For a journalist looking for a great continuing story, immigration is the gift that just keeps on giving. Demographic change, with immigration as the engine that powers it most strongly, is a subtext in virtually every beat covered: education, crime, taxes, economy, politics, growth, culture, religion, jobs, transportation and so much more.
I spent most of my 23-year newsroom career in what arguably is the nation's major immigration and demographics pressure-cooker — South Florida. And 10 years ago I moved to Arizona, which has become the newest frontline of the immigration story. Based on my experience and my long fascination with data in general and demographics in particular, I can promise that learning a bit about data-gathering and number-crunching will pay off in wonderful stories.
When I arrived in Florida in the mid-1970's, Miami still was known to the larger country as both a sun-and-fun play land and a place where your elderly relatives, particularly if they were Jewish from the Northeast, went to retire. But longtime residents were muttering then about the changes they saw happening: different languages heard on the streets, problems with crime, traffic jams, a boom in housing construction, draining of the Everglades, overwhelmed schools, overburdened emergency rooms — the whole litany of symptoms of rapid demographic change.
Change, indeed, was happening at a torrid pace. The median age of Miami Beach residents in 1980 was 65 years old, reflecting the city's abundance of small condos, retirement hotels, ethnic delis, and early-bird restaurant specials. By 1990, however, the median age had plummeted an astonishing two decades, to 45. And by the time of the 2000 census, the median age had fallen further to just 39 years old. This is a city that in just 20 years had to evolve from providing nursing homes and eldercare centers for its residents to opening elementary schools and child-care centers. This is a city that in the all-white 1960's had ordinances requiring African-American maids to be gone by dusk, but by the 1990's had a population that was majority Hispanic.
Demographic change has been the norm in South Florida since the first great post-war immigration wave to hit the United States, the flood of Cuban exiles who came to Miami after Fidel Castro took power in 1959. Then there was the so-called Mariel boatlift of 1980, when more than 100,000 new refugees arrived virtually overnight to be housed in tent cities beneath the overpasses. The easing of racial segregation driven by civil rights reforms allowed thousands of middle-class blacks to move to the suburbs but left behind the poorest of the poor in what became festering economic ghettos. Turmoil in Latin America later shifted the primary fount of immigration from Cuba to Nicaragua and other Central American countries. Tens of thousands of Haitians left their dirt-poor island seeking a better life in Miami. Then Hurricane Andrew remapped South Florida in 1992, the final straw for thousands of native-born whites who didn't have the bilingual skills to compete in the changing job market. Today, barely 20 percent of greater Miami's population is non-Hispanic whites.
Immigration alarmists see all of this change as validation that their raise-the-drawbridge demands are vital to "saving" the country. But as reporters, my colleagues and I at The Miami Herald harvested an endless supply of fascinating stories from all that was happening around us. In the stories of immigration — and related issues — could be found the good and the bad, triumph and tragedy, selfless leadership and blatant corruption. We wrote about "Miami Vice"-style shootouts in the streets, penniless refugees who became civic dignitaries, naked election fraud, booming economic growth, schools that struggled to teach children in dozens of languages, international intrigue, neighborhoods in transition, and so much more.
Data Drive Coverage
A vital element of all this coverage was our growing ability to find and analyze data that let us quantify the changing demographics that drove those stories. I was an early acolyte of Philip Meyer, whose "Precision Journalism" in 1973 was the first call for reporters to use data and social science tools to inform our reporting on many issues. Because of computers and the increasing availability of machine-readable government data, reporters became able to go beyond using only anecdotal evidence in stories and instead could give readers measurable proof of what is happening around them. For instance, just days after the first batch of 1990 census data was released, Knight Ridder colleagues Ted Mellnik and Dan Gillmor and I published our study of how racial segregation had changed across the country since 1980. I still remember demographic expert William Frey of the University of Michigan, when we called him for comment about our findings, saying "My god, I had no idea newspapers could do this kind of thing!"
In our investigative reporting, we used all sorts of data for all sorts of stories, big and small.
Census numbers, Immigration and Naturalization Service reports, jailhouse counts, hospital costs, school statistics and much more were studied, and what they revealed directed, in many ways, the reporting for "Lost in America: Our Failed Immigration Policy" by Lizette Alvarez and Lisa Getter, winners of the Goldsmith Prize in 1995.
Storm damage reports and millions of records about property assessments, building inspections, and campaign contributions were analyzed to create the foundational structure for the 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning "What Went Wrong" after Hurricane Andrew.
Records of arrests, criminal court proceedings, sentencing patterns, incarcerations and probation decisions formed the core of "Crime and No Punishment," an Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) award-winner in 1995.
Police reports were used for stories on murder patterns and gun crimes, water bill records to measure recovery from the hurricane, property tax information to map lead paint hazards, land records and sales of exotic cars to look at money laundering, pet license records for a fun feature on dog breeds and names, voter address records to find fraud in city politics, and precinct-level vote returns to measure how uncounted Florida ballots had cost Al Gore the 2000 presidential election.
My primary professional interest since becoming an academic in 1996 has been helping journalists learn to use such techniques. When it comes to covering immigration — and the expanding web of stories emanating from this topic — data can be elusive, especially when the focus is on those who are here illegally — but it is always essential to gather and study the numbers before trying to tell the story, whether in the end the data provide an invisible foundation to support the anecdotal experiences or they are integrated into the storytelling so readers see the supporting evidence.
Here are a few ways to start using the computer and other resources to find and evaluate data relevant to this story:
Get to know the mother lode of United States demographic data by using the U.S. Census Bureau's American FactFinder Web site. Once census geography and terminology is understood, the fact-finder site becomes a fast and data-rich place to explore the local impact of immigration on poverty, employment, housing and education.
Inventory the data gathered by local agencies — hospitals, schools, police, transportation, public housing — that are most likely to be involved with immigration-generated changes. Simply knowing what data they collect will likely spark ideas for data-driven stories.
Look in economic data — and also be looking in the community — for early signs of arrival of immigrants. These signs include the appearance of ethnic grocery stores in neighborhoods and weekly ethnic newspapers or video stores specializing in foreign language films. Such businesses emerge soon after the arrival of a critical mass of potential customers and long before arguments break out about English-only legislation and voter identification laws and debates about fencing borders.
Read some of the best reporting done by journalists in other parts of the country as they've observed the local impact of immigration. These articles can be found through doing LexisNexis searches or by going to the online Investigative Reporters and Editors archives. Another approach is to explore what's been done by the winners and finalists of major journalism prizes that specialize in reporting on social and diversity issues, such as the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, or those sponsored by the various minority journalists' organizations.
Stay aware that measuring immigration and its effects is a notoriously ill-defined problem. Government data, particularly that which purports to count the undocumented, is worthy of much skepticism. So are the claims of advocacy groups on either side of the issue; they will inflate or deflate headcounts and economic claims to fit their arguments.
Even in cities where the impact of immigration isn't yet a dominant cause of societal change, chances are these issues will be there soon; it's definitely happening now in my new hometown of metropolitan Phoenix, Arizona. While the changes almost certainly will be more gradual than the wrenching demographic upheavals that roiled Miami, they will be no less real and no less important to those living in these communities. By learning how to use some simple tools, when these stories emerge reporters will be ready to find and tell them comprehensively and credibly.
Stephen K. Doig holds the Knight Chair in Journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Arizona State University, where he specializes in computer-assisted reporting. He shared in the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting for the 1994 series, "Lost in America: Our Failed Immigration Policy."