Media ‘Border Crisis’ Threatens Immigration Reform
It’s no surprise that right-wing media have hyped a supposed crisis on the US/Mexico border, or that much of the television coverage of current immigration issues has tended to be superficial. What’s striking is how badly the situation has been represented in the more centrist and prestigious parts of the corporate media.
Human Rights First, an advocacy organization that has been monitoring conditions at the southwestern border, has described current media coverage as “unethical reporting.” The group wasn’t just talking about Fox News and Sunday talkshows: The outlets it singled out were the New York Times, Washington Post and Axios.
“Unethical reporting” is no exaggeration. Probably the media’s greatest failure has been in playing down a major humanitarian crisis on the other side of the border: the US government’s expulsion of thousands of asylum seekers back into Mexico under Title 42 of the public health code. Aside from some good opinion pieces (Washington Post, 3/22/21; Boston Globe, 4/26/21), there have been little more than a few passing references to this Trump era policy, which the Biden administration is continuing (with some modifications). But we find a serious lack of balance even if we only consider the reporting about the situation on the border’s US side.
Establishment coverage has featured hyperbole about recent migration trends and an inexcusable lack of historical context. Worse yet, this style of reporting could have serious consequences in the real world: It may sabotage prospects for a long overdue reform of the US immigration system.
A ‘ballooning crisis’…
The media’s crisis narrative was in place by early February. “President Biden’s first immigration crisis has already begun, as thousands of families have surged toward the southwestern border in recent weeks, propelled by expectations of a friendlier reception,” the New York Times (2/6/21) announced. “The surge poses the first major test of Mr. Biden’s pledge to adopt a more compassionate policy along America’s border with Mexico,” Times reporter Miriam Jordan and freelancer Max Rivlin-Nadler continued.
The article clarified that the situation at the border wasn’t much different from a spike under the Trump administration in 2019, and that a policy change in Mexico could be as much the cause as any “compassion” from the new administration. Both Jordan and Rivlin-Nadler (who reports for San Diego’s KPBS) are in fact good reporters with a firm grasp on immigration issues. Still, their choice of language—words like “crisis,” “surge,” “propelled”—seems designed to scare more than inform.
The Washington Post’s coverage has the same problem. The paper’s Nick Miroff, a knowledgeable immigration reporter, can’t seem to resist scary rhetoric. For Miroff, the number of migrants crossing the southwestern border hasn’t just increased; it has “skyrocketed” (4/2/21). Overcrowding in Border Patrol facilities isn’t just an administrative failure; it’s “a ballooning crisis for the Biden administration” (3/12/21).
Over at Axios (4/11/21), Stef Kight sprinkles an otherwise informative article with military imagery. “Parents with young children march through the brush,” she wrote. The increase in migration is a “surge,” and Kight was reporting from “the frontlines of the growing border crisis,” according to the headline.
What’s missing from this is any sense of history. Casual readers may not realize that reporters like Miroff have been crying wolf for years. Border crossings also “skyrocketed” at least twice in 2018 in articles under his byline (9/30/18) or under a shared byline (12/13/18)—and yet no one now seems to remember a major “border crisis” that year.
…or politics as usual?
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