Press coverage of immigration may have had a significant influence over the 2016 presidential election, according to Christine Ogan, a professor emerita at the Media School and the School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering.
Ogan presented one of her most recent studies in her Research Colloquium class, entitled “Who Drove the Discourse? News Policy and Framing of Immigrants and Refugees in the 2016 Election,” which sought to take a comprehensive look at how the press covered immigration between the Republican National Convention and Election Day.
According to a poll Ogan shared with the class, in 2016 Americans believed immigrants made up about 33 percent of the population. The actual figure was around 14 percent. In the same poll, Americans thought Muslims made up around 17 percent of the population when, actually, they only represented around 1 percent of America and only 58 percent of them are immigrants.
“This is mostly coming out of the fear that they’re going to take our jobs or something else,” explained Ogan. “Attention has been focused so much on immigrants leading up to 2016 that more and more people are thinking that they’re out there and they’re a problem.”
On top of that, then-candidate Donald Trump attacked Muslims and Mexican immigrants throughout the presidential election. According to Ogan’s research, hate crimes have since risen by about 67 percent and anti-Muslim groups nearly tripled between 2015 and 2016.
“This was largely driven, we believe, by the press coverage of the speeches that were being given,” said Ogan.
She and a team of researchers looked at 551 news stories from 12 different news sources like The New York Times, The Huffington Post, The Houston Chronicle, Fox News, and The Detroit Free Press to see how the press was covering these speeches and the issues surrounding them. They looked at the tone of the stories being published, what immigrant groups were more frequently covered and if conservative and liberal news organizations discussed the issue differently.
In a content analysis, Ogan and her team found that the coverage they looked at most often revolved around campaign speeches. The largest theme in these articles and op-ed pieces was political, but they also focused on crime, refugees’ threat to national security and humanitarian pieces in defense of immigrants, among other topics.
“You could look at this and say this is why the election went as it did. Because, clearly, immigration was important to enough people in the population that she ought to have been speaking to that,” Ogan said, referring to Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton. “Now, maybe she was. You’d have to go back into her speeches at all the campaign events and get transcripts of those things to know what she was saying on this topic to find out for sure. But, you would think that the news media would cover it if she was bringing it up as a topic. Either they’re at fault because they didn’t find it interesting, or he was just screaming about this over and over and over again and, of course, we know that conflict makes news. It’s one of our big news values. Why not? It’s so outrageous, whatever is being said, so why shouldn’t we be covering it?”
These “outrageous” speeches, Ogan said, prompted not just increased media coverage, but also a shift in how the public thought about immigration and elections in general. Between 2015 and 2016, the number of Americans who said that a candidate sharing their views was the only important thing to them jumped by 50 percentage points. In that same time frame, the number of Americans who felt the US should decrease its immigrant population increased from 36 percent to 42 percent.
“We have the largest percentage of immigrants in our population of any country in the world and I guess that figure could be manipulated to make people really scared that we have way too many of these people here.”
Since Trump took office, several actions have been taken to decrease the country’s number of immigrants. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a piece of legislation protecting people who were brought into the US as minors, has been rolled back. Trump has placed travel bans on specific countries, there is still talk of building a wall between the US-Mexico border, and Trump will not be renewing temporary protection status for people from Sudan, Nicaragua, Haiti and El Salvador.
“The ones from Sudan will be gone first and you know what the conditions are like in those countries that they will be forced to go back to,” said Ogan.
This isn’t the first time the US has experienced an acute fear of immigrants. Through the years, the country has seen similar reactions to people coming in from Ireland, Italy, Vietnam and several other countries.
“Usually it happens more in economic hard times or there’s some other kind of stress on the country. Or there’s a large group of immigrants that come in at one time and we say we’ve got to be worried about this,” said Ogan. “The more fear you have, the more you’re going to see these people as the cause of the problem, whatever that problem happens to be. So we don’t want any more of them to come.”
In this case, though, Ogan was especially surprised, and disappointed, by how big a role the media and their choice of coverage had to play in all of this.
“In the end, on the immigration coverage, Hillary Clinton played a very minor role,” said Ogan. “And it’s telling, I think, that the outrageous claims, the racism, the anti-immigrant statements attracted the media attention much more than the common sense policy statements.”