The migrant caravan: How the media coverage polarizes the immigration debate

The way the media reports on immigration often contributes to polarization. Typically, one set of news outlets pulls at our heartstrings to side with the immigrants. Another set distorts the coverage to depict them as a threat. Both perspectives miss the point: immigration issues are rarely that simple, much less black or white. Yet that’s how the latest news of the immigrant caravan in Mexico was reported.

The Knife analyzed four outlets that covered the story. Here’s how each persuaded readers to take sides, instead of looking at the bigger picture.

For the caravan: Buzzfeed and Mother Jones

Mother Jones was the most distorted outlet of the four, earning a 27 percent integrity rating, compared to the others, which ranged between 42 and 58 percent. Mother Jones was also the most spun — 77 percent spun to be exact. (“Spin” refers to dramatic, vague or subjective language that distorts the facts. Spin often supports an article’s slant, that is, the viewpoint an outlet favors above others.) Consider the start of Mother Jones’ article (the spin is marked here):

Trump and Trolls Target Caravan of Migrant Families
Activists, seeking asylum on Easter, are headed for a showdown as they approach the US border
Hundreds of Central American migrants have organized and banded together on a journey to the US border, and right-wing media and President Donald Trump are reacting with outrage, even describing the caravan as an “act of war” against America.

Before readers are given the full facts, they’re made aware of the political divide, and how the “right-wing” is “targeting” the caravan. The emotional language, such as “showdown,” “outrage” and “act of war” can move readers to take sides without evaluating further. The slant here (that immigrants are right, and the “right” is wrong) preemptively invalidates any legitimate concerns about the caravan of Central American immigrants making their way towards the U.S. Wouldn’t those things be worth considering?

Buzzfeed originally broke the story, and its slant is similar to Mother Jones’. It too spun its portrayal of the immigrants, writing that they “boldly” crossed immigration checkpoints, and that the march was “desperate.” It also depicted the caravan as an “enormous challenge” to the Trump administration's immigration policies.

Against the caravan: Breitbart and Fox News

Breitbart’s and Fox News’ slant differed substantially. Consider their headlines:

1,500 Central Americans Set to Seek Asylum in U.S. Despite Kirstjen Nielsen’s Border Security Negotiations with Mexico (Breitbart)
Trump declares 'NO MORE' DACA deal after report of caravan with Central Americans heading to US (Fox News)

These headlines don’t state there’s a problem, but they do imply it, and that Trump’s administration objects. Again, before readers get the full facts, the polarization begins.

From its headline, Breitbart also suggests that Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen is failing in her responsibilities, given the procession. However, this too oversimplifies her role and the situation. Mexican authorities have chosen not to intervene, and they haven’t yet made their reasoning public.

Fox News’ bias towards the caravan takes it a step further by quoting Trump’s tweet on the immigrants supposedly taking advantage of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), which grants work permits to approximately 800,000 undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. under the age of 16:

These big flows of people are all trying to take advantage of DACA. They want in on the act!

Trump’s tweet is both polarizing and inaccurate. DACA doesn’t apply to people who entered the U.S. after June 2007, so Trump saying the immigrants are trying to “take advantage” of the program doesn’t make sense. Without this clarification, Fox’s coverage can further sway readers against the immigrants.

What’s missing?

As previously noted, immigration issues are complex. This particular case involves people who’ve left at least three countries (Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala), each with its own set of challenges ranging from poverty, to organized crime, to “political unrest,” according to Buzzfeed and Fox News. Buzzfeed and Mother Jones touch briefly on these subjects, but focus more on individual immigrants’ accounts (which are valid, however subjective), rather than facts about the situations they’re seeking to escape. Details on these countries’ conditions were missing across the four outlets.

Breitbart and Fox News suggested the Mexican government was to blame, or that it hasn’t done enough to stop the caravan. However, they didn’t mention Mexico’s Constitution protects the rights of nationals and immigrants alike, and that it guarantees the right to free transit regardless of nationality (in the link, click the British flag on the upper right hand corner for an English translation). Without contextual information such as this, Mexico’s government may come across as negligent or uncooperative, when that may not be the case.

None of the articles explored what the impacts would be to either country should the immigrants enter the U.S. or remain in Mexico. Mother Jones and Fox News cited Trump blaming the U.S.’ “catch and release” policy (wherein undocumented immigrants are taken into custody and then released into the country pending court hearings), but only Fox explained how it works. There are also more difficult questions that weren’t asked or addressed: Do people have a right to seek refuge in another country, because conditions in their own are difficult or even inhumane? Whose responsibility is it to provide for them, in that event? Is it wrong to refuse asylum or entry to people in cases like these?

The articles’ slant, combined with missing contextual information, can easily cast each side of the story as a thin caricature. Rather than helping readers take a step back to consider as many perspectives as possible, this coverage further polarizes the issue, enticing them to take sides that are based on partial, if not incorrect information.


Written by Ivy Nevares
Originally published on The Knife Media