CIANA Explains: How Mass Media Influences the Perception of Immigrants

Orange is the New Black, Jane the Virgin, Party of Five, In the Country We Love, Welcome to Main, Madame Secretary, Fresh off the Boat, Master of None, The Good Place, One Day at a Time, Ramy, and Superstore.

Chances are you’ve seen a show that has an immigrant character or storyline.

You might not know that viewers of these shows are more likely to agree that the U.S. should welcome more immigrants, or support immigrant populations in their communities. Our perception of others is shaped by what we see, hear, and read all around us. The impact of media on shaping our opinions might be stronger than what we originally thought.

The specific words used to characterize immigrants can reinforce negative stereotypes, overrepresent false narratives and misrepresent their communities. For example, associating Latinx immigrants with being "illegal" or "undocumented" might associate those born in Latin America with not having legal immigration status. Define American, a nonprofit media advocacy organization, found that immigrants are overrepresented as undocumented. Characters that had an identified immigration status were undocumented 63% of the time, even though only around 24% of immigrants in the U.S. are unauthorized.

Stereotypes of immigrants, as well as certain racial and ethnic groups, have been prevalent in television and movies from years. Asian American characters, born both in the U.S. and abroad, often follow the "model minority" trope, being portrayed as studious and hardworking, both of which positive attributes associated with Asians, despite being inaccurate. Storylines involving Muslim characters often revolve around terrorism or oppression of women. Black characters are often made out to be the thug, the sassy black woman, or token supporting character, or a number of other stereotypical roles. Many, if not all, marginalized groups still face

stereotypical and inaccurate portrayals in movies and TV.

What is the effect of biased news coverage?

Harmful stereotypes and misconceptions of immigrants don’t only come from fictional television shows and films; news and media coverage presented as fact equally contribute to anti-immigrant bias, and this is often intentional.

It’s important to be cautious of what you’re reading, especially with the rise of "fake news" around and after the 2016 election. Fake news is not factual, misleading, or fabricated information deliberately spread with the goal of misinforming the public, stoking their fears, and confirming their biases.

Particularly in the last few years, immigrants have often been the subject of fake news and misinformation campaigns. In 2018, a photo of an injured Mexican police officer was shared with the headline, “Brutally beaten by the members of the caravan in their attempt to force their entry into Mexico.” In reality, this image was taken from a journalist in 2012 from a clash between police and high school students.

In 2019, the Conservative Tribune falsely claimed, “American veterans are waiting for 10 years for the service Democrats voted to give illegal immigrants within 90 days,” referring to access to medical care. Despite lacking truth, these two stories reached thousands of social media users, fueling the increase of anti-immigrant hostility by portraying immigrants as associated with violence and an increased economic burden.

Research shows that fake news may cause increased polarization. For example, if a person has a negative opinion about immigration and reads a news story that supports their negative viewpoint, their ideas will be reinforced. This in turn leads to more polarization of opinions on immigration, based in fear instead of fact. Fake news works by appealing to emotion, rather than rationality.

This trend continues on both sides, in support of immigration and immigrants, and against. In 2019, 61% of Pew Research respondents viewed immigrants today as "strengthen[ing the] country through hard work, talents.” Overall, immigrants are increasingly seen as less threatening, not using the nation's welfare system nor threatening the security of the majority, but negative news portrayals have driven negative perceptions of immigrants and a strong party-line split on views toward immigration.

How has this impacted the political sphere?

With increased polarization on immigration in the US from civilians and politicians alike, the topic has been a contentious issue in political discourse, especially within the last few election cycles. 78% of Democrats viewed newcomers from other countries as strengthening American society, whereas only 31% of Republicans shared that view. However, general support for welcoming immigrants has never been higher.

The Obama administration began the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, but deported more than 3 million non-citizens during his tenure. In addition to mass deportations, the Trump administration focused on border security, drastically lowered the number of refugees allowed into the U.S., and made significant alterations to asylum and temporary protected status (TPS) laws. Currently, the Biden administration has focused efforts to handle the surge in migrants to the U.S.-Mexico border, while promoting more comprehensive reforms not seen in Congress since 2013.

Each of these administrations faced a mix of support and disapproval of their actions, as seen in the headlines of different news outlets, characterized by emotion-based language:

  • Obama Immigration Reform: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly from the Texas Observer

  • Obama Legacy: Immigration Stands as Most Glaring Failure published by AP News

  • Trump Voters View Immigrants More Positivity Now (2020) than in 2016 by Fox news

  • Trump is Doing All the Wrong Things on Immigration from CNN

  • Biden’s Promise of Immigration reform Raises Hopes in Latin America by the NY Times

  • Biden Tells Migrants ‘Don’t Come Over’ US Border as He Tackles Inherited ‘Mess” explained by the Guardian

What can I do to prevent the spread of fake news?

It's important to verify the credibility of news that you see on social media and the internet to prevent taking part in the spread of fake news, and the impact fake news has on anti-immigrant perception. It may be difficult, as these posts are often tailored by the sites to reinforce what you click on and isolate users from diverse perspectives, called the “filter bubble.”

You can take action today to decrease your susceptibility to fake news!

  1. Don’t get your news from social media. Learning about an event or story is fine, but make sure to verify it with a reputable source.

  2. Watch the headlines. If it sounds too good to be true, or too crazy to be true, it might not be true.

  3. Fact check what you see. Middlebury Libraries offers some different non-partisan fact checking resources.

  4. Understand biased reporting exists. Sometimes if a reporting group has a political affiliation, their opinions might be found in the text. Gather your information from multiple resources.


If you’re looking for immigration-focused media, here are some movie, book, and podcast recommendations: