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Media more negative than sympathetic toward caravan migrants

PCDN Global

October 22, 2018

By Steven Youngblood, director, Center for Global Peace Journalism

A study of news media reporting about the migrant caravan in Mexico using the Lexis-Nexis database shows that negative mentions about the migrants outnumber positive ones, and that news media are guilty of exaggerating the “threat” posed by the migrants.

In the study of news reports by the Center for Global Peace Journalism from Oct. 1-22, negative mentions more than double sympathetic ones in newspapers (2,773 articles); while negative mentions outnumber sympathetic ones by about 25% in broadcast transcripts (1,444 stories). Negative mentions included terminology like “surge,” “threat,” “flood,” “stream(ing),” “criminals,” “force,” “illegal/illegals,” and “crisis.” Sympathetic terms searched for included “poor,” “asylum,” “hungry,” “dehydrated,” “sick,” “misery,” “migrants,” “flee,” “refugee,” “poverty,” and “murder rate.” The most used negative terminology in both newspapers and on broadcasts was “illegal/illegals,” which appeared in 26% of broadcasts and 58% of newspaper stories.

The study also shows the media are exaggerating the “threat” posed by the number of migrants. The Guardian reports there are 3,000 migrants (Oct. 19), while CNN says there were 2,200 on the bridge connecting Guatemala and Mexico, while 900 tried to cross the border illegally (Oct. 22). How many migrants constitute a threat is debatable. Still, much of the media are engaging in hyperbole as they use subjective labels for the caravan like “massive,” “enormous,” “huge,” and even “large.” There were 383 of these exaggerated terms in the 1,444 broadcast stories analyzed, and 184 exaggerations in the 2,773 newspaper stories in the study. Broadcast stories used these exaggerations by percentage about four times as much as their newspaper colleagues.

Interestingly, the broadcast stories about the migrant caravan were simultaneously more negative (39% of the stories) and more sympathetic (31% of the stories) than their newspaper counterparts (19% negative and 8% sympathetic). One might conclude that the newspaper stories were more neutral and less sensational generally, which is understandable given the partisan ideological extremes present in broadcasters like Fox and MSNBC.

The data does not take into account duplicate words appearing in any one story. For example, "asylum" and "flood" could appear together in one or more stories. Thus, reaching any conclusion about the tone of any individual story is difficult, though the number of times each word is used can give us some useful information about the tone and narrative of the reporting in general.

These findings are consistent with previous research in the field that indicated predominantly negative narratives about migrants, including framing of migrants as invaders and hype about the “threat” and “crisis” which labeled migrant groups using terms like “flood,” “tide,” and “waves.” (Peace Journalism Principles and Practices, 2016, p. 158).

See below, full data from the study.

Findings of study conducted Oct 22, 2018:

Oct 1-Oct 22, Lexis Nexis, all broadcast transcripts

1444 stories; search for “caravan”. In these caravan stories, we searched for the terminology listed below.

Negative terminology—surge-25; threat-28; flood-11; stream(ing) 11; criminals-18; force 151; illegals/ illegal 148; exploding 5;  crisis--168  --565 negative mentions

Exaggerated terminology—massive 34; enormous 13; huge 296; large 40  --383 exaggerations 

Sympathetic terminology—poor 3; asylum 215; hungry 2; dehydrated 3; sick 55; misery 3; migrants 6; flee 25; refugee 13 ; poverty 81; murder rate 48;   --454 sympathetic mentions

Oct 1-Oct 22, Lexis Nexis, all Newspapers

Caravan 2773

Negative terminology—surge-41; threat-11; flood-6; stream(ing) 2; criminals-9; force 148; illegals/ illegal 298; exploding 0; crisis-1  --516 negative mentions

Exaggerated terminology—massive 120; enormous 6; huge 7; large 51  --184 exaggerations 

Sympathetic terminology—poor 25; asylum 21; hungry 6; dehydrated 0; sick 31; misery 1; migrants 12; flee 35; refugee 10 ; poverty 66; murder rate 2;   --209 sympathetic mentions

--Negative mentions more than double sympathetic ones in newspapers; about 25% more in broadcast transcripts
--Negative mentions in 39% broadcast; 19% of newspapers
--Most used negative terminology—illegal/illegals –26% of broadcast; 58% of newspaper
--Exaggerations in 27% of broadcast stories but just 7% of newspapers
--Sympathetic mentions in 31% of broadcast; but just 8% of newspapers

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