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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.

Beat structure

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.

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