The Dangerous Numbers Game in Immigration Coverage: A Radio Journalist Talks about the Effects of Lazy Reporting, 'Opinion Journalism,' and Some Inherent Difficulties in Accurately Telling This Complicated Story

By Robbins, Ted | Nieman Reports, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

The Dangerous Numbers Game in Immigration Coverage: A Radio Journalist Talks about the Effects of Lazy Reporting, 'Opinion Journalism,' and Some Inherent Difficulties in Accurately Telling This Complicated Story


Robbins, Ted, Nieman Reports


"First thing to remember," said author and journalist Charles Bowden at dinner, "is that any number you hear about illegal immigration is a lie." His was a cynical warning issued to a group of journalists gathered in his hometown of Tucson, Arizona for a seminar called "Covering the Border" sponsored by the Institute for Justice in Journalism. But his perspective seemed a fair one, considering the uncritical way that some reporters absorb, then simply repeat numbers they are given by advocates of one side or another, failing to do the necessary leg work to try to either assure their accuracy or at least understand the broader context of the issues that the figures are aligned with.

Hearing Bowden's words made me think that though the numbers them selves might not be "lies," they likely don't often well represent the "truth" when it comes to coverage of illegal immigration issues.

Just before attending this seminar, I'd aired a three-part series exploring the identity of Phoenix, Arizona broadcast on NPR's "Morning Edition." The middle part of the series focused on the effects of illegal immigration on the city. In my reporting, I'd said the immigration debate is "driven largely by emotion, rather than data," and very soon I received about a dozen e-mails accusing me of biased reporting and ignorance about available research. From one side of the political spectrum came charges that I'd ignored studies showing how illegal immigrants were responsible for escalating crime rates, along with a rise in public costs for health care, social services, and schools. From the other side came accusations that I'd failed to use research showing how these workers contributed to the Social Security system while the work they were doing kept the economy afloat.

Aware of much of this research, my reporting had convinced me that, at worst, these "findings" were generated and used by agenda-driven organizations or, at best, were based on assumptions that even the researchers admitted to me were "mushy." After all, illegal immigrants are also "undocumented immigrants" so, by definition, this population is officially uncountable. More than a few of these illegals whom I've interviewed are uncomfortable answering research-like questions--even when asked anonymously.

Sifting Through the Numbers

So how does a reporter determine the "facts" in reporting such a story? To start with, it is imperative to investigate how information about these people and the lives they lead in this country is derived. It's the question every reporter needs to ask a source: "How do you know?"

Start with the most basic statistic: How many illegal immigrants are in this country? One widely quoted source puts the number in the range of 10 to 12 million, while another has it in the range of 20 million. The generally accepted--and more widely used--number is 12 million, and it comes from Jeffrey Passel at the Pew Hispanic Center. Passel is a former researcher with the U.S. Census Bureau, which is still where his data come from. To derive this figure, he used what's called the "residual method," which means that he took the total number of people who anonymously identified themselves as "immigrants," then subtracts the number of legal immigrants--those who have documents--and the residual number is those who are here illegally. But Passel's calculations are based on old data (the 2000 census), which had 10 million as the residual number. To get his current figure, he estimated that two million more have arrived during the past six years.

In 2004, investigative reporters Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele reported in Time magazine that as many as three million illegal immigrants enter the country each year. In a telephone interview, Barlett told me he believes the total number of illegal immigrants is perhaps as high as 20 million. He cited a study done by the investment firm Bear Stearns that looked at data collected in so-called "gateway communities" far from the border, such as in North Carolina. …

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