Immigration and refugee issues are popular in media narratives. With over 272 million international migrants - a number which has been on the rise for years - popular news media is constantly covering migration stories. Yet asking how these stories are being covered is important.
In this research, we analyze over 500 news articles over the span of five years to explore what kinds of narratives about immigrants and refugees are most commonly present. This research identifies dominant themes in media narratives; discusses changes over time, across publications, and between migrant groups; and points to the importance of how issues are framed. Importantly, we discuss the relative absence of individual stories and immigrant and refugee voices themselves in media narratives. This research will be of interest to other researchers and academics interested in media portrayals of immigrant and refugee communities, those engaged in direct practitioner work with immigrant and refugee communities, as well as advocates and activists in these communities. Knowing how these issues are dominantly framed can inform strategies to shape counter-narratives and center immigrant and refugee stories, amplifying their own voices.
On this page, you will find details about our research, some featured immigrant and refugee stories, and a closing reflection. First, you will find more details about our research and findings in the accordion menu below. Our research involved a discourse analysis of 563 articles from CNN and FoxNews from 2013 through 2017. We present a summary of the trends as well as main findings from our analyses of CNN and FoxNews separately. We have also included a section with more details on our research methods for those who might be interested. Throughout the research, one thing we found most striking was the relative absence of immigrant and refugee voices in the stories about immigrants and refugees. We therefore decided to juxtapose the findings from our discourse analysis with examples of immigrant and refugee stories, which you will also find on this page. We have highlighted these examples, which link to other organizations and platforms where you can learn more. Finally, we close with some reflections and invite you to continue to think about these issues with us.
Summarizing the Trends
We analyzed a total of 563 articles from CNN and FoxNews, which were published over a five-year period, from from 2013 through 2017. The articles underwent a double review, with one team member reading through and coding the articles for dominant theme(s) or frames, and then another repeating the process without knowing how the first team member had coded the article. Matching frames were finalized, and frames that did not matched were discussed and reconciled as a team (to see more details about our research methods, see the last section of the accordion menu). The team first engaged in open coding until we had a set or recurring themes that we were using. We then fleshed out definitions for each of the frames, which are listed below. Some articles were assigned two frames if the team felt that two frames were equally or near equally present. For our 563 articles we had a total of 694 frames assigned. The percentage distribution among our 15 frames is shown in the chart below.
Worth noting is that, while individual stories does make up a considerable percent, most articles were assigned the "individual stories" frame as a secondary frame. That is to say that usually another frame was dominant and it just so happened that the article was featuring an individual. Only a small number of articles were labeled exclusively as "individual stories" and portrayed an individual's story in a multidimensional and fully human way.
Interestingly, when frames were collapsed into more "positive leaning" frames such as those which discuss immigrant and refugee issues and communities in terms of their economic or cultural benefit, and into more "negative" leaning frames such as those which discuss these issues in terms of public order, security, and control, we can see how polarized the narratives in mainstream media really are. We considered the following frames to be generally more positive leaning: humanitarian, advocacy/activism, economic-benefit, policy-positive, cultural benefit, and individual story. We considered these frames to be generally more negative leaning: economic-burden, policy-negative, public order, political contention, discrimination/stereotype. The frames policy, international relations, terminology, and entertainment were considered more "neutral." Of the 694 total frames, 316 were then "positive leaning," while 321 were "negative leaning."
In our research, we used the following frames to label the articles we coded. When we began coding, we used open coding and eventually came up with a set of themes that were recurring throughout the coding process.
Humanitarian: immigrants are victims of situations often beyond their control and are primarily seen as powerless, victimized, and/or in need of a savior
Advocacy/Activism: civic engagement such as protests, community organizing, or direct support for a policy or cause, often with the message that host countries must do a better job at accommodating migrant populations as it applies to both policies and public perception
Economic-Benefit: immigration brings many benefits to the host society and economy
Economic-Burden: immigrants and refugees compete in the U.S. workforce with U.S. citizens and pose a threat to the economic well-being of Americans
Policy-Positive: policies should be or are being implemented to improve the livelihoods of migrants, grant more rights and freedoms, and/or provide migrants with a pathway to citizenship
Policy-Negative: policies should be or are being implemented to address immigration and refugee admissions through control, surveillance, and/or limiting immigrant/refugee admissions and rights
Public order: immigrants and/or refugees are a threat to the public order and safety of citizens, whether through violent or nonviolent criminal activity
Cultural Benefit: immigrants and/or refugees have contributed positively to our country and are a benefit in our communities (e.g., through exposure to diverse culture and traditions, not monetary benefit)
Political Contention: immigration is a complex, divisive issue that has become heavily politicized and polarized; debate and both sides equally prevalent
International Relations: about the relationship between two or more nation-states as it relates to an immigration or refugee issue
Terminology: definitions of migration-related terms
Discrimination/Stereotype: instances of unjust or unequal treatment including prejudice, oversimplified and biased stories, intolerance, hate crimes, etc.
Entertainment: discusses media content (fiction or nonfiction) that features immigrants and/or refugees in some fairly prominent way; e.g., books, movies, documentaries, TV shows, TEDtalks, songs
Individual Story: focus of the story is on an individual person and goes beyond quoting them, goes into their backstory to some extent; usually used as a secondary frame but can be the primary when other frames are not suitable
SIDE BY SIDE
MORE ON OUR METHODS...
While media may fall short in highlighting individual stories, some organizations understand the importance of doing so. We want to spotlight the following organizations & initiatives for their efforts to amplify immigrant and refugee voices in the Greater Boston area. The migrant narratives illustrated below originate from the following organizations/initiatives:
Boston Medical Center’s Immigrant & Refugee Health Center encompasses numerous programs targeted to immigrants and refugees assisting access to medical and mental health care and social services. The center conducted several interviews with clients, where we learned more about their experiences in their countries of origin in addition to their lives in the United States.
Migration Talesrecognizes the polarization of migration and that real migrant experiences are often underrepresented by the media. Led by college students in the Boston area, this initiative hopes to highlight migrant narratives and promote understanding.
Global Boston is a digital project that documents the history of immigration to the Boston area since the nineteenth century. The project is composed of various components, including oral histories of immigrants living in the Boston area. Their mission is to tell the stories of Boston’s major immigrant groups and empower migrant voices.
Suitcase Stories, sponsored by the International Institute of New England and the City of Boston Mayor’s Office for Immigrant Advancement, is a program that enables the community to explore migration through the personal stories shared by migrants. It strives to foster an inclusive environment for migrants and center their experiences.
The Immigrant Learning Center conducted an immigrant entrepreneur interview series through its Public Education Institute to highlight the positive contributions of immigrant entrepreneurs in American society.
What does this all mean?
Final thoughts/questions to leave the reader with
If you are part of an immigrant, refugee, or asylum seeker community and would like to share your own story, or if you have suggestions of stories we should feature here, please reach out!