October 27, 2022

I spent some memorable early years in journalism covering college basketball in North Carolina. When I was on press row for Duke-Carolina duels in the late 1990s and 2000s, I was unaware that immigrants from Mexico and Central America were settling in Siler City, some 40 miles to the west, many to work at the nearby chicken plant. 

I know all about it now. As Director of Journalism Partnerships at Define American, a nonprofit organization working to humanize the way the media portrays immigrants, I’ve been researching how North Carolina’s news outlets cover immigration. Short answer: not nearly as well as they do basketball.

The demographics of North Carolina are changing – the immigrant population there has nearly doubled in the last 20 years, more than twice the rate of the rest of the nation. 

But in Define American’s report released Wednesday, “Reimagining Immigration: North Carolina’s Case for the Nation,” we show how local news outlets aren’t reflecting those changes. 

Out of nearly 300 media outlets across the state, there are only three reporters dedicated to covering immigrant communities. That’s down from six in 2021. The largest legacy newspapers no longer have a reporter consistently focused on immigrant communities, leaving it instead to public radio and Spanish-language news outlets.

That’s a serious problem for the industry, if not for democracy. If people do not understand their newest neighbors, they will be inclined to believe dangerous myths about them. 

Disinformation is soaring, and so is xenophobia. Trust in the media, meanwhile, is plummeting, as are the number of local news organizations across the country. 

We chose North Carolina as a case study for local news so that we can offer solutions for journalists. Why the Tar Heel state? 

Some 1,200 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, it’s a bellwether for the nation. It’s a political swing state where immigration has fueled its agricultural and technological economy. Its expanding immigrant diversity has contributed to vibrant cultural hubs. And yet, it has the third-highest number of counties that cooperate with federal immigration enforcement officers. It’s a complex place.  

Paul Cuadros, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, captured the Latin American migration to North Carolina best in his seminal 2006 book, A Home on the Field, which takes place in Siler City. He takes the “Friday Night Lights” approach in chronicling a high school soccer team of immigrants he coached, one that became a state powerhouse.  

A mural celebrating diversity in Siler City, North Carolina. (Liz Robbins/ Define American)

It was during March Madness this year that I visited Siler City. I walked past tiendas selling sandwiches, bodegas offering bus trips to Mexico, and an immigrant center, serving a community that the latest census lists as 47% Hispanic. 

I stopped at the mural showing smiling faces of color and the words, “Celebrate Diversity.” Was this a reminder or a plea? After all, it took until 2019 for the surrounding Chatham County to remove its Confederate statue. 

Cuadros, meanwhile, bemoaned today’s coverage of immigrant communities in the state as “piecemeal.” Siler City’s local newspaper, The Chatham News + Record, had started a Spanish-language version, La Voz, with a grant during the pandemic. When funding waned and the lead bilingual reporter left for a job in a law office, La Voz went on hiatus. 

Jane Elizabeth, a longtime news executive and former News & Observer managing editor, said that local legacy news is missing an opportunity. “I think it’s such a shame that we have this infrastructure in place already, this news dissemination vehicle that reaches so many people in the state, but we don’t have the content that everyone wants to read,” she told me. 

Part of that has to do with language access. My multilingual reporting partner in North Carolina, Victoria Bouloubasis, has been covering immigrant communities for nearly a decade as an independent journalist.

“The majority of local news reporters, despite the best intentions, don’t speak the language of their sources and arrive to interviews without an interpreter,” she said. “Newsrooms don’t have a protocol or line item for this important step.”

The result, she added, falls into a pattern: “News stories and features that often support the collective ‘shock and awe’ over immigrants’ existing here. But there is no dearth of diversity here, and there hasn’t ever been.” 

The failure to reflect the full diversity of the immigrant population came through in our content analysis of 22 news outlets that spanned the state and media type. Conducted by the  Media Ecosystems Analysis Group, the analysis showed that while Latinx communities dominated, news outlets severely neglected Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. They represent nearly a third of all immigrants in the state (compared to the half that are Latinx), but were only featured in less than 5% of news stories.

Consistent coverage of immigrant communities matters because of the prevailing misinformation that news consumers receive about immigrants. The University of Florida’s Center for Public Interest Communications conducted a survey of 1,160 North Carolinians for our report. Those who said they knew the most about immigration actually knew the least – and were most likely to believe harmful stereotypes. 

We found, however, that good journalism can help shift those perspectives. In 2021, the News & Observer of Raleigh published a story about immigrants from India who established a local minor league cricket team. The piece, by a former Report for America corps member, Laura Brache, showed how the players encouraged the town to build world-class cricket facilities that drew crowds and spurred the local economy.

In our survey, 46% of the audience said they believed that immigrants took jobs and opportunities away from those born in the United States. We don’t know if they changed their minds about this, but we know that after reading the story, 94% of the participants saw the immigrants in the story, at least, as “good citizens for our country.” 

The lesson is a powerful one: Immigration coverage shouldn’t just be about policy, but people. The more news organizations integrate relatable topics like sports and business into their coverage of immigrant communities, the less immigrants are seen as the “other.” Centering these communities can also lead to new subscribers. It’s not only responsible journalism; it’s good business.  

That’s why collaborations between Spanish and English language media outlets are attracting new audiences, and can serve as a model for other states.  

Enlace Latino NC, the first Spanish-language nonprofit digital news outlet, started by immigrants Paola Jaramillo and Walter Gomez, is geared towards informing and sourcing its Spanish-speaking readers. They cover the statehouse in Raleigh in order to educate residents about the mechanics of voting. Bouloubasis has worked with them to publish stories about labor issues, environmental struggles and farmworkers’ rights. They deliver their content through multiple methods: a digital newspaper, newsletters, podcasts and community forums.  

Jaramillo’s motto? “Don’t weigh in clicks, but weigh in conversations.” 

WFAE, the National Public Radio Station in Charlotte, partnered with the state’s oldest Spanish-language newspaper, La Noticia, to fill coverage gaps and rebuild trust in the immigrant community.   

Telemundo started its first local news affiliate in Charlotte, in the newsroom of the ABC station, WSOC, precisely to leverage interest in the 2018 World Cup. Today, both stations simulcast Charlotte FC, the state’s Major League Soccer franchise. For their daily newscasts, they pool resources and community sources. 

Our report concludes with seven recommendations that news leaders and reporters can implement now to strengthen their coverage of immigration.

Journalists know that there’s no cheering in the press box. But we can still root for the story. To me, that story is local journalism innovating to include all communities, especially those beyond the box score.    

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
Liz Robbins spent 19 years covering sports, New York, and immigration for The New York Times. She is the Director of Journalism Partnerships at Define…
Liz Robbins

More News

Back to News