Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Would you let this person in? Why? What did you do wrong?

Tennessean narrows focus to core question: "It's unknown why Gurrola was targeted and how her attacker knew when to strike"

I'm still struggling with whether it's right to report an alleged crime victim's immigration status, which was the basis of my post yesterday about Maria Gurrolla*, the Nashville mother who appeared before the press last week to report that her newborn son had been stolen by someone posing as an immigration agent.

Here's how an actual journalist (which I am not) compared the dilemma about mentioning immigration status in a story to the issue of mentioning race, and this quote was part of the Poynter.org piece I linked to yesterday:
Immigration, in some respects, is like another thorny identifier in stories: race. We've been taught that you only identify one's race if race is central to the story. Immigration status mandates a similar threshold. (Of course, identifying someone's race will never get them deported.)
My question is whether the alleged victim's actual immigration status should be in the story. Using the test above, is the victim's actual immigration status "central" to the story of an alleged abduction in which the alleged perpetrator posed as an immigration agent?

Here's why the immigration status of the alleged victim might not be central to the story, even when the alleged perpetrator poses as an immigration agent:

1. The Question. The central question is a combination of, "why was the alleged victim targeted," and "why was the immigration agent ruse chosen?"

2. The Possible Answers. Possible answers to one or both of those questions include the following:

(a) that the alleged victim had observable characteristics that are equated with problematic visa status, like the Spanish language and/or ethnicity (see “Alderman Cherry responded, ‘If they’re speaking Spanish, I tend to think they are illegal.’”)

(b) that the alleged victim had observable characteristics that are equated with the Hispanic community, which has a heightened word-of-mouth awareness of being on the wrong end of an immigration raid, whether justified or not, and also proximity to people who would be subject to an immigration raid, or

(c) the alleged victim’s actual immigration status, which if tenuous, and also if that fact was known by the alleged perpetrator, would imply that the perpetrator had more information about the alleged victim than what could be obtained by casual observation.

Addressing Question 1 by reporting that the alleged perpetrator's motive and strategy are unknown - as the Tennessean did this morning - is central to the story. Going straight to Answer 2(c) without even mentioning Question 1 is not central to the story. Answer 2(c) becomes central to the story after Question 1 has been mentioned first, as well as 2(a) and 2(b) or any other possible answers. Answer 2(c) also becomes central to the story when facts are revealed that make it the actual or more likely answer.

Why does this matter to me? Maybe because it leaves a bad taste in my mouth to see an alleged victim hounded by questions of what the victim might have done wrong. Also, if the assumption is that someone who opens the door for an immigration agent might be hiding an immigration problem, then what is the assumption about someone who refuses to open the door for an immigration agent?

Wading into the questions journalists ask themselves about story content has led me to appreciate the following people for the reasons given below:

For their reporting

Chris Echegaray and Kate Howard of the Tennessean for reporting this morning that "[i]t's unknown why Gurrola was targeted and how her attacker knew when to strike." It more directly addresses the question that Christian Grantham said was worth asking, and it is more elegantly worded than my suggestion.

The Nashville Scene's Liz Garrigan, over at the Pith blog, in which she reported the opinion of immigration attorneys that the Department of Children's Services would not base an intervention on the immigration status of the mother.

Kyle Swanson of the City Paper for confirming that Children's Services wouldn't take children away from their parents because of unclear immigration status.

Kristin Hall and the AP for pointing out that the police considered the mother's immigration status to be irrelevant to the investigation, at least with the facts they had at first (I say "at first" because of the shocking twist in the case revealed late Monday).

For sharing the journalist's point of view

WKRN's Christian Grantham, who has addressed my questions head-on over at Nashville Is Talking. As of last night, I had asked why other abduction stories on WKRN's web site didn't go into the facts behind the ruses in those cases, and why reporting on the unknown immigration status of the alleged victim is more central than reporting on the unknown motive of the alleged perpetrator. Christian has been kind enough to answer my questions twice in the comments.

Another reporter who explained to me that reporting on the mother's immigration status helps the reader see the events through her eyes.

For his comment in yesterday's post

To Mario, who commented yesterday about the U visa, for victims of certain crimes, if at the end of the day this story does reveal a visaless victim:
The U-visa provides temporary legal status, valid up to 4 years, which includes employment authorization and the ability to bring one's immediate relatives into the country. The temporary legal status can transition into permanent status. Congress authorized the U-visas, recognizing that immigrant crime victims, particularly women and children, hesitate to call police for fear of being deported. To qualify for a U-visa, applicants must demonstrate that they are willing to assist or have already assisted in the investigation and/or prosecution of criminal activity identified in the 2000 Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act.

For law enforcement

They found the missing newborn in less than a week.

*Is it "Gurrola" or "Gurrolla"? The Tennessean this morning is reporting "Gurrola." The Nashville police department had previously reported both spellings, even in the same press release, but it appears that corrections have been made to unify the police department's spelling to "Gurrolla." On the other hand, the FBI's criminal complaint against the alleged abductor uses "Gurrola" exclusively. Google News searches show that there are many more stories with the "Gurrolla" spelling than with the "Gurrola" spelling.

Photo of NCIS badge by larry zou. Licensed under Creative Commons.

1 comment:

  1. Personally, I don't think there is much to debate here. The immigration status isn't integral to the story, but the mere mention of it these days guarantees controversy, and thats what newspapers crave above all else. Just another institution making the undocumented "less than."


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