Nearly every major media outlet last week ran the image of a small girl wailing as she watched her mother patted down by a faceless Border Patrol agent. The gripping photo of the 2-year-old Honduran asylum seeker quickly became a viral symbol of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy that separated children from their parents. Even Trump acknowledged that the images were “bad for us.”
These photographs vividly contrast the varying ways in which immigrants can be portrayed.
Our recent research shows that U.S. media often show immigrants the way that the Trump administration sees them: as males in detention facilities and in Border Patrol’s custody. That influences Americans’ attitudes toward those migrants. The current emphasis on showing children has offered a sympathetic portrayal of immigrant families that may be less common, according to our data.
Here’s how we did our research
Words and images influence the way people perceive and evaluate policies. That’s demonstrated by a large body of research revealing that how news stories frame immigration — who they show and how they show it — significantly influences public policy preferences on the issue. In fact, negative media portrayals of immigrants and immigration may shift white voters toward the Republican Party, the party currently associated with anti-immigrant positions. U.S. English-language news sources often offer negative story lines about immigrants, emphasizing a Latino threat.
In our article “Picturing immigration: how the media criminalizes immigrants,” we explore whether news stories show photos that depict U.S. immigrants negatively. Photographs are often interpreted as objective evidence, and readers are more likely to remember images than words.
We created a database of immigration images from three national news magazines — Newsweek, Time and U.S. News and World Report — and then analyzed the images to understand how that portion of the press presents immigrants. To be sure, our research focuses on images in just one medium — national news magazines. However, what we found is consistent with recent analyses of rhetoric used to describe immigrants in newspapers and television as well. That suggests that these three magazines offer a representative look at how the news media more generally presents immigrants.
We compiled 338 images from 181 immigration news stories that these three publications ran between 2000 and 2010 — a period of intense, as-yet-unresolved immigration debate. We examined all articles that mentioned immigrants or immigration, including stories about both legal and undocumented immigrants. The articles in our data set covered a wide range of topics, from the plight of refugees and unauthorized immigrants brought to the U.S. at a young age by their parents (often called DREAMers) to broader policy debates about the economics of immigration, day laborers and border security. We analyzed each image, recording such details as the race, ethnicity and gender of the immigrants depicted; signs of criminality; presence of the border or other border imagery; and immigrants’ apparent work status — low- or high-skilled. For more details on our coding, see our article.
The press frequently portrays immigrants negatively
Our analysis confirms that through their choice of images, these news magazines reinforce the narrative of a “Latino threat,” portraying immigrants as criminals unable or unwilling to integrate into the U.S.
We found images of illegality and criminality at a rate far higher than actually occurs in the U.S.’s immigrant population. For instance, while less than a quarter of immigrants in the U.S. are unauthorized, 54 percent of the images we analyzed portrayed undocumented immigrants, including photographs of immigrants illegally crossing the border or in custody of immigration officials. Immigrants were frequently portrayed in detention facilities, implying criminality. That’s despite research showing that immigrants — both those here legally and those who are undocumented — are less likely to commit crimes.
While the articles in our database related to all aspects of immigration policy, enforcement also features prominently; 40 percent of all images included at least one indicator of border enforcement or the border. For example, the image accompanying the 2006 Newsweek article “Return to Sender” shows a line of men in handcuffs, connected by chains around their ankles, as Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers watch them board a plane. Although Asian immigration increased steadily during this period while Mexican immigration declined, the U.S.-Mexico border featured prominently in the images we reviewed.
These outlets also misrepresent immigrants in other ways consistent with a threat narrative. In a working paper, we find that like the photos depicting only boys in detention, media portrayals of immigrants similarly highlight Latino men. Only half of immigrants to the U.S. were of Latino descent in 2005; approximately three-quarters of those in the images we analyzed were identified as Latino.
Among nearly all racial and ethnic groups, male immigrants were pictured more often than female. This gap was largest among images of Latino immigrants, which showed only 21.5 percent women — although in fact, 49 percent of Latino immigrants were women as of 2010.
Our findings are similar to that of Martin Gilens and Bas W. van Doorn, political scientists whose research finds that news media are far more likely to portray poor people as black than white, despite the fact that there are more poor whites. We find that the media typically over-represents Latino men in comparison to their presence in the general immigrant population.
In other words, the current wave of images of women and children at the border is unique.
Why does the portrayal of immigrants matter?
Does it matter whether the Trump administration’s pictures of immigrants primarily featured anonymous teenage boys rather than girls or toddlers? Yes. Evidence suggests that the “Latino threat” narrative adds to hostility about immigration in the U.S. Portraying teenage boys may reinforce the Trump administration’s frequent efforts to imply that Latino immigrants are overwhelmingly involved in MS-13 criminal gangs. Empathetic images of girls and crying toddlers do not fit with Trump’s portrayal of immigrants as “bad hombres.”
Even Trump noted discomfort with the “sight or feeling of families being separated.” As Trump’s positions change, the news media may wish to show women and children more often if it wants to more accurately portray immigration.
Emily M. Farris (@emayfarris) is an assistant professor of political science and comparative race and ethnic studies at Texas Christian University, focusing on U.S. local politics and racial and ethnic politics.
Heather Silber Mohamed(@HeatherSilberMo) is an assistant professor of political science at Clark University, and the author of “The New Americans?: Immigration, Protest, and the Politics of Latino Identity” (University Press of Kansas, 2017).