When journalism becomes activism

propaganda Few immigrant groups have it easy in the United States. When my maternal grandparents from Ireland immigrated in the early 1920s, they saw "No Irish Need Apply" signs in big-city storefronts. So it's natural for reporters to feel sympathy for immigrants, even those who came to this country illegally. Yet reporters need to ask themselves questions. At what point does my story about an ethnic group bleed into activism on their behalf? Shouldn't the voices of natives be heard?

Granted, these queries are not specific to religion journalists. But they pertain to them, as the growing number of Hispanics changes American religion.

Take this story by Pamela Constable of The Washington Post. Her story is an overview of the local Hispanic Catholic community on the eve of Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Washington. Yet the heart of the story is a grievance by local Hispanic Catholics against not only their neighbors but also their co-religionists. As Constable quotes one Hispanic Catholic,

"We had to struggle for 10 years to be able to hold a Spanish Mass here," said Dan Masa, an immigrant from Peru who assists at communion at St. Joseph's Church in Herndon. The parish had virtually no Hispanics once, but now more than 1,000 people pour into the Spanish Mass on Sunday afternoons. "Some of the [people] still look at us funny, but we are all children of God," he said.

Masa sounds upset and possibly resentful. Are his complaints and grievances valid? Constable never says. There are no quotes from the church's pastor or an old member of the congregation. Instead, Constable tells readers that the Washington archdiocese held its first Mass in Spanish in 1963 and holds many today. That information doesn't answer the question.

Earlier in the story, Constable noted that Hispanic Catholics have another grievance against their non-Hispanic Catholic (i.e. white Catholic) neighbors:

Many churches offer Masses in both English and Spanish, and a few are experimenting with bilingual services, but language and cultural barriers often divide congregations. In some cases, the immigration debate has further split Hispanic and non-Hispanic worshipers, especially in suburbs that have dealt with such acrimonious issues as day-laborer centers and police helping to enforce immigration laws.

Constable should have specified the immigration debate in question. Is she not referring to the debate over illegal immigration? Granted, later in the story Constable uses the term "illegal immigrants" to refer to Hispanic Catholics. But the reader is confused, and quite likely under the impression that the issue at hand is legal immigration. Constable should have been more accurate.

She also should have been fair, to those opposed to illegal immigration. She does not quote a single person, Catholic or non-Catholic, opposed to the practice. To be sure, the Catholic bishops are closer to the side of the liberals than the conservatives on this dispute. But for a reporter, the issue is fairness, not which side should win.

It's natural for reporters to treat immigrants with a lot of heart. But they also need to regard their grievances with their head. Otherwise, their stories become indistinguishable from an interest group's press release.

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