News is one of the most powerful forces that informs our outlook toward migration, and toward people on the move. As consumers of media try to understand and respond to developments in local, national and global policy, it is crucial for us to be aware of where our information comes from, and how that shapes our perceptions and attitudes toward migration and a wide range of migrants. A recent poll conducted by NPR-Ipsos about American viewpoints on immigration reported that although these opinions were influenced by partisan political affiliations, they may have been more strongly impacted by television news.
We wanted to learn more about the role of messages and images from the news in influencing people’s beliefs about issues of migration, particularly the skills that youth can be taught to practice while consuming media about migration. This led us to interview our friend, Peter Adams, Senior Vice President of Education at the News Literacy Project. NLP is a national educational nonprofit that offers nonpartisan programs and tools to teach students how to actively and critically consume news in a digital age. We appreciate the work that NLP does, and are thankful to Peter for taking the time to speak with us.
Adam Strom: How do messages and images from the news influence the way that people around the world think about issues of migration? What role should news media play in our civic understanding of issues related to migration?
Peter Adams: The first part of this is tricky to answer, because our experience of news is subjective and often incomplete, so news coverage influences different people in different ways — sometimes dramatically so. This is especially true of coverage about controversial subjects. Our own biases get involved in our perceptions of reporting and can cause us to see whatever “messages” we’re motivated to see, and to base these readings on whatever element of coverage we happen to see or hear in a given moment. That’s how, for example, partisans with opposing viewpoints about the migrant “caravan” can both wind up thinking that “the media” misrepresented the realities of it.
But this doesn’t mean that coverage is perfect or beyond reproach. People still need to insist that news media strive to meet the aspirational standards of quality journalism. Journalism should be fair, it should show its work by clearly attributing details to multiple credible sources and it should seek to give people the information they need to make up their own minds about the issues of the day. That’s the role news media have played, however imperfectly, in our civic lives generally, and it’s the role they should play in our understanding of migration issues as well.
And news organizations, obviously, have a lot of other questions to grapple with: Should we quote unverified or false claims by public officials? If we repeat a viral falsehood in the process of debunking it, do we give it strength? Does our newsroom have the diversity and local knowledge required to accurately and comprehensively cover this? Can a particularly powerful image — like that of the two year-old girl from Honduras who cried as her mother was patted down by Border Patrol agents, or the images of people in the “caravan” pushing through a fence at the Guatemala-Mexico border — give some people a misimpression of a given situation? How can we give this story an appropriate amount of attention without seeming to exploit it for clicks and ratings? How much should — or can — we concern ourselves with the ways some people might overgeneralize the details of reporting on one event to suit their own agenda? Many newsrooms ask these kinds of questions on a daily basis, but more need to.
AS: Can you think of some instances where media might perpetuate misinformation and stereotypes about a wide range of migrants, immigrants, and refugees? What troubled you about it? What impact do you think that had?
PA: Well, again, I think that what counts as a stereotype — which is really a kind of flattened distortion of reality — in news coverage is sometimes contentious. People see different things in the way stories are reported, or in photos that are used to represent a situation or person. An image of a large group of migrants or refugees at a border, for example, may be used because editors think it captures a striking and newsworthy situation, but some people may think the image provokes unwarranted fear, while still others think it promotes unwarranted empathy. The same thing happens with word choice. If you describe that group of people as an “army” or as “invaders” then certainly that perpetuates misleading, fear-based stereotypes, but if you say it’s a “pilgrimage” you are going to sway people’s emotions the other way. So what is the right term and how should news organizations decide? Or what image should have been used and why? Those are key questions that not just journalists but also consumers of news need to grapple with.
AS: Could you give us examples of good reporting on issues related to migration? Why do you think it was particularly good journalism?
PA: I think the best reporting on broader, more general issues relating to migration tends to come from national outlets, whereas the best coverage of specific events in specific areas tends to be from local news organizations. The bigger stories — about federal immigration policy, for example — not only tend to take more resources (a dedicated team of reporters and editors, for example) but access to high-level government sources that take time to cultivate. But when it comes to specific events in specific locations, local news organizations are often in a better position to get the full story — because the journalists in local newsrooms have a deep familiarity with the region they cover. So they are not only better able to provide key pieces of context, they almost always have better local sources for stories — they know where to go to talk to people, and they know how to capture the impact of an event in their hometown.
So while national outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post have done some outstanding national reporting on immigration, local newspapers like The San Diego Union-Tribune or digital-first organizations like The Texas Tribune have done some excellent reporting on the impact of immigration policies on people living in cities along the U.S.-Mexico border — and those local stories have real value for a national audience who is trying to understand the realities of complex situations on the ground.
AS: How can young people tell the difference?
PA: To tell the difference between quality reporting and unreliable accounts, young people first need to learn what the standards of quality journalism are. What does it mean to be fair? What does it look like when people are employing objective methods to report information — attempting to minimize the influence of their own biases — compared with pieces of information that have no such aspiration? What does it mean to verify information? And how are errors handled? Are they consistently corrected? Does the outlet ever explain how a given error happened? Or explain what steps will be taken to eliminate such errors in future reporting?
The other characteristic people can look for in a trustworthy news organization is how well it seems to listen and respond to its audience. Does it ask for tips, ideas and feedback? Does it engage with its audience on social media? Does it treat the people it serves as partners in a discussion about news and events?
But in the end the one best thing we should all remember is that trustworthy pieces of information don’t ask us to trust them, they show us why we should trust them. Credible pieces of information cite sources that are in a position to know the details they’re providing, they explain what they don’t know, they use data and documents, and provide the context people need to integrate all of this new information into their understanding of complex events.
AS: What skills, habits, and mindsets do you think youth need to practice when consuming media about migration?
PA: First, because many people have deeply personal and highly emotional connections to issues of migration, and because it’s so controversial, we all need to develop the habit of slowing down and monitoring our emotions. If a piece of information causes you to have a strong emotional reaction, you need to be careful — because when our emotions are high they can override our rational minds and cause us to miss key details. That’s how propaganda and other forms of misinformation work: they target and exploit our values and beliefs, then use them like a Trojan horse to sneak misleading claims past the guard-posts of our rational minds.
Second, read straight news reports from a variety of credible sources — and read columns and other opinion pieces written by people you disagree with to try to gain a better understanding of their — and your own — position.
Third, we all need to critically engage with the news we encounter by treating our perceptions of coverage as the beginning not the end of our analyses of it. So if we think a headline is misleading, or a lead photo is biased, or the sourcing is unbalanced, we should first try to prove ourselves wrong — to battle-test our perceptions to make sure there’s really a problem there. What should the headline have been? What headlines or photos did other news outlets run? What other images were available? Which sources should have been cited but weren’t? In short, how could this coverage have been better?
Finally, if after having gone through that process you still have concrete criticisms, then it’s time to act. Add your voice to the conversation by tweeting to the news organization or reporter(s) who produced the piece (respectfully, of course), or writing a letter to the editor, or creating a blog post explaining exactly how the coverage could have been better.
AS: What News Literacy Project resources might be helpful for educators teaching about migration through a news literacy lens?
PA: Our Checkology® virtual classroom helps educators teach students core news literacy concepts like the journalistic standards I mention above, along with concepts like bias, news judgment, the watchdog role, press freedoms and how to evaluate arguments and evidence. We also have a great lesson that helps students learn to identify different types of misinformation. And this spring we’re going to be adding a directory feature to Checkology that lets educators connect with real journalists in newsrooms across the country. So educators can use Checkology to first establish a foundation of news literacy skills and concepts with their students, then facilitate conversations between students and journalist experts who cover immigration.
Educators can also follow us on Twitter and Facebook; subscribe to The Sift, our weekly email newsletter for teachers; and check out other resources on our website.