Bias and faulty assumptions in the coverage of the migrant caravan

In news reporting, an outlet’s bias can be easy to spot: one leans right, another leans left, one supports Trump more than another. What’s usually not as obvious are the assumptions on which the bias is based. Both bias and its underlying assumptions can be problematic, in that they stray from objective reporting and critical reasoning.

If you read the latest coverage of the caravan of Central American immigrants who reached the southern U.S. border, you’ll likely find one of two biases: the immigrants are a threat to the U.S. and should be barred from entry, or the Trump administration is wrong and inhumane for trying to keep them out. Readers may accept either point of view, especially if the underlying assumptions stay hidden.

There are pros and cons to supporting or restricting immigration. When these aren’t fully explored on all sides, and different views from the parties involved aren’t considered, the reporting is incomplete and possibly misleading.

The Knife analyzed four news outlets that promoted one or the other of these biases. Consider their four headlines — how does each affect the way you view the immigrants and their plans for entering the U.S.?

Caravan asylum-seekers heading toward showdown at US border (Fox News)
Border Patrol Catches Migrants ‘Associated with’ Caravan Crossing Illegally (Breitbart)
Caravan of Migrants, After Arduous Trip, Begins Final Push to Border (The New York Times)
At end of migrant caravan, families fear what lies next (The Washington Post)

Each of these headlines provides a snapshot of the outlet’s distortion. Fox’s describing the event as a “showdown,” which is dramatic spin, portrayed the meeting of immigrants and border officials as a conflict. Both the Times and the Post emphasized emotional aspects of the story, as if to win over audiences by appealing to their emotions.

Breitbart focused on the immigrants who were allegedly apprehended while attempting to cross illegally (that is, not through a port of entry where they could have requested asylum). On the surface, Breitbart’s article may seem objective, but it left out an important part of the story: the reasons the immigrants are seeking asylum. Omitting the fact that many of them claim to be fleeing violence and persecution in their countries, and solely focusing on those who chose to enter the country illegally, could misrepresent many of the immigrants. (Omitting key data is a pattern The Knife has observed in Breitbart’s coverage.)

Those are the biases. What are the deeper assumptions?

Again, the slant in the Fox and Breitbart coverage supports negative statements that have been made against the immigrants. Fox wrote that President Donald Trump called the caravan a threat to the U.S., which assumes they would have a generally negative effect on the country. Is this necessarily so?

The claim is vague to begin with. But let’s even limit it to a physical or violent threat. Where’s the data that supports the notion that these immigrants could pose a threat? Which group perpetrates more violent crimes in the United States: immigrants or those born in the country? A Knife context on the subject provides different perspectives on this.

Fox didn’t provide data to back up Trump’s claim, or perspectives that could challenge it. Without clarifying or expanding on his point of view, readers may simply assume Trump is correct and blame the caravan too.

On the flipside, the Times and the Post share a different assumption: that dire circumstances entitle people to be granted asylum. They largely did this through dramatic and emotional language and by including certain quotes. The Post, for instance, included this one in its article:

“I hope that the immigration agents take into account that walking from Chiapas to here, and fleeing from our countries, is punishment enough,” said Maria Magdalena Iraeta Martínez, 47, from El Salvador, whose son and daughter got married to their partners.

It’s human to feel compassion for the immigrants’ circumstances, but the appeal to emotions can suspend critical reasoning. Should people be granted the right to live in another country because conditions in their place of origin are deplorable? It’s useful to explore where this concept fails. Here are a few sample questions:

  • If “dire circumstances” entitle people to be granted asylum, how is “direness” assessed in an objective way?
  • Should subjectivity be factored into the assessment? For example, what if one person suffers more or perceives his or her needs as greater than another’s?
  • Is there a limit to the number of asylum seekers the U.S. can or should accept? If so, what are the criteria?

Within these media biases, the assumption that immigrants are a “threat” is vague or incomplete, and the assumption of entitlement to asylum is presented through an appeal to emotions, rather than with data and well-defined logical arguments. These assumptions don’t help to inform readers about the challenges the caravan poses, and they don’t inspire critical thinking either. Rather, they may contribute to further polarization over the issue.


Written by Ivy Nevares
Originally published on The Knife Media