How to cover DACA as a student journalist: advice from professionals

In the wake of President Donald Trump’s controversial decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program , high schools and universities across the country have erupted in protest.

The Harvard Crimson reported that more than 30 professors from Harvard University and other Boston-area schools were arrested during one of these protests. Meanwhile, students from places including Little Rock, Huntington Beach, Denver and Phoenix all took part in protests of their own.

In addition, many of the 800,000 DACA recipients in the U.S. are students. This means the issue of covering DACA as a student journalist hits close-to-home.

This leaves student publications with a serious question: how do you cover DACA in a way that is legal, ethical and engaging? Here’s what the experts had to say.


Immigration lawyer and law professor at New England School of Law Dina Haynes said student journalists need to consider the legal situation DACA recipients are in when reporting their stories.

“If I were the lawyer for the student in question, whose name was going into the paper, I would not advise them to have their name in the paper,” Haynes said.

She said she would advise DACA recipients not to have their name printed in a news publication.

Haynes said although the Department of Homeland Security has access to DACA recipients’ names and addresses, having their identity made public is still a risk. One concern for DACA students is that they may be living in households with undocumented family members, who could have legal action taken against them if their identities were revealed, she said.

“The problem for DACA students is that a majority of them have undocumented people in their household, either parents or siblings,” Haynes said. “So in addition to the actual DACA holders having submitted addresses with their applications, they’re very and rightly concerned about putting family members at risk now.“

She would advise student journalists not to print the names of DACA students under 18 and would advise students to only print the name of a DACA recipient over 18 if the recipient has already consulted with legal counsel.

Haynes said student journalists should press school administrations that have made statements declaring their schools sanctuary campuses and ask what the school means and what they are willing to do to back up their statement.

She said oftentimes declaring a school to be a sanctuary campus is, “a lovely moral sentiment, but has no legal value.” The chief tool schools can have in protecting their DACA students is not to ask if they are DACA students, not to collect or store or volunteer that information, she said.


Daxton “Chip” Stewart teaches media law and ethics at Texas Christian University.

Stewart said that student journalists considering the use of anonymous sources in relation to DACA coverage should look into their states’ shield laws.

Stewart said that in his interpretation of shield law in Texas, protections given to reporters who use unnamed sources would not extend to student journalists.

However, Stewart said although there’s the possibility of legal repercussions for student journalists reporting on DACA, such as being subpoenaed to testify at legal proceedings, the bigger concern is the safety of sources who use the DACA program.

“My biggest worry is that journalists may inadvertently expose sources to scrutiny,” Stewart said.

Stewart said that student journalists have less to fear in the realm of government entities requesting they give them information about their unnamed sources than they do with other politically-motivated groups coming after their named sources.


Editor-in-chief of the University of North Carolina’s student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, Tyler Fleming wrote a column regarding Trump’s DACA decision Wednesday. In his column, “Ending DACA hurts student journalism,” Fleming said that diversity is good for journalism and that this decision will limit campus diversity.

“Leading a student newspaper, you see firsthand that having a predominantly white staff makes it difficult to cover in Hispanic and person-of-color communities,” Fleming said. “It’s rough because you don’t have the same perspective or the same ins with the community. It’s hard to get on that beat and build trust.”

Fleming said the reaction from the student community to his column has been overwhelmingly positive. However, he said he had received some criticism that the editor-in-chief of a student publication had made a political statement.

He said that if the DACA situation would have no impact on student journalism, he would have probably left writing a column to the regular columnists on staff. However, because his duty as editor is to provide the opportunity for voices to be heard, he said he felt it necessary to speak out.

“I think this is going to hurt the amount of people who can get the educational opportunity to work at The Daily Tar Heel,” Fleming said. “I don’t think that a qualified, young student journalist should be denied an opportunity to learn journalism just because they don’t have citizenship.”

Fleming said part of the role of student journalists in reporting on DACA is to write objectively and continue to cover the story, especially because being on campus gives student journalists greater access to DACA students than other publications.


Communication director for the nonprofit advocacy organization Define American Kristian Ramos had several key pieces of advice for student journalists covering DACA.

Ramos’ said the first piece of advice he would give to student journalists is to humanize the DACA story and talk to people involved.

“Please ground the story in people rather than politics,” he said.

Ramos said it’s important for student journalists to not only address those directly affected (DACA recipients), but to interview those around them: teachers, friends, family and coworkers.

Ramos also suggested student journalists to orient DACA recipients’ roles in the community. Instead of identifying a source only as DACA recipient, he said it is important to include details about who they are.

He said student journalists should consider documenting the economic loss their communities may face from the loss of DACA students. He pointed out that DACA students pay tuition and taxes and are financial contributors in their communities and that their absence may cause financial hardship for those communities.

If you’re a student journalist requiring legal assistance or have legal questions about a story you’re covering, contact the Student Press Law Center at

SPLC staff writer Emily Goodell can be reached by email or (202) 478-1926.

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