“Media Dehumanization of Immigrants” by Liam Done

Magnificat, April 2022


Immigration and immigration policies are a flashpoint of American politics that always seems to generate a strong opinion one way or the other. The media and communications professionals in this country have taken advantage of the sensitivity of this issue to generate sensationalist headlines to draw in readers and sell newspapers. Journalism is a public trust and responsible journalism should strive not for sensationalism, but instead to portray the crisis from the point of view of the people involved by telling their stories. Dehumanizing immigrants, making them ‘alien’ and ‘illegal’, does nothing to resolve the crisis and instead sets them apart as inhuman and not worth our time. Many scholars have performed research that draws a definitive line between media word choice, photo framing techniques, and overall story tone to public opinion on immigration. The media does dehumanize immigrants through both text and images and this does affect how Americans feel about immigration. This blatant dehumanization poses a huge problem as it negatively affects policies towards immigrants and, in turn, immigrant attitudes toward society.

In her essay on the treatment of undocumented children, Tell Me How It Ends, Valeria Luiselli denounces the media’s portrayal of immigrants and the dehumanizing words they use to describe undocumented children. Luiselli starts early in her essay criticizing media coverage and their terrible depictions of immigrant children. As the child migrant crisis starts to unfold she talks of gathering newspapers and searching radio stations for any news. According to Luiselli, “In varying degrees, some papers and webpages announce the arrival of undocumented children like a biblical plague” (15). As the story goes on, Luiselli begins to question why news coverage has boiled the crisis down to a political problem. She points out that “Few narratives have made the effort to turn things around and understand the crisis from the point of view of the children involved” (Luiselli 44). Instead they are viewed as a problem, a hindrance, an issue that our government must suffer through. The issue comes to a head for Luiselli near the end of the book when she analyzes the news headlines and looks at the individual words they are using in the headlines and editorials to describe the crisis. She is suitably disgusted. “The italics are mine, of course, but they underscore the less-than-subtle bias in the portrait of the children: children caught while crossing illegally, laws that permit their deportation, children who come from the poor and violent towns. In short: barbarians who deserve subhuman treatment” (Luiselli 84). Note the negative words caught, poor, and violent in reference to the children and the place from which they came, but the positive word permit when talking about deportation laws. This is just a small example of the power of words when it comes to conveying implicit bias about child immigration. In fact, Luiselli even dislikes the word “immigrants” as much as she dislikes the words “illegals” or “undocumented minors” when it comes to describing these children. Instead, Luiselli reminds us that they are actually “refugees of a war,” a global war on drugs that has fueled this level of hemispheric instability (86-90). In short, word choice is important as are labels. Journalists should carefully study the word choice in their articles and make sure they are not applying dehumanizing labels or negative words to immigrant populations in fact-based pieces. Luiselli encourages media professionals and the government to “…rethink the very language surrounding the problem and, in doing so, imagine potential directions for combined policies” (86-87).

Athanasia Batziou takes a related path and focuses on photojournalism and the negative framing techniques media and communications professionals use for immigrant photos. Like Luiselli, she found that “Media representations play a crucial role in the way media users construct a sense of ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’, ‘foreigners’ and ‘citizens’, ‘normal’ and ‘deviant’, ‘us’ and ‘them” (Batziou 42). It is interesting how she, like Luiselli, also notices the use of key words that are negative versus positive when describing the citizen population in-group and the immigrant population out-group. One interesting and far reaching discovery of Batziou’s literature review is that most of the population she surveyed in Greece and Spain had never had any personal experience with immigrant groups. Yet, they had very negative attitudes towards immigrant groups blaming them for crime, unemployment, and other social problems. The extent of their exposure to immigrants, in fact, was through the negative portrayals in the media (Batziou 42). Batziou went on to perform a photo study that looked at framing techniques used by photojournalists. She found that the majority of immigrants appear without any expression, making them appear distant and less human. In most of the photographs no attempt is made to create a relationship between the subject and the viewer, allowing the audience to study the subject from a safe distance. The preponderance of the photographs show the immigrants in groups. This makes the reader think of them as a collective out group and not individuals. Many of the photographs are taken from further away. This makes them look distant and alien. The majority of the photographs only show the immigrants with other immigrants. Whenever anyone else is in the picture it is an authority figure like a policeman. This frames them like they are not part of society (Batziou 47-55). In short, photojournalists are also to blame for spreading negative immigrant stereotypes. Batziou finds this reprehensible as visual depictions of immigrants in news sources are more likely to be accepted as factual and un-doctored (42). Also, images are more often ‘read’ than the text as many people quickly skim the news. Responsible journalists should take a moment to think about what the photos that accompany their articles are telling the reader.

The research of Esses et al. pulls this together and draws a definitive line between dehumanizing media coverage of immigrants, public opinion, and government policies regarding immigration. During their literature review they found that “Over the course of the past 10 to 15 years, portrayals of immigrants and refugees in many Western countries have become increasingly negative, with the media focusing on the threats that immigrants and refugees post to members of host societies” (Esses et al. 520). In fact, they found that 71% of all stories on immigration that they analyzed during their literature review were negatively focused on problems (Esses et al. 520). In order to show the causal effects of these negative media portrayals they performed laboratory research to show how these stereotypical portrayals affect public opinion. They modified editorials and political cartoons so that one was fact-based and one contained negative immigrant stereotypes: they carry disease, are trying to cheat the system, and may be harboring terrorists. They discovered that participants responded with contempt and a dehumanizing view of immigrants after they viewed the editorials and cartoons that contained the immigrant stereotypes. In short, yes, media portrayals do change public opinion. The researchers concluded by issuing a call to arms for governments to “do a better job of communicating with the media about immigration, providing information that reduces uncertainty and countering potential public perceptions of threat that are currently prevalent in the public discourse” (Esses et al. 532). This highlights the role of both the government and the media in promoting responsible discourse about immigration and shows a potential solution for ending the vicious cycle of dehumanization.

Having proven through multiple studies that negative media portrayals of immigrant populations does lead to their dehumanization, the research done by Kteily and Bruneau takes this one step further and highlights how the vicious cycle of immigrant dehumanization leads to more negative outcomes. This expands on the findings of the previously discussed research and looks into not only the negative impact of dehumanization on public opinion and policy, but also the negative impact of how the de-humanized immigrants view their oppressors. They performed four studies. The first two studies of Muslim and Latino populations found that Americans do dehumanize immigrants with their support of aggressive policies against immigrants like the Muslim travel ban, mass deportation, and the building of the wall at the southern border. Two additional studies performed by Kteily and Bruneau show that this dehumanization is felt by immigrant populations and in turn makes them feel like they are not a part of society, more emotionally hostile, more likely to support violent collective action, and less likely to cooperate with law enforcement. In other words, they are likely to hold more negative views against their oppressors and do not feel invested in society. The conclusion of the researchers is that, “…dehumanization has dual and mutually enforcing consequences for the prospects of intergroup conflict: Those who dehumanize are more likely to support hostile policies, and those who are dehumanized feel less integrated into society and are more likely to support exactly the type of aggressive responses that may accentuate existing dehumanization perceptions” (Kteily & Bruneau 102). Dehumanization of immigrants and the policies generated to support that dehumanization actively increase issues of intergroup conflict vice leading to greater safety. This reveals that the policies that are being promoted to make America safer, and the accompanying dehumanization used to promote them, actually have the net effect of making us less safe.

As evident in these vivid examples and extensive laboratory research, the link between media dehumanization of immigrant populations, negative public opinions, and oppressive government immigration policies is clear. Luiselli, Batzou, Esses et al., Kteily, and Bruneau highlight a problem that is not even close to being resolved. Though Luiselli’s daughter asks her repeatedly, “Tell me how it ends, Mamma,” there is no ending yet (Luiselli 90). The least that responsible media and communication professionals can do is remember that they hold the public trust. Words matter. Images matter. The overall tone of an article matters. Cast a critical eye on common government and media portrayals of immigrant populations, challenge labels and stereotypes, and strive for a more balanced personal view of the situation. Tell immigrant stories. Frame their photos in a way that they connect with the audience, smiling or laughing, their face visible. Take time to humanize them and show them integrated with other members of society. As Luiselli says, “Telling stories doesn’t solve anything, doesn’t reassemble broken lives. But perhaps it is a way of understanding the unthinkable” (69). Perhaps it is a way to change the course of public opinion, humanize the immigrants in question, and find ways to include balanced policies on immigration in our system that benefit rather than harm our society.

Works Cited

Batziou, Athanasia. “Framing ‘Otherness’ in Press Photographs: The Case of Immigrants in Greece and Spain.” Journal of Media Practice, vol. 12, no. 1, Routledge, 2011, pp. 41–60, doi:10.1386/jmpr.12.1.41_1.

Esses, Victoria M., et al. “Uncertainty, Threat, and the Role of the Media in Promoting the Dehumanization of Immigrants and Refugees.” Journal of Social Issues, vol. 69, no. 3, WILEY, 2013, pp. 518–36, doi:10.1111/josi.12027.

Kteily, Nour, and Emile Bruneau. “Backlash: The Politics and Real-World Consequences of Minority Group Dehumanization.” Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, vol. 43, no. 1, SAGE Publications, 2017, pp. 87–104, doi:10.1177/0146167216675334.

Luiselli, Valeria. Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions. Coffee House Press, 2017.