Crossing the Line?
Mainstream media have hindered effective policymaking on immigration, say panelists at a seminar held by the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration.
Sponsored by the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration, the seminar included USC College geography professor Michael Dear; Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, housed in the College, and USC Annenberg School for Communication professor Roberto Suro.
A joint effort of the College and the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development, the center’s co-directors are Manuel Pastor, professor of geography and of American studies and ethnicity at the College, and Dowell Myers, professor of urban planning and demography at SPPD.
Moderated by Myers, the seminar for faculty and students examined immigration and the media.
During the event, Suro discussed a new report by Annenberg and the Brookings Institution, “Democracy in the Age of New Media: A Report on the Media and the Immigration Debate.”
Suro, a contributor to the report, said that for decades, the media have conditioned the public and policymakers to consider immigration a breaking news event tinged with crisis, illegality and controversy. As an example, he noted the relentless 2000 coverage of Elián González, a Cuban boy found at sea who became the center of an international custody battle.
An analysis of 1,848 Associated Press stories on immigration topics from 1980 to 2007 showed that 79 percent were about illegality, he said.
Of 2,614 stories on immigration in The New York Times over the same period, 86 percent dealt with illegality.
Further, of 381 stories about immigration on the CBS Evening News from 1990 to 2007, 87 percent were about illegality. Results from other news organizations showed the same pattern.
According to Suro, ignoring the employers and consumers’ stories and overemphasizing the migrant as the sole protagonist distort the true immigration debate.
By coloring the issue, the media have hindered effective policymaking on the matter, consequently promoting a stalemate on a dispute inherently difficult to resolve.
“The legendary newspaper editor Eugene Roberts of The New York Times drew a distinction between stories that ‘break’ and those that ‘ooze,’ ” Suro said. “Immigration is a classic example of a news story that oozes. It develops gradually, and its full impact can be measured only over long periods of time.”
Schnur believes the problem stems in large part from mainstream media’s idea of newsworthiness. Newspapers, television and other media tend to look for sensational stories, he said.
To explain, he told a story about a man crawling under a bright streetlamp searching for change he dropped on the other side of the street. The man’s friend came by and asked why he was hunting for coins he knew were located elsewhere.
“The light’s better here,” the man explained.
“And for the news media, even if another story is more important, the light’s better at the amnesty rally, the light’s better at the Minuteman camp,” Schnur said. “The pictures at the amnesty rally and the pictures at the Minuteman camp are much more interesting than the pictures of the challenges that a child, that a family, that a workplace faces over an extended period of time.”
To further complicate the issue, he said, much of mainstream news has become ideologically tailored for either liberal or conservative viewers and readers – a relatively new phenomenon.
“If you watch (Bill) O’Reilly and you watch (Keith) Olbermann; if you read (Arianna) Huffington and you listen to (Sean) Hannity, you’re not just coming to two different conclusions about the world around you,” Schnur said. “You’re experiencing two entirely different versions of reality.”
An intelligent discussion of immigration policy requires all Americans to reach across traditional partisan lines to seek a consensus, he said.
Dear, who has spent three years conducting research at U.S.-Mexican borders, said that the alternative results in bad policymaking such as building barriers to prevent illegal crossings.
Dear shared a conversation he had with a friend as the two recently watched workers build the wall higher at a Mexican border.
“His view was that they were offensive, stupid and inefficient,” Dear said of border walls. “There’s no need for ambiguity here.”
Dear suggested that people could record their own narratives about immigration, possibly stories at borders.
“You don’t need The New York Times in the Internet and YouTube age,” Dear said. “People can make their own video narratives and put them on YouTube. There are enough good news stories out there. There are more than enough.”
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