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From portrayal of migrant populations to influence on policy, public opinion, MCI Conference participant shares discoveries from Shaping Immigration News
October 25, 2012
Rodney Benson, an Associate Professor of Media Studies and Sociology at New York University, just published the book Shaping Immigration News: A French-American Comparison (Cambridge University Press, 2013).
Benson holds a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California-Berkeley and has been a visiting professor at the Centre de sociologie européenne-Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris and the Institut d’études politiques in Toulouse. His many publications include Bourdieu and the Journalistic Field (co-edited with Erik Neveu, Polity, 2005) and Public Media and Political Independence (co-authored with Matthew Powers, Free Press, 2011).
In Shaping Immigration News, Benson draws on interviews and analyses of coverage to show how the immigration debate has become increasingly focused on the dramatic, emotion-laden frames of humanitarianism and public order. At the same time, Benson finds enduring differences between French and American journalism related to the distinctive societal positions, professional logics, and internal structures of their respective national journalistic fields.
In 2009 and 2010, Benson participated in a series of conferences organized by the French-American Foundation as part of the Media Coverage of Immigration program. The conferences – first in Paris, then in Miami – gathered prominent journalists, scholars, and advocacy groups to discuss ways to improve the media’s coverage of the complex topic of immigration in the United States, Europe, and the rest of the world.
Benson will present the findings of his books on Wednesday, November 6, at a roundtable discussion co-sponsored by the French-American Foundation at NYU’s La Maison Française. Read more about the event here.
Rod, we appreciate you sharing some of your insights with us. We have been in touch with you since you participated in our Media Coverage of Immigration conferences, and we were looking forward to the publication of your book!
We were delighted to have you join the Foundation for Media Coverage of Immigration conferences in 2009 and 2010. For you, what was the greatest takeaway from those experiences?
The one panel that stands out in my mind featured Nina Bernstein of the New York Times and Ruadhán Mac Cormaic of the Irish Times. Their discussion really brought to the fore the complementary yet often competing demands of narrative story-telling and structural contextualization. This tension had already come up in my research, but their discussion really helped clarify what is at stake. Is the most important thing to “humanize” the immigrant experience or is it to “connect the dots” of immigration’s causes and consequences? Both are important, and it’s hard to do both. Although there are exceptions, American journalists seem to think that humanizing the story is most important, while French journalists put more emphasis on providing context.
What made you decide to write this comparison of the relationship between media and immigration in France and the United States? How much has your participation in the French-American Foundation’s Media Coverage of Immigration program impacted your work?
My involvement with the FAF came as I was in the final stages of my research, so the experience really helped me crystallize my thinking in many ways. For instance, I had interviewed Nina Bernstein prior to the Paris conference, but hearing her elaborate more fully her journalistic credo was very helpful. Discussing my preliminary findings with a range of reporters provided an important “reality check” on my work: it helped me make sure my arguments took into account journalists’ experiences and self-understandings. It was also illuminating to get an insider perspective on the promotional campaigns undertaken by various advocacy groups, both for and against immigration. Finally, I found the remarks by several of the immigration scholars – notably Peter Kwong and Michael Teitelbaum – immensely helpful in clarifying what often is missing from the immigration debate, in particular, the global economic context and the “strange bedfellows” alliances that make it difficult to classify immigration policy positions as simply “left” or “right.”
Did you remain in contact with fellow participants from the MCI conferences, and how did those contacts contribute to your newest work?
Why did you decide to pick France and the United States to study the media’s coverage of immigration? In a global environment where many nations are impacted by immigration and emigration, what about these two nations, their immigration policies and debates, or their media practices made these two nations the most interesting for you?
And it turns out that the French and U.S. journalistic “fields” – to use the term from the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu – are different in many ways. U.S. journalism has historically been more profit-driven and advertising-dependent, and there is a strong emphasis on narrative reporting, with a focus on individuals. In contrast, French journalism, at least since World War II, has been less commercialized and more focused on facilitating a debate of ideas. Most French media organizations make just enough money to survive from paying audiences, minimal advertising, and state subsidies. It’s a politically engaged press, but it’s not as partisan or one-sided as some Americans seem to believe. In fact, I found that French newspapers, taken one-by-one, tended to include a wider range of voices and viewpoints than their American counterparts. So a French-American comparison is really useful to test how commercial and political constraints shape the news media.
While our readers will have to buy your book to get a complete answer, could you tell us briefly what are the most notable or interesting differences and similarities between media coverage of immigration in France and the United States?
At the same time, despite claims that globalization is homogenizing national cultures, there is otherwise a surprising lack of convergence over time between French and American journalistic news coverage of immigration. For instance, while U.S. attention to the global economy has declined during a period of intense globalization, French attention has remained steady. And perhaps not surprisingly, media attention to integration and national cohesion has been higher in France than in the United States.
I also find many differences in French and U.S. journalistic practices. U.S. journalism emphasizes narrative story-telling, focusing on the travails of individuals, especially immigrants; it also tends to offer more investigative reporting of government abuses (though there is not a great deal of this kind of reporting in either country). French newspaper journalism's multi-genre approach to the news – mixing breaking news with interview transcripts, commentaries, and historical background features – often does more to provide in-depth context.
And compared to American news media, the French media (both newspapers and TV) are more likely to highlight civil society voices and to link individual problems to collective struggles; this is an ironic reversal of Alexis de Tocqueville’s admiring portrayal of American associational life during the early 1800s.
How much does public opinion and general sensitivity toward immigration issues in the United States and France shape the way media portray the immigrant experience, immigration politics, and immigrants themselves? Do you think media in these two nations are pushing the public to think differently about immigration, or do media tend to reflect the conflicted societal attitude toward this often contentious question?
In the United States, the reasons are commercial and professional: stories about suffering immigrants fit well with the professional news convention of dramatic story-telling. In France, there is more of a political logic at work. Journalists feel that negative coverage about immigration may end up “playing the game” of the far right National Front party, so they tend to lean in the other direction.
Newspaper audiences in both countries tend to have relatively wealthy and highly educated audiences – who in turn lean toward more pro-immigration attitudes – so the newspapers’ coverage reflects those views. What is more intriguing is the tendency of omnibus television (the big networks in the United States and TF1 and France 2), which has a broader audience than newspapers, to also emphasize victim and hero frames over threat frames. In this case, TV news thus seems to be trying to lead rather than follow public opinion.
How do you think new media have impacted the immigrant story and the public debate and perception thereof?
If you also include “cable” as part of new media, Fox News has also been an important mobilizing force for restrictionist activists both inside and outside the Republican Party in the United States. There is no equivalent of this kind of legitimized anti-immigration voice in the French media (the conservative Le Figaro would come closest – but much more so in its incarnation of the early 1980s under Hersant than today). I’m not sure how many minds Fox has changed, though, and it’s important to remember that cable audiences in the United States are still substantially smaller than those of the three main networks – ABC, CBS, and NBC.
Have you seen the emergence of ethnic and diaspora media change the greater debate on immigration? Have such specialized media been more prevalent or had more of an impact in one nation more than the other?
In your studies, have you found that one medium or format does a better job overall in covering immigration? Perhaps this is different between France and the United States?
Overall, in both countries, less commercialized media like PBS and the Christian Science Monitor in the United States and Libération and L’Humanité in France tend to offer the most in-depth, multi-perspectival, and critical news. This finding may surprise some because it really challenges the classic liberal view that state intervention always has a “chilling” effect on the press and necessarily makes it less critical.
Can you share with us one or several particular examples of recent media works that should serve as an example for how media cover immigration?
“The United States is spending billions on walls that don’t really keep migrants out (a University of California, San Diego, study showed that 97 percent of migrants who want to cross the border eventually get through), and on locking up and deporting people, many of whom return. Border enforcement, guest worker programs and pathways to citizenship haven’t addressed the problem. Instead they have sealed in many migrants who would have preferred to circle back home, attracted temporary workers who never left, and legalized migrants who then brought relatives illegally, causing the number of unlawful migrants to grow. We can prevent this pain, and slow the flow of migrants permanently, only by addressing the “push” factors that propel migrants, especially women, to leave in the first place — and by helping families like Enrique’s avoid the heartache that his mother’s exodus began a quarter-century ago. “
Nazario then goes on to list some specific policies in her Op-Ed, “The Heartache of an Immigrant Family .”
Just as the best academic work tends to venture beyond raw description, so should journalism. So I’d like to call attention to the important role played by insightful, against-the-grain opinion writing – writing that brings reporting together with research to find creative solutions as exemplified by Nazario’s recent essay or by Paul Krugman’s excellent but too rare columns on immigration. Online, the New York Times is also doing a lot to facilitate this kind of ideas-based discussion with “Room for Debate,” which has featured a number of thoughtful debates about immigration. I think, though, that the editors could do more to sort out the good arguments from the bad and not create a false sense of balance by treating the obviously partial accounts of think tanks or activist associations on the same plane as careful academic research.
In France, the equivalent of the multi-part narrative series is the multi-page thematic “dossier” – an almost encyclopedic collection of full-page expert interviews, policy histories, immigrant testimonies, and more, that one sometimes finds in Le Monde. It’s a great resource, but it’s hard to know how many people actually read all the way to the end. In terms of assuring an informed public, however, the quality of “ordinary” everyday coverage is probably just as or more important. In this regard, I’d call attention to the consistently balanced and comprehensive immigration coverage in the Christian Science Monitor. And I would again point to the virtues of the typical French “événement” report in Libération, La Croix, L’Humanité, or Le Parisien, a format that assures that any breaking story is directly linked to opposing viewpoints, expert analyses, and historical context.
We like to ask our interviewees for book recommendations. What book (or books) has been the most influential to you, either in your impressive academic career or on a personal level?