meeting is planned for July.

"I don't feel that that's a subject that's closed," Sill says. "It's still something to be cognizant of... It's clear that there are several things still to talk about, not just this story but how we do our coverage and our relationship to their lives."

As editors weigh how they'll cover the news, the N&O has extended a financial olive branch. On April 30, Publisher Fred Crisp said the newspaper would give $5,000 to the Latino Fund, set up by a Durham church to help the six arrested at El Mandado. Crisp described the donation as "the right thing to do" but did ask that it only be used for living expenses. "It would be inappropriate for us to contribute to the legal defense that our coverage helped to provoke," Crisp wrote in a letter accompanying the donation.

And it's clear that Granados' legacy to the N&O lies in the area of internal communication. Although the newsroom still doesn't agree on how much information about him should have been revealed to readers, top editors all say that subject should have been much more fully aired in the newsroom.

"It's a reminder for me of taking care over big stories that are going to have an impact," Sill says. Editors are more apt to carefully consider the consequences of pieces that cast suspicion on a person or a program, she points out.

"But this was a sympathetic story that ended up having an impact." l