A profile puts the subject at risk.
Originally published in Columbia Journalism Review.
IN EARLY MARCH, THE RALEIGH NEWS & OBSERVER published a front-page profile of Julio Granados, 21, who was working at a local grocery store to support his family back in Guadalajara, Mexico. North Carolina’s Latino population is burgeoning, and Granados represented “Everyhombre,” as writer Gigi Anders put it in the piece: “He is one of thousands of young Hispanic men who mow grass and blow dead leaves away, who build houses and clean office buildings, who clear restaurant tables and wash cars.”
For six weeks, Anders had followed Granados everywhere. He told her about his 1996 Texas border crossing, took her to a religious shrine he had built in the woods, and talked freely about his homesickness. The result was a 4,700-word profile so intimate that readers were there on the edge of the young man’s bed as he fell asleep at night.
Granados undresses and climbs into his cot, pulling the flannel blankets up to his lightly bearded chin. He curls up and gently rocks. He sings his favorite hymn to soothe himself to sleep, softly like a lullaby, for the walls are paper thin: Ave Maria, I feel nostalgic for those nights when I slept thinking of you, Mary, mother of God…the time passes and does not come back.
The article attracted unprecedented attention, not just from local readers who flooded the paper with letters and e-mail, mostly sympathetic toward Granados, but also from the Charlotte office of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, some 170 miles to the southwest. Officials there took note of one salient fact in the story—that Granados had no U.S. work permit.
Two weeks later, federal agents swooped on La Bodega El Mandado, where Granados worked, and arrested him, along with four co-workers and a customer. At press time, the INS was hoping to deport all six.
Anders’ story and the arrests enraged local Hispanic leaders and raised issues that journalists increasingly face these days. How do you write about a community of people whose very presence is against the law? Does shielding someone’s identity, or withholding basic information, undermine journalistic credibility? And what does a media outlet do when an important story puts a helpful source at substantial risk?
To some N&O staffers the answers are clear. “We don’t burn sources unless there is a very good public interest reason for doing so,” wrote state government editor Linda Williams on the paper’s internal e-mail. “In this case, we burned a source, risking the trust and cooperation of the entire Latino community.”
Anders, who is Cuban-born and fluent in Spanish, says she never meant to burn Granados, whom she described as “the ultimate magnanimous, thoughtful, humane person.” Only at the end of their time together, she says, did Granados divulge his legal status. She had been introduced to him by his boss, and assumed he had papers. At the end of the six weeks, at an editor’s suggestion, Anders broached the subject.
Anders says Granados consented during that conversation to the inclusion of the fact in the profile that he is an undocumented worker. When she warned him that he could be deported, according to an N&O follow-up that ran two days after the raid, Granados replied, “If that’s my destiny, then that’s OK, because my mother really misses me.” A month later Granados told another N&O reporter that he never consented to go public with his immigration status.
In her story, Anders did leave out several identifying details, but she provided the one that led the INS to Granados: that he worked at El Mandado. While one editor raised Granados’s vulnerability at a story meeting, others replied that Granados had agreed to be identified. Executive editor Anders Gyllenhaal believed there was a good chance the government wouldn’t go after Granados, given the INS’s laxity in North Carolina.
Critics call those attitudes cavalier and naive. “The news organization ought to be able to expect that if they raise a red flag in front of the immigration officials, they will come charging,” says Keith Woods, associate director for ethics at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. John Herrera, a local Latino leader, says that journalists must consider the ramifications of the reporter-source relationship. “Journalists must ask themselves: Were the subjects in a position to give informed consent?” says Herrera. “You have to put it into context. These people developed a one-and-a-half-month relationship, a single, lonely, depressed male with this good-looking Cuban-American woman who speaks your language. You would volunteer more information than would you normally.”
Several N&O staff members think the newspaper owes no apology. “Someone is going to have to explain to me how we can think that a group of people is going to get upset because we mentioned that one of them was breaking the law and flaunting it,” wrote Woody Vondracek, a graphic artist, on the electronic bulletin board. “I always thought that Hispanics were law-abiding, hard-working, God-fearing family types. But then what the hell do I know?”
But editor Gyllenhaal says that if the N&O could redo the story, it would leave out the name of El Mandado. He adds that the paper wants to make amends, and after the raid, a group of editors and reporters met with about twenty Hispanic representatives to discuss the article and the paper’s approach to Latino issues in general.