Rodney Benson

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.

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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?
It’s difficult to pick out just one takeaway; there were so many. The FAF staff did a fantastic job of bringing together a diverse group of journalists, activists, and scholars and providing opportunities for them to exchange ideas. The conferences raised all the key questions: how to make room for diverse voices and viewpoints, how to cover long-term processes as well as breaking events, how to assess the quality of “expert” analyses, and how to do all this and make it interesting for audiences. For me, it was a chance to listen and get a better sense of the everyday challenges faced by journalists as they cover this very complex issue. 

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? 
Immigration is obviously an important social issue, and the attitudes people have about immigration are influenced to some extent by the kind of information they get from the media. The causes and effects and politics of immigration are also extremely complex and the public debate around immigration carries a strong emotional charge for many people. So in terms of its importance, complexity, and potential for sensationalism, immigration is a great case study of news-media performance, which is my primary interest as a sociologist of media. 

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?
I conducted some follow-up interviews with journalists, such as Pascale Egré of Le Parisien. And I’ve followed with interest the discussions on the FAF Media and Immigration Facebook page. In the book, I also drew on the writings of conference participants I met, such as Sacramento Bee reporter Susan Ferriss, in addition to the aforementioned academics. I’ve kept in touch with James Graff, a former Paris Bureau Chief for TIME, and he and I have had a running conversation about the state of American journalism and French-American differences. Michael Teitelbaum was kind enough to write an endorsement that appears on the back cover, and Graff will be one of the discussants at NYU’s roundtable discussion about the book on November 6. There have also been some interesting “small-world” reverberations. At another conference on immigration reporting hosted at the University of Minnesota, I met Elise Vincent of Le Monde and interviewed her for my book. Shortly afterward, she won an immigration reporting award from FAF!

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?
France and the United States are both long-standing countries of immigration and remain among the countries with the largest immigrant populations in the world. If you look at the percentages of national population that are foreign born, language-acquisition and inter-marriage trends, economic costs and benefits, and the like, there are actually a lot of similarities in immigration experiences. And yet there are differences in the public discourse about immigration in the two countries. Of course, these differences are related to distinctive political systems and histories, but media are part of the equation too. After all, it is journalists who collect or edit or write most of the information and ideas that gain wide circulation. 

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? 
This book draws on dozens of interviews with journalists in France and the United States, as well as an extensive content analysis of print and TV news from the 1970s through the 2000s (10 major news organizations in each country). I found that that the immigration debate in both countries has increasingly focused on the dramatic, emotion-laden frames of “humanitarianism” and “public order.” In contrast, the economic push-and-pull factors, which tend to drive immigration and are crucial to explaining both support and opposition to immigration, are increasingly absent from media coverage –  especially in 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?
The media coverage overall definitely captures a range of conflicting pro- and anti-immigration views. If political officials frame immigrants as a threat, media tend to follow that lead. And surveys show the public in both countries deeply divided. But overall, my research finds that the mainstream media provide a relatively sympathetic treatment of immigration, more frequently portraying immigrants as victims and heroes than as threats.  

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?
Online media provide an important forum for information, voices, and viewpoints otherwise excluded from the mainstream debate. It’s easier than ever for journalists to gain a broad perspective on the issue. The challenge is sorting out the wheat from the chaff and knowing what to do with this overwhelming amount of material. Websites like economist Dean Baker’s blog or the Migration Policy Institute’s online databases are a tremendous resource for journalists. Virtually every immigration-related organization and think tank, large and small, has a presence on the web. Again, the question is how widely such media are read beyond their own constituencies. 

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?
Spanish-language newspapers and television have become an important source of news for immigrant communities in the United States. Their first level of influence is on immigrants themselves, and it seems clear that they have played a role in politicizing and mobilizing these communities – for instance for the massive pro-immigration demonstrations during the spring of 2006 and for more recent demonstrations around the Dream Act and comprehensive immigration reform. Many English-language immigration journalists follow the Spanish language media as one point of access to immigrant communities, so in this way there may also be influence on the broader public debate. In France, media like BeurFM also do their best to highlight issues underplayed by some mainstream media – such as systematic racism and discrimination against French of North African origins – but even if they were able to influence other media, these immigrant but not exactly “ethnic” media would still have difficulties gaining support for the kind of affirmative-action policies (discrimination positive) that they favor. Integration is still a dominant buzzword in France, even among many immigrants and immigrant-rights advocates. 

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?
In answering this question, I would stress the different dimensions of journalistic quality. The “watchdog” role of journalism is probably the most well-known standard of quality, but it’s not the only one. Investigative journalism about government abuses of power is mostly the province of a few elite newspapers – The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times in the United States and Le Figaro and Le Monde in France. There does seem to be an affinity between American-style narrative journalism and this kind of in-depth investigative reporting. But there are other expectations we have for journalism, such as providing in-depth information and a range of voices and viewpoints. In this regard, the multi-genre “debate ensemble” format of French journalism – a format that mixes news with guest commentaries and lengthy interviews – contributes to more depth and breadth in immigration coverage than one generally finds in the United States. Among TV news programs, the PBS NewsHour has the most wide-ranging and in-depth coverage – and if you look at its format, it is also a mix of lengthy news reports, commentary, and interviews. 

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?
My ideal is journalism that goes beyond descriptive personalized narrative to make connections to causes and even solutions. It’s hard to do that in a single story, even the best multi-part series. For example, Sonia Nazario of the Los Angeles Times won a Pulitzer Prize for her multi-part series, “Enrique’s Journey.” It’s a heart-searing account of a Honduran mother who leaves her son behind in order to find work in the United States that will allow her to send money back to make his life better and of the boy’s subsequent journey to the United States to find his mother. It’s a story that grabs your attention. The series itself is almost pure human interest narrative. It’s only when Nazario linked her narrative to other genres of writing – to an Afterword that accompanied the book version of Enrique’s Journey (Random House, 2007) and in a recent op-ed essay (October 14) for the New York Times – that she takes, what is in my view, the crucial step of answering the “why” as well as the “who, what, when, and where.” After updating the saga of Enrique and his family in the New York Times op-ed, Nazario connects the dots:  

“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?
On immigration, I would recommend Aristide Zolberg’s magisterial history of U.S. immigration policy, A Nation by Design (Russell Sage, 2006); Saskia Sassen’s Globalization and its Discontents (New Press, 1999); and Martin Schain’s The Politics of Immigration in France, Britain, and the United States (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). For comparative studies of journalism, Dan Hallin and Paolo Mancini’s Comparing Media Systems (Cambridge, 2004) is the path-breaking work. In shaping my own comparative institutional approach to the sociology of cultural production, the work of Pierre Bourdieu has obviously been important, especially his book The Rules of Art (Stanford, 1995). I would also point to Michèle Lamont’s many comparative studies of France and the United States, starting with Money, Morals, and Manners (Chicago, 1994). I’m also a big fan of her recent How Professors Think (Harvard, 2010), which highlights the epistemological and methodological differences across academic disciplines and speaks powerfully to ongoing debates in interdisciplinary fields such as media studies. Finally, Marion Fourcade’s Economists and Societies: Discipline and Profession in the United States, Britain, and France (Princeton, 2010) is an exemplary cross-national comparative study that I recently encountered and would recommend highly.