How to cover local refugee communities: Strategies for newsrooms and reporters
The word “refugee” evokes a certain image: people fleeing persecution or war-torn areas, living under harsh refugee camp conditions, starting a new life in a foreign country.
In reality, there are many different pictures.
The refugees who resettled in America in 2016 alone represent 107 countries and varied educational, economic, religious and ethnic backgrounds. Each refugee has his or her own story.
Collectively, their stories spread across the 3,306 cities and towns they have resettled in. For journalism, they represent an important and powerful subject. When shared in your local community, these stories can foster understanding, bridge divides and bring nuance to conversations about émigré issues.
In response to this opportunity for local newsrooms, I worked with the API staff as a summer fellow to develop the Refugee Reporting Resource, a tool to help local reporters better cover refugee populations. By using data from the Refugee Processing Center, the site allows users to see how many refugees have been resettled in their city and from where. It also provides resources including definitions of refugee-related terms and the resettlement process in America.
This study intends to help journalists learn how to use that data to build reporting and storytelling of their own. It is based on interviews with nine journalists who have covered refugee and immigrant-related issues. Through our conversations, I found commonalities in how newsrooms approach refugee coverage and a wealth of ideas about relationship building, newsgathering and storytelling processes.
Local refugee community coverage has the potential to help readers overcome stereotypes and connect with groups they might see as the “other,” said Sarika Bansal, editor of The Development Set and founder of Honeyguide Media. The Development Set covers global health, development and social impact, and Honeyguide Media is a nonprofit media organization that covers social issues.
“One of the biggest opportunities that journalism has is to help people rethink things they already know,” Bansal said. “Especially now, I think the topic of refugees has become so overly politicized. Anything journalists can do to help humanize a population is a great service to any readership.”
This project focuses on refugee populations, but it includes many concepts that can be applied to other minority groups that may be inadequately represented in the media.
One of the biggest opportunities that journalism has is to help people rethink things they already know. … Anything journalists can do to help humanize a population is a great service to any readership.”
Determining newsroom coverage style and practices
Deciding how to cover refugee issues will be different for every organization.
Newsrooms vary widely in size, structure and audiences, and the journalists interviewed for this study reflected this. They represent newsrooms of different sizes from Seattle to Lewiston, Maine.
Yet the approaches we find in this study fall into three basic categories. Each approach has its advantages and drawbacks.
- Many outlets had a beat that specifically covered refugees or a similar topic. The benefits of having a beat reporter assigned to refugee issues is ensuring refugee communities are not overlooked and the newsroom is regularly allocating resources to connect with local refugees. Conversely, it can potentially prevent newsrooms from approaching refugee-related issues holistically. Refugee communities, especially more established ones, can affect a town in ways that intersect with many different beats from business to education to policy.
- Some newsrooms had a specific refugee (or related) beat, but refugee coverage also fell into other beats at times. At many organizations that have a refugee or similar beat, coverage falls into other beats sometimes. Mila Koumpilova, cultures and immigration reporter at the Star-Tribune in Minneapolis, said this happens from time to time in her newsroom. “It’s inevitable that issues of refugees and immigrants will generally overlap with just about every other beat at the paper,” she said. “Just about any of my colleagues might find themselves stepping on my toes, which I never mind one bit because it’s such a broad beat.” This overlapping seems to be indicative of a newsroom that has numerous reporters and editors attuned to local refugee issues.
- Other organizations did not have a specific beat dedicated to refugee coverage, but the topic was generally covered by another beat reporter and/or spread throughout the newsroom. Having no specific refugee beat can make for more multifaceted refugee coverage with an “all hands on deck” attitude across the newsroom. However, in order to implement it effectively, numerous reporters have to be cognizant of local refugee issues and connected with these populations. This is the approach reporters take at the Sun Journal in Lewiston, Maine. Education and general assignment reporter Bonnie Washuk said she covers the majority of stories but she’s not the only one. “Coverage of refugees largely has fallen into education — today they make up nearly 25 percent of the Lewiston School Department’s student population,” she said. “However, it is not limited to education. We all cover stories when they pop up.”
There is no single best way to approach coverage refugees, and any course will depend on each individual newsroom’s needs, audiences and resources. But these offer the three basic directions.
Type of stories
The journalists interviewed for this study work for newsrooms that publish a variety of stories pertaining to refugee and immigrant issues.
Dallas Morning News senior immigration writer Dianne Solís’ coverage runs the gamut. “I’ll move from education stories to assimilation stories to legal stories such as Trump’s recent travel ban,” she said. “Stories range from features to those on recent government policies.”
Solís and other reporters get story ideas in the same way as other beats: by paying attention to trends and having access to pertinent local meetings. She cited the Jan. 27, 2017, executive order as an example: She spent three nights at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport after receiving a tip from a trusted source about a 50 Syrians being detained there.
But she knew about the story’s development beforehand from her connections. “Getting that kind of access is critical,” she said. “Anybody on this beat should be prepared to work unusual hours.”
You need to look at the full range of issues about refugee and immigrants and how they fit into your community.”
Some newsrooms published special series about refugees or immigrants, like the Houston Chronicle’s “The Million” series, which it published when the number of immigrants living in Harris County exceeded 1 million. Reporters covered the broad spectrum of ways immigrants impact their communities. This produced a wide variety of stories, from successful soccer teams led by immigrants to the ways local churches and religious practices have changed over time.
The series helped portray the myriad identities and experiences associated with being an immigrant, Chronicle deputy investigations editor and senior investigative reporter Lise Olsen said. When readers think about immigrants, she said, they generally think about policy stories and other serious issues but not necessarily the diverse ways they affect the areas they live.
“Immigrants and refugees affect every aspect of a city like Houston,” she said. “You need to look at the full range of issues about refugee and immigrants and how they fit into your community. From the schools and workplaces to how they contribute to county government initiatives to the influence many of them have on the arts and sports.”
Those interested can visit the Refugee Reporting Resource story angles page for a list of potential story angles and examples.
Building relationships with refugee communities
Local refugee communities may not be widely visible to the larger population in some areas, but there are a number of ways to effectively establish connections among these groups in your community.
Contacting local organizations designated to assist refugees is a good first step, especially for those who are unfamiliar with their area’s refugee populations. These organizations can offer more insight about local communities and community-specific issues as well as provide connections to refugees.
Examples include refugee resettlement organizations and entities that serve refugee groups on local or national levels. Resettlement organizations are entities that help newly arrived refugees get settled into their community; you can find resources and contacts in your state through this Office of Refugee Resettlement resource.
One example of a State Department-designated resettlement agency is International Rescue Committee, which has 28 locations in America. Larger organizations like IRC can provide context about statewide resettlement and population trends. Local organizations, which may vary widely based on the communities they serve, are another helpful resource for learning more about refugee community issues and events in the vicinity.
Making community-based connections is essential to any type of coverage, and the ways to connect with refugees are similar to other communities. This includes:
- Reaching out to community groups and leaders
Attending local events
Contacting schools and churches
Connecting with community guides or liaisons
Many of the interviewees for this study stressed the significance of making a sincere, intentional effort in getting to know these communities and organizations. Solís said these things are important in order to build trust with sources. “I try to spend time getting to know those at resettlement agencies and at schools so I can win trust about my sincere desire to tell their stories with authenticity from the inside out,” she said. Another way to make intentional connections is by attending community events like community meetings or celebrations, even if you’re not on assignment.
It’s also important, reporters told us, to take phone calls, respond to emails and listen to the communities — again, even if there might not be an immediate story to get from these interactions. As with any other group, making the time and effort in sincerely getting to know refugees is key.
Sharing compelling refugee community stories
One of the main goals of this project is to help reporters tell multifaceted and moving stories about refugees, so storytelling is at the heart of this goal. To write these kinds of complex stories, the author must have an in-depth understanding of both the issues and the people involved.
Writing refugee stories
Many journalists looking for compelling narratives find that refugee journey stories are a natural fit for this kind of storytelling. Focusing on a refugee family’s journey is an approach many reporters take.
This is one way Tallahassee Democrat reporter Nada Hassanein tells refugee stories. “I try to focus on their journey, coming here, and how that has affected them,” she said. Although it is a common approach, it provides opportunities for a vast array of stories because of each individual’s unique experiences and how they affect them.
Hassanein also tries to emphasize overarching similarities between refugee and non-refugee populations. “Everyone has the same wants and same needs and that’s what I try to reflect,” she said. Hassanein focuses on universal experiences so that, even when she’s describing an experience that might seem very different to some readers, it will still resonate with them on a basic level.
I try to focus on their journey, coming here, and how that has affected them.”
Another tactic to telling nuanced stories is balancing harrowing backstories with success stories and refugees’ lives here. “I would suggest that newspapers … balance refugees’ prior lives or their circumstances for leaving with what they’re doing now and how they fit into the broader community,” Lincoln Journal-Star reporter Zach Pluhacek said. This provides readers with a more full range of the refugee experience.
It can be easy to lean too heavily on overly dramatic and stereotypical tropes when telling refugees’ stories. It’s important to look at a refugee’s life in a broader perspective and remember there’s more to their identity than their refugee status, said Bansal, editor of The Development Set and founder of Honeyguide Media.
“Just because you have refugee status doesn’t mean that’s your whole identity,” she said. “If you ask someone, ‘What are the top five things you would use to describe yourself,’ they would be very different things. Maybe refugee isn’t even on the top five ways they would identify themselves.”
Here are some of the ways we learned from reporters to grapple with the challenges of stereotyping and oversimplifying—challenges that face journalists on any beat.
Among these suggestions:
- Make sure to get a variety of viewpoints. In this case that includes the individuals or families involved, related organizations and experts. Remember that there are often more than two sides to a story.
- Be open-minded. “It’s the same as all reporting: listen with an open mind, try to understand what makes them tick,” Seattle Times reporter Nina Shapiro said.
- Put your stories into larger context with facts and statistics. Look for contextual statistics that will help you and your audience understand the situation on a broader level.
- Share their unique truth with honesty and empathy. Hassanein came to this conclusion after struggling with a story about a refugee family who had “fresh wounds” after only being in Tallahassee a few months, she said. She found an angle after an editor asked her what that family’s message was. “I would say as journalists, we uphold the truth: What is this family’s truth?” she said. “What are they living, what is their reality? I think a lot of it has to do with empathy.” By keying in on that family’s message, she was able to identify the heart of her story and convey their truth in an honest and empathetic way.
Additional considerations for refugee interviews
The process of interviewing refugees can be challenging in itself. There are varied personalities, cultural norms and experiences. However, there are a few general points that can make the interview process smoother.
One of the biggest barriers to understanding various refugee populations can be language. Before interviewing, be aware of subjects’ fluency in English and get a translator if necessary. This could be a refugee resettlement worker, cultural liaison at a public school or refugee community leader.
Some reporters like to do research on a group’s cultural norms to avoid potentially offensive situations and help the interview run more smoothly. A cultural liaison — someone who can provide information about the customs and etiquette of a particular group — can also be helpful in resolving possible communication issues.
The amount of time a refugee has been in America can make a large difference. Especially when interviewing newly arrived refugees, be cognizant of their vulnerability as people who have arrived in a completely new culture, often with little support. Reporters should take time to explain their purpose and the implications of their interviews, Koumpilova said. “Even if the sources say up front they don’t have any questions, take the time to talk to them about your work and the article you are writing.” This can ease potential anxieties and help refugees better understand your intentions.
A cultural liaison … can also be helpful in resolving possible communication issues.”
Some refugees haven’t had experience or contact with the press, so reporters should be flexible and understanding if the interviewee doesn’t follow what might seem like obvious protocol. Pluhacek said subjects might later ask to retract certain statements or are uncomfortable with certain questions, for example. “While many journalists have strict rules for these things, it’s important to be flexible and understanding of different cultures,” he said.
Finally, many refugees have been through traumatic experiences and may be wary or nervous about being interviewed. This is reasonable considering that many had to go through incredibly high-stakes interviews during the resettlement process. Be sensitive to this while interviewing and make sure to respect their time and privacy, Bansal said.
Collaborating with refugee communities
While newsroom collaboration with local refugee communities isn’t common by any means, it can provide a way to connect different audiences by allowing refugees to share their own thoughts, feelings and experiences.
One example is the Sun Journal’s “Somali Voices” column. The Sun Journal is located in Lewiston, Maine, a city of 36,000 that has been home to Somali refugees since 2001. The column was implemented in 2016 and features locally known Somali refugees.
Washuk wanted to start the column as a way to better reflect the Somali population’s growing presence in the community. The topics covered have ranged from the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr (most Somalis are Muslim) to the election of Trump to the experience of being a refugee and graduating from high school.
She said it’s been a challenge to introduce this relatively new topic to the Somali community and manage busy schedules. She had to change her plan of having regularly contributing writers to asking potential columnists to write on a case-by-case basis. She has had success with this model by thinking of topics and reaching out to community members she thinks might be interested in writing them.
Washuk believes the columns have helped make the Somali community more visible in Lewiston. “I think it helps audiences connect better and it helps lift refugees’ status in the community as they ought to be,” she said.
Having a guest column is one of many possible ways to collaborate with minority communities. Reporters can utilize tools like Evrybit to let subjects tell their own stories by letting them upload original photos, video, and audio. While journalists should take care to utilize basic journalism practices like fact-checking in collaborative content, they can help break stereotypes by sharing individuals’ stories and experiences firsthand.
How to manage dissenting rhetoric
Refugee and immigrant-related issues tend to be politically charged, and some audience members are very adamant about sharing their oppositional views. Keeping these voices — which some reporters called a vocal minority — in check while trying not to inflame further discord can be a challenge.
Some journalists in this study respond to negative comments with facts. Cassandra Jaramillo, a reporter at the Dallas Morning News, wrote a follow-up feature after Jan. 27 executive order was published. One of the responses she got was an email saying refugees were the terrorists of 9/11. Jaramillo provided the reader with factual sources explaining why that statement was inaccurate.
She said this “fact-combatting technique” is her usual response to this kind of feedback. “I can’t necessarily get someone to change the way their heart feels, but I can come back to them and give them the facts,” she said.
Of course, with the rise of alt-right media and filter bubbles, this tactic doesn’t always succeed in hitting its mark. For example, the Lincoln-Journal Star published multiple explainer pieces about the refugee resettlement process when the Syrian refugee crisis hit its peak, but Pluhacek doesn’t believe it changed the minds of staunchly anti-immigration readers.
I can’t necessarily get someone to change the way their heart feels, but I can come back to them and give them the facts.”
“You can tell somebody 17 times how the process works and they’re still going to find holes in it,” he said. “It’s really difficult to convince someone who is really that concerned about refugees that they’re wrong or their concerns are not justified.”
He said that while the majority of the Journal-Star’s readers in the college town of Lincoln, Neb., are accepting of their refugee populations, there are some who don’t trust the vetting process and harbor doubts about newcomers from other countries. To him, the answer of addressing this issue comes down to a matter of respecting all audiences, finding commonalities among them and accepting that change doesn’t happen overnight.
Some of the doubts raised by dissenters are valid, Koumpilova said. In response to these kinds of questions, The Star Tribune has written some articles concerning costs and funding. “I find that it’s important and valuable to bring in those voices into our coverage and try to understand where the concerns are coming from,” she said. “I feel that doing some work around this question of cost gives us credibility in communicating with that portion of our readership.”
While she makes a concerted effort to engage with as many people as possible, there are occasional messages she chooses not to respond to — for example, an email outlining baseless and extreme theories.
When it comes to receiving comments with unsupported and hateful rhetoric, many of the reporters were in agreement that simply not engaging is the best response. “I wouldn’t say I address [skeptics],” Shapiro said. “All you can do is write honestly, empathetically and, hopefully, compellingly. Hopefully readers will take it in.” The same concepts pertaining to rich storytelling also apply here — writing humanizing stories about the refugee population helps to bridge divergent audiences.
All you can do is write honestly, empathetically and, hopefully, compellingly. Hopefully readers will take it in.”
Furthermore, implementing an effective commenting policy on the paper’s website and social media pages can cultivate more civil dialogue online. The Houston Chronicle, which often writes stories about immigrants to reflect its diverse population, enforces a comment policy to remove vitriolic comments from its website, Olsen said.
“Our comments on stories are subject to certain restrictions so we can delete people who are racist or offensive because of the policies we have,” she said. Implementing the policy helped clear away malicious comments more quickly and efficiently — before, they might have stayed on the site for a few days or a reporter would have to delete such comments herself.
Writing stories about refugees can produce resistance from different sides, but over time it can help bring diverse audiences together. For example, when the Sun Journal first started covering its Somali community, it received so many hateful comments it had to eliminate anonymity from its commenting system. In addition, it was difficult for education reporter Washuk to find willing Somali sources since it was in the early 2000s, right in the midst of 9/11-fueled Muslim backlash.
She’s found that over the years, both these challenges have eased up. The website receives much less hostility for its refugee coverage and the Somali population trusts her more, especially the younger generation that has grown up in Lewiston. “When I cover the annual refugee celebration day at Lewiston High School, they all want to be in the story,” she said. “It’s evolving well.”
While it can be easy to focus on negative responses to refugee stories, not all feedback is negative. To provide one of many examples, Tallahassee Democrat reporter Hassanein’s stories have made a positive local impact by spurring some readers into action.
“I got several emails from non-refugees asking how to help,” she said. “One woman who runs a soccer league for young boys wanted to extend an invitation to them to join her league for free.”
Making a concerted effort to cover local refugee populations isn’t a refugee issue — it’s a community issue. Utilizing the tools listed here and in the Refugee Reporting Resource is simply the beginning of this process.
Special thanks to the journalists who offered their insights and experiences on local refugee reporting:
- Sarika Bansal, The Development Set and Honeyguide Media
- Cassandra Jaramillo, Dallas Morning News
- Nada Hassanein, Tallahassee Democrat
- Mila Koumpilova, Star Tribune
- Lise Olsen, Houston Chronicle
- Zach Pluhacek, Lincoln Journal Star
- Dianne Solís, Dallas Morning News
- Nina Shapiro, The Seattle Times
- Bonnie Washuk, Sun Journal