Liz Robbins

547. Define American: Here’s a model for reimagining immigration news

As the World Cup continues on, and people around the globe poke fun at Americans for wrongly calling the world’s most popular game “soccer” instead of by its true name, it’s worth taking a step back and thinking about what sports can teach people about immigration. 

Liz Robbins spent more than half of her 19 years in journalism covering sports, including the Olympics and the NBA, before becoming the Brooklyn bureau chief of the New York Times and falling in love with community reporting, specifically in immigrant communities. She covered immigration issues under both the Obama and Trump administrations, including the revocation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Act that allowed people who had moved to the United States as children without proper paperwork to stay in the United States, and a family of Syrian refugees who were in route to Indiana when the state’s governor at the time — now former Vice President Mike Pence — announced he was blocking them from landing. 

Robbins now serves as director of journalism partnerships for Define American, a multimedia organization that, among other things, sets out to help provide tools to journalists to better cover immigration issues. A recent project set out to look at how demographic changes in North Carolina, where the immigrant population has doubled in the last 20 years “at twice the rate of the rest of the nation,” with the largest immigrant population influx coming among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. 

“Immigrants are one-third of the population but the coverage of AAPI immigrants is less than 4 percent of all immigration coverage” in North Carolina, she says. “Newsrooms aren’t doing their due diligence. You need to understand the communities you’re reporting on. There’s not enough people power to do this. That’s an issue.” 

The Research Triangle portion of the state, where Duke University, North Carolina State University and University of North Carolina Chapel Hill are all located, has a high density of students and people from India. And they love their cricket, to the point where a group of residents and cricket fans were working to get the city to invest in upgrades to a local cricket stadium in the hopes of drawing large tournaments. 

Before reading an article titled “Crazy for cricket” published in the News and Observer, 1,160 people were asked their opinions on immigrants. Nearly a majority, 46 percent of people, “believe they took resources away from U.S.-born people. Other findings, like 38 percent said they thought immigrants were criminals or created criminal acts. Basically it was not positive,” Robbins says.

“They said they take jobs and resources. Thirty-one percent thought that immigration should be decreased. Then they read this story and 94 percent of people agreed the immigrants in the story are good citizens for our country. Eighty percent agreed they are people like me. Ninety seven percent agreed they are good people. Very powerful metrics on this to show the impacts. We don’t know if their attitudes or beliefs changed, we just know, ancillary, what one story written in a way that integrates sports and business and highlights the economic contributions of an immigrant population, one story can help people see a different perspective.” 

While not every newsroom has a cricket stadium nearby, or a different sports equivalent, most municipalities have immigrants and refugees in their coverage areas. There are lessons to be learned about how to cover the immigrant population in a way that relates to other news of the day. 

This matches up well with a renewed focus and dedication to community-based and solutions journalism, Robbins says.

“This reevaluates who the news is for, but also don’t make it about your community, make it for the community, with the community. This is what journalism should be doing. … The more each person, and I’m also talking about editors, understands that immigration naturally intersects with so many subjects, the more we can educate people on the history. You have to want it first.” 

Liz Robbins, director of journalism partnerships for Define American, discusses how newsrooms covering demographic changes in North Carolina have created a model for others to follow and reimagine immigration news for their own communities.

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