Lee Rood’s Story Behind The Story

17 Jan

By Lee Rood

Des Moines Register

Jan. 17, 2011

I wish all journalism conferences could be like the one held in Oklahoma for the IJJ fellows. I walked away with so much: dozens of new resources and sources, the advice of some excellent reporters who had written much more about immigration than me, and on-the-scene reporting one of a places where immigration had taken center stage.

Coming into the fellowship, I had just completed a series of stories about the effects of widespread arrests by a new ICE fugitive unit in Iowa. I could sense as I was reporting the climate in our state had changed, becoming a little more hard-line regarding illegal immigration than the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” approach once embraced by so many in this meatpacking-agriculture state. I knew many Iowans were also at a crossroads in regard to how they would perceive any new state proposals likely to in the absence of federal immigration reform,.

The project I eventually completed attempted to frame the debate anticipated during the election season, based on facts rather than all the hyperbole. During the summer, I reported on the effects of the more hard-line approach on immigration that Oklahomans decided to take. After the fellowship, I did a lot of research about the different approaches being taken in different states to immigration issues. Dan Kowalski’s Bender’s Immigration Report, just one of the many resources I learned about, proved invaluable at this stage.

In the fall, I wrote about facts and myths surrounding the migration of immigrants, business and crime in the aftermath of the passage of Arizona’s toughest-in-the-nation legislation. After that, I examined an emerging proposal in Utah, where acrimony had yielded to a more even-handed approach to the state’s immigration issues.

Then I wrote about Iowa candidates’ views on immigration, poll results showing Iowans’ changing views and the state’s unique situation with regards to the immigration debate. One clear fact that people on both sides cannot escape: Illegal immigration may be one of the only things helping the state’s struggling economy to grow, according to several experts.

The stories — which included compelling video from both Utah and Arizona — shaped perfectly the immigration debate leading up to this fall’s gubernatorial election.

Our new governor (who is actually a former governor) and Republican-dominated Legislature championed a more hard-line stance on immigration during the campaign like many politicians across the country. But I’m told it’s highly unlikely any hard-line approach will pass this year at the Legislature. My stories made the facts clear before much of the debate and rhetoric began in earnest, which is critical to any thoughtful debate. They also acted as a starting point for Iowans to respond, which has happened mostly on our editorial pages.

I would not have been able to do these stories without the fellowship. My newspaper, like many others these days, is limiting dramatically its travel budget. The ability to use the fellowship money to travel help me witness and learn about the climate in other states, and the sources I gained during the fellowship proved invaluable.

Tips to other reporters:

° Try to find a unique angle to tell you story. So many stories were being written about immigration at the time I wrote my pieces that I knew I had to approach them from a compelling place. One was a Native American reservation on the Arizona border, where record numbers of border-crossers had been dying due to increased enforcement.

° With this or any other highly controversial issue, check your personal views at the door. Readers recognize bias, and fairness and context is imperative right now.

° Recognize when there is momentum to tell a certain kind of story and when there isn’t. During the campaign, there were reporters here who wanted to write features about struggling immigrants, as if to win over their readers.

I believe you have to learn where a majority of your readers stand on the issues, and respect that. A lot of perspectives are critical before a big policy change is made.

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