Corporate-Owned Papers Near the Border More Likely to Run 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.