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Why is Immigration Coverage Often So Negative?

Close to the border, local papers serve up what they think their readers want — a hefty dose of crime-laden, anti-immigrant news and views.
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The images of immigration Americans get from newspapers and television generally tend to skew negative. A 2008 Brookings Institution report, for example, described coverage as a "narrative that conditions the public to associate immigration with illegality, crisis, controversy and government failure." The report blamed such coverage for the political stalemate that has snarled any legislative progress.

But are all media outlets equal offenders in promoting a negative view of immigration? Or are some worse than others? And if so, why?

To find out, political science professors Regina P. Branton of Rice University and Johanna Dunaway of Louisiana State University examined 1,227 immigration news stories and opinion pieces that appeared in 95 English-language California newspapers between March 1, 2004, and March 1, 2005, coding all coverage as negative, neutral or positive. They found that those papers closest to the U.S.-Mexico border tend to provide the most negative news and opinions on immigration. And being corporate-owned makes the papers even more anti-immigrant in their coverage.

After crunching the numbers, Branton and Dunaway estimate a statistical model that gives a hypothetical corporate-owned newspaper right on the border a 76 percent probability of a news article being negative and an 85 percent probability of an opinion piece being negative. By contrast, a corporate-owned paper about 700 miles from the border (at the other end of the state) has a 51 percent probability of running a negative article and a 60 percent probability of running a negative opinion piece.

For privately owned newspapers, the predicted probability of printing a negative article is consistently about six percentage points less, and the likelihood of printing a negative opinion piece is consistently about 15 percentage points lower. Paper circulation size did not make a difference. The findings are reported in the May issue of Policy Studies Journal.

Branton got interested in the topic in 1994 when she moved to Tucson, Ariz., to do her graduate work at the University of Arizona, after having lived in Wyoming and South Carolina. She was struck by the extensive, and extensively negative, coverage of immigration she encountered.

"There was a wealth of information and coverage on things like drugs and crime and migrants dying in the desert," she said.

Negative stories tend to focus extensively on crime, Dunaway explained. "Some just describe violence committed by foreign-born people, undocumented aliens or immigrants. The tone of the article often talks about a public outcry or a community disruption or discord within the community because of an influx of immigrants or a rise in crime in the neighborhood."

Positive stories, on the other hand (when they do occur), often involve subjects like community programs, a favorable take on cultural diversity or individual immigrants who have made some contributions to their community.

When there is a discussion of policy (usually in the opinion pages), articles often follow one of two competing frames. One is the "amnesty" frame, which opponents of immigration prefer. "Conservatives talk about it in terms of amnesty, about people cutting in line and breaking the law." By contrast, a "path to citizenship" frame highlights values like not splitting up families and not giving immigrants a free pass, requiring them instead to pay back taxes, for example.

(In a previous study, the authors compared Spanish-language and English-language newspaper coverage and found that Spanish-language papers give more ink to immigration stories, and much fewer of those stories are negative).

So why so much negative coverage in the English-language border papers? Branton and Dunaway offer three reasons. First, local newspapers tend to cover local issues, and close to the U.S.-Mexico border, immigration is a local issue. Second, newspapers have a tendency to focus on attention-grabbing topics like crime (hence the old adage, "if it bleeds, it leads"). Third, public opinion close to the border among readers of English-language papers often skews more anti-immigrant, and newspaper publishers may have a financial interest in keeping their readers from spitting out their morning coffee in anger.

"All these news values put news organizations close to the border searching for sensational local stories like drugs, smuggling, kidnapping," Dunaway said. "People crave local information, so there's a real push for these guys to stick with what's relevant to the community. Put that with the crime news script, and the fact that the border is closer, and it makes sense that this is how patterns in coverage would turn out."

The result is often a distortion of reality. Actual crime statistics show that levels of immigrant crime do not increase closer to the border, Dunaway noted. Only the coverage of such crime increases.

"They have to cover things that are relevant to the community," Branton added. "But I don't think that the implications of immigration are all negative. There's a way to cover these stories without the negative. They could be more neutral."

As for the extra-negative boost associated with corporate-owned papers, the authors note that these papers are even more concerned with making money, and hence most likely to try to give readers exactly what their publishers are convinced their readers want. In the case of communities closer to the border, this appears to be a lot of sensational, anti-immigrant stories.

"[Corporate-owned papers] are a slave to their audience in a narrower way," Dunaway explained. "But it's not that privately owned papers don't need to profit, but they have other competing goals, like public service. Publicly traded companies generally are just more sensational." (In a separate study, Dunaway found that media organizations owned by publicly traded companies produced less "substantive" political election coverage.)

So, if the newspapers are just trying to make money and keep readers, isn't that defensible?

"In my opinion, no," Dunaway said. "Even aside from the tensions it could create, another complaint I have is that sensational stories are probably crowding out more important news stories. Papers won't spend time talking about a policy proposal at the local or state or national level, or options that voters might have."

Since Branton and Dunaway argue that one reason that coverage is so negative in the first place is that newspapers are catering to the pre-existing anti-immigrant prejudices of their readers, it can be a bit difficult to determine exactly what effect the coverage is having. Dunaway believes it serves a "reinforcing" function. It also may help to prime citizens to see certain aspects of an issue but not others. In another study, Dunaway, Branton and Marisa A. Abrajano (a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego) find that the media plays an agenda-setting role in discussions of immigration policy.

"I think the next important step is making the connection between not only the tone, but also the volume, in affecting attitudes," Branton said. "One interesting characteristic of media coverage on this issue is not only does it heighten the salience of the issue in the public's mind, but it also serves to make attitudes a little more negative, and for more restrictive immigration."

Though the logic these studies describe is a somewhat reinforcing one — local media outlets covering the negative, sensational aspects of immigration because that's what they think sells, which makes opinion even more negative, creating even more demand for negative coverage — the scholars see some possibilities for breaking the cycle.

Branton notes that with the current economic situation, the flow of immigrants coming to border states to look for work has decreased, which has the possibility to change the tenor of the debate.

And Dunaway thinks that with local journalism in crisis generally, it's possible a new business model might emerge. And perhaps a new model — one not so dependent on ad dollars — might give local media organizations more freedom to offer a more balanced perspective.

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