News, data and Voldemort

On January 31, Vermont Digger, an internet news service that you might call the Green Mountain equivalent of HuffPost, ran a letter from the editor. An abridged version follows. Click here to see the whole thing.

On Monday, we ran a press release … that later gave us pause. It was about a poll of Vermont voters and their views on “illegal immigration.” The survey, conducted by Pulse Opinion Research, was commissioned by the Federation for American Immigration Reform. According to the release, it “reveals that likely Vermont voters overwhelmingly believe illegal immigration is harmful to the state, and half would like to see overall levels of immigration to the United States reduced.”

We received an email from Brendan O’Neill, an activist with Migrant Justice, within minutes of posting the FAIR press release. O’Neill who is an advocate for Mexican migrant workers in Vermont pointed out that FAIR has a dubious reputation. The organization is described as a “hate” group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit civil rights organization, based in Montgomery, Ala.

Though we very rarely remove posts, I took the press release down after I read the center’s report. Though the information from FAIR was cloaked in legitimacy — it was a about a poll, and it came from a commonly used email newswire — I decided shouldn’t publish information from a group that has a record of racist views.

I spent a little bit of time this evening reading about FAIR and what the SPLC has to say about them. Then I looked into the professional polling organization that conducted the survey, Pulse Opinion Research. Then I read the polling results.

I am not going to spend a great deal of time talking about the results of the poll because there is nothing particularly surprising about them. The pollster seems reliable. The questions are not terrible (but they pulled a fast one by combining punishment for folks who hire undocumented workers and racial profiling and immigration enforcement by local police). If you ask me, FAIR didn’t get very much traction out of the money they spent on polling. To make a case for anti-immigrant sentiment they could have stuck with the existing data. In fact, compared to a CBS/NYT Poll (see page 7 and onward)  conducted a couple of years ago, Vermont appears relatively open to immigrants.

So, the poll is not the issue here. Instead the ideological orientation of those presenting the data and the responsibility of the news organization disseminating it need to be considered.

What is a legitimate source of news? Most of our new services these days are glorified twitter feeds that pass along unvetted tidbits that they think will interest their audience. In my own experience a memorable example of this was a Fox News program that reported as fact a spoof article written about the town where I was doing my dissertation research.

Being a pass through for press releases does not make one a news organization. Vermont Digger should aim for quality over quantity by investigating the news they receive so as to pass along dependable information. Choosing not to investigate the news one reports is irresponsible. Pulling or withholding information, not because it was false, but because the organization that acquired it does not meet your standards for civility is wrong. That leads us to the next question:

What are legitimate sources of data? If an organization identified as racist commissions a scientific poll with robust results and writes a press release that tries to frame the results in such a way that it supports their views, should the results be discounted without examination? Of course not. Holding racist views is not the same as not being in possession of any facts.

I believe that racism alive and well. I believe that anti-immigrant sentiment is generally misdirected angst, and I believe that the US has always relied on undocumented workers who deserve much better than they get. But I also believe that in demonizing other views as racist and seeking to make those people and organizations invisible and unmentionable we have essentially created our own real-life version of  JK Rowling’s “He who must not be named.” We have come to believe that racism is an incomprehensible and all-powerful evil, but, to my thinking, such a view obscures the path to progress. Look at the issues racist/anti-immigrant/hate groups are discussing and you understand their ideas and opinions well enough to say the name Voldemort. Look a little more closely and you discover Tom Riddle and, in that knowing, discover the key to their undoing.

Most of the people who hold anti-immigrant views could do with a healthy dose of real news and real information about the way discrimination, exploitation and inequality work. The rest of us could benefit from a bit of the same medicine.

This entry was posted in In Vermont, Musings, Race, Sociology. Bookmark the permalink.

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