Empathy as a Journalism Skill: Reporting on Migrants at the Border

This is the first of three student pieces produced in Montclair State University’s “On the Road: Reporting from the Field” multimedia course.

After a long, emotionally grueling day at the Nogales border crossing, our team of 10 student journalists drove in silence back to Tucson, Arizona. However, our reporting was not done. It was 5 p.m. when co-producer Gloria Perez and I arrived to interview humanitarian aid worker Dora Rodriguez for our story on the conditions of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. I had pre-interviewed Rodriguez and knew her story, but I was not prepared for what I’d feel as I listened to her.

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Rodriguez was a migrant herself. In 1979, at only 19 years old, she crossed the border having fled violence from the civil war in El Salvador. The temperatures that July were brutally hot. Abandoned by their smugglers, her group had to drink their own urine to stay alive.

“Our journey lasted five days,” said Rodriguez. “And in those five days, we experienced the agony of dying with no water.”

Out of the 26 in her group, 13 people died at the spot where they chose to rest near the port of entry at Lukeville, Arizona. Rodriguez was minutes away from death when she was rescued by Border Patrol. She showed us a newspaper photo of her in the arms of an agent.

Our team knew that reporting about the border would require a lot of care and empathy. We took that role seriously, especially because some of us are the children and grandchildren of immigrants. However, we did find it challenging to separate the human being and the journalist at times — and maybe we didn’t have to.

Many of our team of students are from Latino backgrounds, including Perez. It could have been any of our friends or family members sitting in front of the camera for an interview.

Rodriguez has a similar story to that of my abuelo (grandfather), who also crossed the border after fleeing violence in El Salvador during the civil war. Perez too has a close family member from El Salvador whose experience echoes Rodriguez’s.

As Rodriguez recalled the details of her nightmare in the desert, what she was feeling, what she was thinking, we couldn’t help but hear our familes’ voices. When Rodriguez got teary-eyed, we too became emotional. We were conscientious about remaining objective, but we felt very connected to her.

Our tears allowed the space for her to tell her story. It was no longer just an interview — we were people sharing stories about our families.

Being able to empathize and get your source to open up is a major strength when reporting. Only in those vulnerable moments were we able to find out who Dora Rodriguez was and capture the human behind the story we were trying to tell.

One thing that struck us about Rodriguez’s story was that she had kept it hidden from her family and the world for almost 30 years.

“I hold my story so deeply in my heart because it was very painful,” she said.

This is the harsh reality of immigration stories — not all are told.

As journalists, we felt immense privilege that Rodriguez had trusted us with painful details about her life. Speaking to her only solidified our sense of the responsibility journalists have to give a voice to people who don’t always have the opportunity to share their stories. It was an incredibly rewarding experience that helped us grow not only as journalists, but as people too.


by Jennifer Sanchez and Aylin Alverez-Santiago

For two first-generation students, reporting from the border brought a mixed bag of emotions.

“It was hard being at the border, not only because we were touched by these migrants desperate for a better life on our side of the wall, but because we kept seeing our parents, even though the details of their stories and how they got here were different,” said Aylin Alvarez-Santiago, whose parents came through the Arizona border from a small town in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Jennifer Sanchez, whose family is from Guayaquil, Ecuador, said she had to walk away from an interview at one point because she was overwhelmed with emotion. “I couldn’t hold in my feelings the whole time,” she said.

Watch the video below where Alvarez-Santiago and Sanchez share their reflections on covering a migrant camp at the border.

Dani Mazariegos

Dani Mazariegos is a rising senior at Montclair State University. She works on the student newspaper The Montclarion and at Montclair News Lab. She has won a Linda and George Hiltzik Scholarship and a National Association of Hispanic Journalists award. A Latina, Mazariegos is fluent in Spanish and covers issues surrounding her community.


Gloria Perez

Gloria Perez is a senior at Montclair State University. She has worked as a reporter and producer for the Montclair News Lab and has written for the student newspaper The Montclarion. Gloria embraces her Latina roots, working on journalism projects in both English and Spanish. She also currently serves as a soldier in the United States Army Reserve.