Migrants in the Media (March)
In March 2020, the Rights Writers were asked what role has the media played in covering the topic and what effects, positive and negative, has the media had on their topic, and what role ought the media to play.
One of the most common arguments in debates over immigration is whether immigrants represent a net economic gain or loss for their host countries. The problem with this framing is that both sides risk reducing immigrants to what they either contribute to or need from host economies, rather than their intrinsic human value. To say that immigrants are beneficial to the economy or in great need is defining their worth by their economic contributions or level of vulnerability.
A study published in the Journal of Social Issues found that the media is, in effect, dehumanizing immigrants and refugees by taking advantage of uncertainties to transform “relatively mundane episodes into newsworthy events that can be sold to the public” often with “depictions that suggest that immigrants spread infectious diseases, that refugee claimants are often bogus, and that terrorists may gain entry to western nations disguised as refugees”. Tweets made by President Donald Trump in early 2019 about the crime and incarceration rates of immigrants similarly show exaggeration and a lack of context. With all the conflicting reports about unauthorized immigrants, President Trump was able to use that confusion and the ignorance surrounding incarceration rates of nationals to misrepresent immigrants. Half of all federal arrests are immigration-related offenses, explaining the high rates of unauthorized immigrant inmates. Furthermore, 90% of all inmates in the United States are not in federal prisons and are instead in state and local facilities. And while border arrests were up in 2018, the number of illegal border crossings has been declining for years. Conviction and arrest rates are also lower for unauthorized immigrants than native-born Americans. Furthermore, the statistics regarding the crimes he mentions were the crimes people had been accused of, and not necessarily crimes people had been convicted of.
Because of the general lack of knowledge and understanding surrounding issues of immigration, the media has an immense ability to shape our perspectives on these matters. The effects that television shows and movies can have on our ideas and opinions are well-documented and the role of immigrants in these forms of entertainment is no exception. According to a study by the
University of Southern California’s Media Impact Project, the first problem with the representation of immigrants in popular television is a lack thereof. Through their analysis of 143 episodes from 47 popular television shows that aired in 2017-2018, they found a significant underrepresentation of immigrants. The shows analyzed were known and chosen for their inclusion of immigrant roles, suggesting that the underrepresentation of immigrants in all television is likely even more severe. Of the depictions of immigrant characters that there are, many have historically been promoting or creating stereotypes. For instance, the study found that immigrants were often portrayed as less educated and more criminally involved than actual statistics show. Although some shows and movies recently have been aimed at disproving these ideas, too many continue to reinforce negative concepts of migrants in the United States. Additionally, sometimes even the media curated specifically to improve the public’s opinion of migrants and refugees, or to help them, end up furthering negative stereotypes.
Advertisements asking for donations to support humanitarian aid, for refugees displaced by war for example, often use powerful images in attempt to evoke people’s emotions. Images show malnourished children or toddlers crying, often in dirty settings with captions about how you can help with just a few dollars. While this can be effective at getting much-needed donations, it runs the risk of diminishing the autonomy and humanity of people affected by these issues and furthering the white-savior complex. The portrayal of refugees in the media, where they are cast as “simply very needy”, results in people “tend[ing] to ignore their agency and see them as passive, ‘client-ized’ aid recipients”. This attitude decreases the obligation felt by affluent countries to do more than provide charitable aid.
The news we watch and read also has a large influence on our opinions. Often times, the news we follow may inform our voting behaviors and political beliefs. News sources tend to lean towards one party or the other, which directly impacts how migrants and refugees are being represented. In 2019, President Trump spent $500,000 on tv ads about immigration and $5.7 million on immigration-related ads on Facebook. Meanwhile, Democrats have spent significantly less time discussing immigration issues and neither Biden nor Sanders has made it a clear priority in their campaign. This means Americans see a disproportionate amount of conservative media concerning immigrants. Furthermore, while one source may speak of unauthorized immigrants, another may use the term illegal alien. Although its use has been criticized and to some extent decreased since then, a study by the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford found that the word most commonly used with ‘immigrant’ in newspapers and broadcasts in 2012 was ‘illegal’. Still, many politicians, including President Donald Trump, continue to use the phrase ‘illegals’ and ‘aliens’ when describing unauthorized immigrants. Just earlier this month, when the Supreme Court allowed Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” Policy to continue while the lawsuit against it plays out in court, the Justice Department said that the court’s decision ensures “the government’s ability to manage the Southwest border and to work cooperatively with the Mexican government to address illegal immigration”. They used the phrase ‘illegal immigration’ despite the fact that the policy deals with asylum-seekers. This insinuates that asylum-seeking is an illegal way to enter the United States. Under both international and U.S. law, asylum-seeking is a legitimate way to enter the nation. These derogatory terms are not only dehumanizing but also undermine legal procedures such as asylum-seeking when repeatedly broadcast by politicians and the media.
It’s a difficult balance to strike but the media should strive for more accurate representation both in the amount of representation and content of the representation while furthering the ideas of basic human rights– not out of charity but out of obligation.