Media Accuracy: A Fleeting Moment of Balanced Immigration Coverage

George W. Bush inadvertently created a public maelstrom in January 2004, when he proposed a new temporary worker program and a road to citizenship for millions of unauthorized immigrants. By 2006, immigration had become the major issue on the nation’s political agenda. The last time this happened was in 1994, when California voters passed Proposition 187, which would have denied unauthorized immigrants many public benefits and required state employees (including health care workers and school teachers) to point authorities to “apparently illegal aliens.”

Kristen Bodossian and Otto Santa Ana

George W. Bush inadvertently created a public maelstrom in January 2004, when he proposed a new temporary worker program and a road to citizenship for millions of unauthorized immigrants. By 2006, immigration had become the major issue on the nation’s political agenda. The last time this happened was in 1994, when California voters passed Proposition 187, which would have denied unauthorized immigrants many public benefits and required state employees (including health care workers and school teachers) to point authorities to “apparently illegal aliens.”

As gauged by old-fashioned­ journalistic content analysis—which simply counts the number of words, headline size, and other plainly observable elements of newspaper copy—the Los Angeles Times’ coverage of Prop. 187 was balanced. But such analysis is limited. According to recent research in cognitive science, common metaphor appears to be the key element of language that people use to make sense of their social world. In brief, what you say (or read) is what you get. For this reason, the everyday metaphors for political notions like citizen, immigrant, and nation that are sprinkled through news copy are fundamental to understanding on what basis newspaper readers (hence voters) make political decisions.

In Brown Tide Rising: Metaphors of Latinos in Contemporary American Public Discourse (2002), Otto Santa Ana reported on the Los Angeles Times’ coverage of Prop. 187 using a research design that linked the insights of cognitive metaphor theory to a rigorous scientific protocol designed to avoid tainting the investigation with his own political bias. Cataloging the metaphors used in 1994 by the Times to represent immigrants, he found that although the paper strongly opposed Prop. 187 (its editorials repeatedly condemned the referendum as fiscally unsound and mean-spirited), it inadvertently supported the referendum at the level of metaphor. Indeed, Santa Ana’s findings were chilling. The most frequent (34%) and powerful metaphor the Times projected was immigrant as animal.

The Times repeatedly depicted immigrants as animals in various ways, including as prey being drawn into a trap or chased down and eaten: “The truth is, employers hungering for really cheap labor hunt out the foreign workers” (italics added). The paper also depicted them as invading soldiers, flooding tides, and weeds. Thus at this fundamental level of language, at which readers make sense of political concepts, the Times did not promote a balanced debate of the issue. Instead, its readership was provided only a single discourse about immigrants, one that depicted them as subhuman. Californians voted accordingly.

The Times was not alone; all mainstream U.S. national news sources used such politically biased language in the 1990s. Apparently­ only one discourse was then acceptable for the U.S. news media to articulate—a decidedly anti-immigrant one.

Thus, when Bush made his 2004 proposal, he stunned many people across the political spectrum when he publicly declared immigrants to be “decent human beings,” “Americans by choice,” and people of “talent, character, and patriotism” who hold values like “faith in God, love of family, hard work, and self-reliance.” He particularly annoyed the right when he declared that the hard work of “undocumented” immigrants “made ours the world’s largest economy” and that the United­ States can only become a “stronger and better nation because of the hard work and the faith and entrepreneurial spirit of immigrants.”

Wondering what effect the president’s rhetoric might have in U.S. print news, we rigorously analyzed two samples of 50 articles from more than 35 major newspapers. First, we looked at reports from May 2, 2006, the day after enormous pro-immigrant marches took place across the country. We then compared the May data to a sample from the following October, when Bush signed a law authorizing the construction of up to 700 miles of high-tech fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border. We have both good and bad news to report.

In the May 2006 sample we found 1,136 metaphors, 969 of which directly related to immigrants. To our happy surprise, we found two rival discourses competing for approval. We found the customary inhumane discourse in 57% of the metaphors portraying immigrants, but also determined that 43% characterized immigrants neutrally or positively. The most frequent of these humane metaphors was immigrant as undocumented (11%). It was complemented by immigrant as human, as worker, and as contributor (adding up to 20%), supporting an affirming viewpoint about immigrants, and hence more humane immigration policy.

The most frequent metaphor overall was immigrant as criminal (33%). This negative metaphor was complemented by the immigrant as burden, as mass, as object, and as alien (adding up to 20%). These metaphors, which depict immigrants as a source of national danger and disdain, had been noted in the 1994 study; the only significant change in 2006 was that immigrant as criminal replaced immigrant as animal as the most frequent (hence guiding) metaphor.

While negative metaphors outnumbered positive ones, the sizable presence of the latter represented a tremendous improvement in the ability of the press to present what we believe is the ontological kernel of the debate. On the one hand, the anti-immigrant metaphors encapsulate the following normative claim: Immigrants who deliberately violate U.S. law and exploit its social services deserve only punishment. This creates a criminality narrative through which any potential change in immigration policy is to be judged, a narrative that characterizes unauthorized immigrants as lower forms of human beings that must be restricted, removed, and closely regulated.

In contrast, the positive human immigrant metaphors make a different claim: Immigrants are decent people who commit a minor civil infraction for the higher purpose of working for their daily bread. Such metaphors create a narrative that reflects compassion (immigrant as human) and positive sentiment (as contributor, reputable), or provides a technical description (as undocumented, worker).

In May 2006, U.S. newspaper journalists presented near equal portions of each rival narrative to the reading public. Thus there was balanced treatment of both sides of the root of the immigration debate, in contrast to the 1990s, when the public received only one point of view through metaphor, that powerful faculty of subconscious conceptualization, and hence of persuasion.

Sadly, the October 2006 coverage of the border fence law indicates a return to the status quo. Of the 903 metaphors directly relating to immigrants, 67% were inhumane and only 33% were humane. All the negative metaphors became more frequent, while affirming metaphors lost ground proportionally. This retreat may be due to increased discussions of policy, rather than reporting on impressive marches that present the human face of immigrants. In the absence of major marches, we believe, the short period of balanced U.S. journalism on this issue has ended.

Policy positions on immigration are numerous and nuanced. But the crux of the debate lies in how we judge the character of the unauthorized immigrant. If U.S. news media do not mind their metaphors, the public’s judgment on one of the most pressing political issues of the early 21st century will be made once again on the basis of myopic, dehumanizing images.


Kristen Bodossian is an undergraduate at UCLA. Otto Santa Ana, an empirical sociolinguist and critical discourse analyst, is Associate Professor in UCLA’s César E. Chávez Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies.
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