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The Style Guide To Writing A Sensitive Immigrant Story
Why is the media so utterly useless on immigration? Brenda Walker has uncovered an interesting Publisher's Memo.
The following guide is designed for you young and/or inexperienced writers on how to fashion an article about immigration that is acceptable to modern journalistic standards of diversity and multicultural values.
Management wishes that the newsroom speak in one voice about newcomers in America and how they contribute to our marvelous diversity which only adds to our strength. We have included examples to make it perfectly clear the tone we want. Standard phrases that may be used often are indicated within quotes.
This is not rocket science, people! Follow the approved boilerplate and you will do very well.
Rather than do factual articles that would inform (and possibly alarm) readers about exploding population growth and rapidly changing ethnicity, this paper stays above any divisive material that might be seen as anti-immigrant.
Giving ammunition to those who don't like the demographic transformation of America does not fit the business plan here at the PC Press.
While facts may be occasionally appropriate as background color, this newspaper is looking for human interest—that means drama, characters and emotions in play. Bring out the David and Goliath angle, particularly the hard-working immigrant up against the machinery of the Uncaring State.
Is the person illegal in some sort of dry, lawbook sense? Don't dwell on that insignificant detail, and be sure to use the term "undocumented" at all times. We are pro-immigrant at this paper and don't want anyone to forget it, particularly the new multicultural readers we are still trying to attract.
In writing about the "plight" of immigrants, it is important to choose your subject well. Find a personable immigrant family, preferably with a winsome child ("Rolando... with almond eyes and a mop of brown hair... one of the unintended victims of Sept. 11"). Use tragic anecdotes about the evil system crushing poor people "in search of a better life." Use plenty of quotes, particularly complaints about how unfairly they are treated by an America grown cold and heartless toward the millions streaming through its borders.
This slant makes the paper appear concerned with social justice issues. Emphasize the struggle and frustration. When there is a success, don't forget those "tears of joy." Imagine you are doing a promo for Save the Children.
One Seattle story began with a vignette of an immigrant mom staying home from work with sick kids and struck just the right note as it described how the little moppets "fought off fevers and struggled to keep down cups of chicken soup." Chicken soup! They weren't even Jewish! Come to think of it, what could be more universal than chicken soup? We all love chicken soup when we are sick.
Details about the kiddies transitioning in school—learning a few phrases of English, playing soccer, teaching bits of their language to new American friends—are another good element. Of course they want to become Americans, more or less, although as part of a multicultural salad with separate crunchy units rather than into an old-fashioned retro melting pot. (One insightful memo from the Publisher refers to assimilation as 'meltdown'—a little humor from the Big Guy!) Today's young people will be citizens of the world, so our paper should underline the new globalist sensibilities.
Adherence to the nation-state model is not how this company envisions the future.
Another topic that is always good for recycling is the increasing influence of Hispanic voters. If you have a penchant for Census figures and other numerics, an explanation of the expanding Latino voting bloc and the scramble of politicians for their votes is good. The fact that few new Hispanic citizens are interested in bothering to vote is irrelevant.
September 11 brought new challenges to the sensitive reporter. Above all, stories should not inspire anti-Muslim hatred, since it would be judgmental to note that Arabs living in America have not been enthusiastic in their denunciations of terrorism. They are probably just shy, and we shouldn't inspect their priorities in loyalty too closely. One approach would be to find an Arab still incarcerated without any civil rights and then probe victimhood psychology in a unique jailhouse setting.
Don't burden readers with annoying facts about how illegal aliens (remember to call them "the undocumented") might use up scarce resources like education and healthcare that old-fashioned nationalists feel should be used for America's own disadvantaged. Definitely employ remarks from the subjects about how they "work hard" and "pay taxes," but don't get into minutia about how those taxes don't completely cover the benefits received. It's too distracting from the emotional flow.
A word of warning: we don't want to see any controversial pieces about immigrants and crime. Even if immigrants do have a higher rate of crime than Americans, presumably they are just having a hard time adjusting to a new culture. It would be mean-spirited to mention the high rates of incarceration and would play into the hands of right-wing extremists who believe laws should be enforced. Let's just not go there.
Recently some of our editors have received complaints that our paper is ignoring unpleasant effects that so many millions of immigrants are having on our own local people. Management feels that such concerns are disturbingly selfish, what with many low-skilled jobs going undone. (Even with millions of immigrant workers, it is still hard to find a decent gardener or maid for under $5 per hour!) Furthermore, these are "jobs that Americans don't want." Just because they may pay considerably less than an American can live on is no excuse. Blue-collar Americans should just cozy up in their housing arrangements to save money if they really want to work.
People simply have to accommodate progress to get along.
Above all, this paper emphasizes that we are a "nation of immigrants" and we expect our news stories to reflect that ideology, regardless of facts.
December 10, 2002