Migrants at sea: the missing context

Sailing illegally toward Europe Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters

The latest tragic immigrant deaths in the Mediterranean are at the top of the news.

In Europe, officials are proposing a new policy of sending in their navies to destroy smuggling ships and send migrants back to shore. But this tale of humanitarian suffering and government repression is the same old story we’ve been hearing for years.

At least, it seems familiar to me.

I recently completed two systematic studies of immigration news “framing”: a book that examined US and French news from the 1970s through the mid-2000s and a more recent study of undocumented immigration news in Norway, France, and the U.S. during 2011-12.

Framing calls attention to the media’s inevitable need to select and emphasize some facts over others. Frames provide different answers to the question: what kind of problem is this?

Instead of demanding objectivity, an impossible goal, we can ask of media coverage: Which frames were chosen? Which are missing? And why?

Media frames help set the agenda for public debate. Different media frames ultimately suggest different policy solutions.

How immigrants are ‘framed’ now

News frames about immigrants tend to fall into three broad categories: threats, victims, or heroes.

Threat frames are accusations that immigrants take jobs, or cost taxpayers, or undermine national cultural cohesion. The most frequent threat frame is what I call “public order,” which emphasizes lawbreaking of any kind, as well as the health, safety or environmental threats posed by unrestrained immigration.

Victim frames call attention to racism and discrimination against immigrants or humanitarian concerns about immigrant human rights, suffering, and death.

Hero frames emphasize how immigrants are “good workers” or contribute to “cultural diversity.”

Overall, as my research shows, victim and hero frames combined almost always outnumber threat frames. The humanitarian frame is especially common. It is dramatic, simple, and highly visual. It is a reliably good story and a winning commercial formula.

But that doesn’t mean that the news coverage is pro-immigrant, in the sense of actually addressing the root problems forcing people to leave their homelands.

The need for context

What’s missing is the larger context.

This “global” contextual frame emphasizes problems of international poverty, underdevelopment, and inequality, of which migration from the Global South to North is only one symptom.

As the great French-Algerian immigration scholar Abdelmalek Sayad always emphasized, immigration is first and foremost emigration.

Rather than endlessly recounting the cycle of migrants fleeing and being captured, a deeper form of journalism would raise questions about the structuring of the global economic order and the ways in which foreign, trade, and labor policies of powerful western countries make emigration from the developing to developed world all but inevitable.

Let’s take an example closer to home.

More than a quarter of a million people were killed during the 1980s wars in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, most of them by death squads or military forces trained and supplied by the US government.

As a direct consequence of the unrest caused by US wars in the region, the number of Salvadoran-born immigrants living in the United States has increased from 100,000 in 1980 to more than 1 million today.

US trade policies in Latin America have also prompted massive out-migration.

The NAFTA trade agreement with Mexico has not improved the economic condition for most Mexican workers and has even increased their poverty and insecurity and their incentives to cross the border.

Likewise, many migrants from Northern and sub-Saharan Africa have been prompted to leave by economic and political unrest that is the ongoing legacy of European colonialism.

In the words of a Togolese researcher for Amnesty International writing in the French daily Libération :

“Africa’s profound malaise accentuates the massive exodus, which cannot be stopped by any wall, even if it touches the sky. The scheming of the multinational corporations, the arms sales, the control of resources, the authoritarian governments supported by France, all of these push people to flee at the peril of their lives, forced out by hunger and war.”

But we hear little of this kind of structural analysis in the media coverage, especially in the United States.

How American and European media perspectives differ

The global frame is doubly disadvantaged as a news angle.

It is complex and not easily reduced to personalized melodrama. It is also ideologically sensitive: it suggests that there might be something unjust or misguided about an economic system that most western political elites – and journalists – take for granted as just the way things are.

From the early 1970s through the mid-2000s —- a period of intensifying neo-liberal globalization and several US-sponsored bloody conflicts in Central America -— the proportion of immigration news articles in leading American newspapers mentioning the global frame actually fell, my research shows, from 30 to 12%.

In contrast, French newspapers in the 2000s continued to mention the global angle in one-third of their immigration news stories.

These comparative findings are buttressed by my more recent study, which found that references to structural causal “push” factors appeared in just 5% of US news articles versus 15% in Norway and 17% in France.

What accounts for the US and continental European differences in news coverage?

American journalists emphasize emotional narratives about individual immigrants, whereas continental European journalists (especially in France) tend to put more focus on immigration as a social process.

The differences are also related to the way news is presented and organized.

In France, the top stories are often organized as multi-article, multi-genre “debate ensembles” that juxtapose breaking news alongside historical context, commentaries, and transcripts of interviews with experts. Immigration reporters also work under “social problems” desks that have a more thematic approach to the news.

In both France and the US, smaller news organizations that are less driven by profit pressures – such as public television news PBS and Arte or newspapers like the Christian Science Monitor, Libération, and L’Humanité – tend to provide more context and a broader range of voices and viewpoints.

On both sides of the Atlantic, we can clearly do better.

How can journalists, activists, and scholars work together to provide a more complete portrait of the powerful actors and structural factors that lie behind the apparent threats and victims?

How can we diffuse the high quality coverage that appears in some news outlets to broader audiences?

And how can we tap the potential of new digital media like Vox and Vice to provide quality information to young audiences that have traditionally ignored the news?

One thing is clear: The public needs to understand why so many people are making desperate choices to cross the Mexican border and the Mediterranean – and why the race to the bottom ultimately affects us all.


Read more of the Conversation’s coverage of immigration to the US here and to Europe here.

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