The Donald Trump Effect - Pacific Standard

The Donald Trump Effect

Right-leaning politicians are the most frequently quoted voices in American news stories about immigration, leaving little room for others, according to a recent study.
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Donald Trump. (Photo: Andrew Cline/Shutterstock)

Donald Trump. (Photo: Andrew Cline/Shutterstock)

Donald Trump has garnered quite a bit of attention in the news lately for his comments about immigration. He's called undocumented immigrants "killers," "criminals," and "rapists," which has in turn drawn criticism from some and admiration from others. The comments are shocking, but how much airtime Trump has received is not. The most-quoted sources in American news stories about immigration tend to be right-leaning politicians, according to a recently published study.

News outlets' reliance on politicians means less room for the voices of those most directly affected by immigration, including documented and undocumented immigrants. It also means certain arguments about immigration are broadcast more widely—namely, that immigrants cause problems for authorities. The solution, many media-friendly pundits like Trump argue, is better enforcement.

New York University media researchers Rodney Benson and Tim Wood found these journalistic patterns after analyzing about 100 immigration stories, published between 2011 and 2012, from each of five outlets: the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, NPR.org, and CNN.com. They found that right-leaning politicians served as the sources for 23 percent of quotes in stories. That's more than twice the amount of talk time as left-leaning politicians, who constituted 11 percent of quotes.

Trailing behind the politicos were citizens and documented immigrants, who got eight percent of televised quotes; undocumented immigrants made up just five percent of all quotes. Immigration advocacy organizations did represent 10 percent of story quotes, perhaps because such organizations sometimes stand in for undocumented immigrants, who might be reluctant to talk to journalists for fear of running into trouble with the law, should they be identified.

Journalists' quote choices can be an especially important to stories about immigration, because the issue involves two parties with vastly divergent levels of power: national governments, and undocumented immigrants.

Different sources matter because they tend to make different arguments in stories, as Benson and Wood discovered. For example, right-leaning politicians often talked about the problems immigrants create for police and other authorities. They never talked about the problems immigrants themselves face—Benson and Wood called the politicians' avoidance of the issue a "total blackout." Instead, this "problems for immigrants" bracket was most commonly addressed by staffers from pro-immigration advocacy groups and by "man on the street" interviews with people not affiliated with any group. The politicians' favored message, plus the fact that stories tend to quote them most often, added up to "problems for authorities" being the most common framework for immigrant stories in American news.

Conservative politicians also often talked about how immigration problems were a symptom of lax laws, with the solution being stricter enforcement. It doesn't have to be this way: After analyzing news stories about immigration from France and Norway, Benson and Wood found that, in those countries, news articles were more likely to say immigration problems arose because national laws were too restrictive and inhumane.

Journalists' quote choices can be an especially important to stories about immigration, Benson and Wood write, because the issue involves two parties with vastly divergent levels of power: national governments, and undocumented immigrants. Perhaps it's time to quote Donald Trump less, and everyday folks more.

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