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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.

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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.

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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

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