One of the greatest challenges for reporters covering Latino issues can be finding ways to write about the undocumented immigrant community without relying on statistics, studies or simple generalizations. It can be difficult, even close to impossible, to gain access to people whose very survival depends on their ability to live in the shadows.
Yet humanizing that population is essential to thorough coverage, especially for education writers. The growing presence of undocumented students and the hurdles they face is a key component of the schools beat.
This week, Arizona Republic reporter John Faherty provided an outstanding example of reporting that goes beyond the surface of this issue and delves deep into the lives of those affected in his narrative piece “On Their Own.” The story documents the day-to-day existence of three undocumented Arizona high school students, following them through their senior year in high school and into the beginning of life after graduation.
Faherty relies on the stories of the three boys, who shared a ragged trailer and are forced to cope with the fallout from Arizona’s harsh immigration law SB 1070, to illuminate the human side of the issue that is often lost amid political debate. The article is a powerful reminder of the value of gleaning story ideas and tips from those on the ground floor, the strength of letting our subjects’ lives speak for themselves, and the need to dig for the real story behind the statistics.
Faherty is a general assignment reporter who first began working in newspapers in 1987, then switched to television as a reporter and producer for about 15 years. He returned to newspapers to newspapers about eight years ago. I asked him to share some insight and background about the piece and the reporting it entailed.
Could you explain the genesis of the story? How did the idea for profiling the students come about?
Like a lot of the best stories, this one was found by a photographer. The teacher at the school who was/is closest to the boys, Jane McNamara, is the mother of a photographer here on staff. Her son told another photographer, Cheryl Evans. Cheryl and I have worked closely on some big projects in the past, so she talked to me about it. We both knew immediately that this story had a chance to be terrific. Our editors, fortunately, agreed.
How did you find the students? What obstacles did you encounter and how did you get around them?
We were expecting a major obstacle from their school, North High School. So very early on, we set up a meeting with the principal, vice principal and the district’s public information officer. Honestly, they could not have been more accommodating. We were so lucky. We needed to check at the front office whenever we went to the school, but that was our only limitation. We were never shadowed or anything. They just let us work. (Our only limitation – a perfectly reasonable one – was to not photograph other students.)
How was the reporting done? Did you spend time shadowing the three boys or did you reconstruct the action through interviews? What advantages/disadvantages did either method present?
We spent a year with these kids. I made a point of seeing them at least once a week for the whole year. So the story only included three instances of reconstruction. The rest was direct observation. The advantages were almost too numerous to count. But, certainly, the fact that they became very comfortable with us was important. They became so accustomed to us that they really became themselves. Plus we got to see them change and evolve over a year. Also, my editor, Josh Susong, had the brilliant idea of me writing something akin to a diary along the way. Each week, I would transfer my notes into a journal. At the end, that made the process so much easier.
What were you hoping the story would show?
I don’t have a good answer to that question. I guess I just wanted to show what life is like for a slice of our community.
What kind of response did you get?
Overwhelming positive. When you write about illegal immigration for The Arizona Republic, you typically get a lot of feedback from readers. Often it is strongly felt and critical. Not for this story. I received a gazillion phone calls and emails. Many asked how they could help these kids/young men.