Reporter recalls personal lessons taught by national legislation
The reintroduction of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act on May 11 marks the latest efforts of immigration reform supporters to provide legal status and a path to citizenship for thousands of undocumented students who were brought to the United States as children.
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During the spring 2011 semester, a story I wrote about the DREAM Act triggered reactions that illustrated journalistic impact and ethics in a powerful way.
In preparation for the story, I interviewed two undocumented students from the University of Texas. Before the interviews, I identified myself as a reporter with Accent, the Austin Community College newspaper, and both students consented to the publication of their names, interviews and photographs.
A few weeks after publication, one of the students pleaded with our editor-in-chief and adviser to remove his name from the paper’s online edition.
Accent’s policy is not to remove accurate information from published stories. As journalists, we have an ethical responsibility to report facts accurately and fairly regardless of the opinions of our readers.
However, as journalists, we must also weigh our duty to inform against a story’s potential to cause harm.
The student said he didn’t know the article would be published on the paper’s website and said that his mother had stopped going to work for fear of deportation, based on publicity generated by the online story.
I felt terrible.
Nonetheless, in addition to consenting to the use of his identity, the student had participated in a national DREAM Act rally in Washington D.C., and had come out as undocumented in various public forums before our story was published.
After considering the counsel of college newspaper advisers and weighing the interests and responsibilities of all parties involved, our editor-in-chief removed the student’s name and interview from our online story and posted a note indicating that the story had been modified from the print edition.
The decision was not made lightly. Ethical duties to our readers and our subject had collided. No matter the resolution, an ethical obligation would be bruised.
I learned more about journalistic ethics and impact from this experience than I could have from any journalism class or textbook.
Going forward, in addition to identifying myself as a reporter, I will stress that our articles also appear online where access is practically unlimited. This is the age of media convergence.
Update: Nov. 8, 2011
Several months have passed and I have revisited the original article and compared it with the revised one.
The exclusion of the second undocumented student does affect the story. The excluded young man was from an Asian country, and he gave an often unrealized perspective of the issue because the majority of undocumented students, especially in Texas, are from Mexico. Through the telling of his story, readers were presented with a broader view of the issue.
From a journalistic standpoint, the excluded portion of the story provided a unique angle. However, as stated before, our paper’s position was to weigh the public’s right to know with the potential harm to the student and his family.