A critical look at implications in the media coverage of an immigrant's suicide

On Saturday, U.S. authorities confirmed the death of a Honduran immigrant while in detention in May, and it received significant media attention throughout the weekend. Considering the tragic nature of the story and the surrounding circumstances, that’s certainly understandable. However, some of the coverage had questionable elements — implications that could lead people to jump to conclusions as to why Marco Antonio Muñoz committed suicide, and perhaps to blame the Trump administration for his death.

Trump’s immigration policies may have been a factor in his decision, but there could be other factors that would be important for people to understand, especially if there’s a common goal to prevent these things from happening. Here’s a breakdown of that coverage, why it’s limiting and what some of the other factors could be.

Possible factors

The four articles analyzed by The Knife suggested Muñoz’s death was an effect of his being told his family would be separated. Consider the following excerpt from The Guardian.

… The sheriff’s report made no mention of why Muñoz might have become enraged and then despondent. It said he did not show any mental health problems or say anything that might have suggested he was thinking about killing himself.
But the Washington Post cited unnamed border agents with detailed knowledge of what occurred when ... [Muñoz] became enraged and had to be restrained when agents said the family would be separated ...

This suggests mental health wasn’t a probable cause (which may or may not be correct), and it only mentions Muñoz’s reaction to the proposed separation. This could lead readers to believe the separation was the only factor, as opposed to one of several.

Muñoz’s reported reaction to the news of the separation isn’t only human, it’s understandable. Imagine traveling thousands of miles away from your home country with your family, and then being arrested and possibly separated, leaving your wife and child in a vulnerable position. The separation was likely a factor in his killing himself — but was it the only one?

It’s hard to tell without better understanding his behavioral and medical history, and perhaps knowing what happened during his detention at Starr County Jail. It's likely that multiple factors contributed to him killing himself. Yet, the Post suggests there's only one. What might other factors be?

The Guardian was the only outlet of the four that mentioned the sheriff’s take on Muñoz’s mental health, as cited above. Officials may have been accurate in their assessment, or they may have missed signs that Muñoz wasn’t psychologically stable — a perspective the outlets didn’t mention. For instance, if the possibility of a separation was so devastating to him, why would he carry out the ultimate separation and permanently leave his family behind? Not everyone would commit suicide after being separated from his family for hours, so it's plausible mental illness could have played a role.

If Muñoz did suffer from mental health problems, such as depression or suicidal tendencies, it raises questions about the CBP’s capacity to detect and address them in a timely manner. Media reports also indicated there was a lapse in supervision the morning Muñoz killed himself — that may be a failing in itself. Perhaps there were signs of the problem during the unsupervised window that the officers on duty missed.

It’s possible Muñoz’s choice to end his life may have been symptomatic of other underlying issues. Again, without more intimate knowledge of his personal history and psychology, it’s hard to tell. The media didn’t explore these factors, or others for that matter.

Who’s ultimately to blame?

The four articles juxtaposed Muñoz’s death with current U.S. immigration policies, adding dramatic language that could imply they’re ultimately to blame for his fate. Here are two examples.

Last month's death comes amid a new wave of aggressive Trump administration policies toward immigrants. (CNN)
The death is the latest incident to cast a harsh spotlight on the zero tolerance policy, which advocates for immigrants have denounced as inhumane and on the processing center, which a U.S. senator recently likened to a dog kennel. (Los Angeles Times)

The spin in these sentences suggests the Trump administration’s immigration policies are wrong or possibly abusive. This analysis isn’t an endorsement of those policies, nor is it a denouncement of them. People have ardently defended and criticized them, and there’s validity to both sides of the debate (for further distinctions on this, read The Knife’s analysis on the immigrant caravan). The media could report on the pros and cons of the policies objectively so readers can better assess what might need to change. The added drama can disrupt that process, especially if readers don’t identify the spin.

The dramatic descriptions could also suggest the policies are ultimately responsible for Muñoz’s death — one could see the CBP as merely following orders. While they played a role, blaming the policies provides a myopic view of all the factors that led to his death. Again, regardless of one’s views on the separation of families, not everyone would react the way he did, so there are other factors, like mental health, at play. And those factors also don’t negate the role of the policies. But having the whole picture at least prevents people from jumping to conclusions about who's to blame, which promotes more of an emotional, not a rational evaluation of the situation.

Again, his death is significant and tragic, and may bring to light deficiencies within the U.S. immigration system that should be examined and possibly changed. Biased, dramatic coverage may rile people up, leading them to jump to conclusions about who’s to blame. Appealing to readers through emotion and implication may also lead to suboptimal results, as it may inhibit a more critical evaluation of these events. Objective reporting that offers multiple perspectives may prove more useful in this regard.

Written by Ivy Nevares
Originally published on The Knife Media