Media plays into Trump’s narrative on migrant caravan

The U.S.-Mexico border fence on December 3, 2018. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

The tear gas had barely dissipated as LA Times reporter Cindy Carcamo walked through the Tijuana stadium. All around her a sea of tents, bustling with humanity at the heart of the “Migrant Crisis,” “Caravan Crisis,” and “Border Crisis” that dominated recent headlines, headlines that run afoul of leading immigration think-tank reports with titles like “Crisis at the Border? Not by the Numbers.” Smells of nearby sewage mingled with the scent of baby lotion in the huge arena, where more than 6,000 people—1,068 of whom are children—are temporarily living in tents made of cardboard boxes, towels, and plastic sheets.

Carcamo was in Tijuana to report on the journey and arrival of the thousands of individual migrants who comprised the famous “caravan” of migrants from Central America. Looking into the organized chaos before her, Carcamo was struck by a thought: the caravan situation at the border is and isn’t a “crisis.” This story is and isn’t new. But the news media often contributes to alarmist narratives—ignoring both current statistics and historical context.

Images of individuals undertaking the dangerous journey north en masse, for example, give the impression that the number of people migrating to the US-Mexico border is increasing, when US Customs and Border Protection statistics definitively yield the opposite conclusion. Carcamo pointed to US Customs and Border Protection statistics—a major measure of immigration to the US—on arrests of non-citizens at the southwest border. Apprehensions, she said, “are actually at historic lows. This fiscal year, those numbers will reach about four hundred thousand, but in the mid-’90s they reached up over 1.5 million.”

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Carcamo, who has reported on Central American migration for years, says that while many of the migrants in the caravan are fleeing violence in their home countries, the roots of that violence are in the major economic and political crises of the region. “A lot of the reporting before and during the arrival of the caravan didn’t have much context,” Carcamo says.  “Yes, we’re seeing migrants organize themselves in large numbers and in new ways. Yes, many of the people are fleeing dangerous situations. But the major migration already happened—in the early ’90s.”

Other images—of staged barbed-wire fence laying, of migrants climbing walls that are not part of a border, of masked migrants and children fleeing border agents firing tear gas and, especially, of thousands of people migrating at once—are simplistic, and end up minimizing the systemic, long-term crisis at the heart of the Central American migration story. When Central Americans are equated with suffering and violence, the particularities of Central American migrants—why they left their homes, and why they came to border—are lost. The border communities in the US, too, are framed in misleading ways. For example, Carcamo says, FBI statistics indicate that, for many years, “border towns in the US are some of the safest towns around.”

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President Donald Trump has been leading the chorus on this misleading framing: sending 5,200 soldiers to the Southwest border in Operation Faithful Patriot, giving speeches calling migrants “stone cold criminals,” and authorizing these troops to use “lethal force” and the actual firing of tear gas by the Border Patrol. But, as reported in November by Newsweek, The Hill, and other outlets (but little discussed at the time), the Obama Administration’s CBP used tear gas and pepper spray on migrants at a rate of about once a month. And family separations occurred long before the Trump Administration formalized as policy what was an informal, but widespread practice under Obama. When combined with other factors—editors’ lack of familiarity with the issues, the tendency of most media to exclude Central American sources in Central American stories—it becomes a challenge for the few Central American journalists to tell the these stories that are closer to their literal and metaphoric home.

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“Just look at some of the headlines,” Daniel Alvarenga, a producer with AJ Plus, a news channel run by Al Jazeera, says. “‘Border Clash Leaves Migrants Dejected,’ ‘Storming the Southern Border.’ These headlines set the story up as a balance of power between the people aggrieved and those doing repressing, as if one party—the US government—isn’t armed to the teeth and the other isn’t pushing strollers and carrying diapers.” The US-Mexico border has even been compared to Gaza in some reporting (Israeli daily Haaretz criticized such comparisons as “Irresistible, but Dangerous”)—showing a fundamental lack of US journalists of Central American descent.

Alvarenga, a US-born son of Salvadoran refugees who fled war in the 1980s, grew up hearing stories of violence and tragedy and has, he says, mixed feelings when sees and reads about what he calls the “trauma porn” about the caravan.

“On the one hand, trauma porn adds to the frame around this story as a conflict. This dehumanizes and plays into the ‘invaders’ narrative that some [right wing interests] are using,” he says. On the other hand, Alvarenga pointed to the now iconic picture by Kin Kyung Hoon of Reuters. “The woman [in the picture] is carrying two children, she’s not wearing shoes and you do get to see how messed up what’s happening to them is,” he said. He also recognized that, oftentimes,  “A lot of people don’t care about the story until they see stuff like that.” Those human qualities—the determination, humor, the resilience, among others are often in missing in stories with prevailing themes of war and trauma.

Some outlets, including Time, The Intercept, and USA Today, did deliver strong stories that framed the Tijuana caravan developments as a “manufactured crisis.” Government officials, these stories point out, bolstered a narrative where migrants on the caravan were perceived as invaders.

Jessica Alvarenga (no relation to Daniel), a documentary filmmaker and journalist researching coverage of Central Americans at UC Berkeley, notes the uniqueness of a November 22 story by Kate Bubacz and Adolfo Flores of BuzzFeed News: “They gave cameras to Central American kids [in the camp] and let them take pictures of what caught their eye. The contrast with what we’re seeing in the news couldn’t be more striking.”

The nuance of the kid photographers’ images—young couples enjoying a loving moment; a boy with a satisfied, confident look giving two thumbs up even as he’s rushed somewhere by his parents whose look is more urgent; a trans woman in full make up and scarf, looking like she’s going on a date—contrast starkly with the images seen in much of the reporting on the migrants in Tijuana. Where major outlets emphasize crowding and violence, giving a wartime urgency to the stories, the children’s photographs slow things down to provide a more expansive image. Their experience of time and space—and deadlines—is the polar opposite of that depicted in images and stories driven by the news cycle.

“The [BuzzFeed] reporters literally took themselves out of picture,” Alvarenga adds. “They put their agenda about what to write about aside and you see the kids portraying Central Americans with agency.  The pictures don’t say they’re going through something happy and smiling about it—but they do say the story is about more than just violence.” Individuality like that caught in the children’s photos, Carcamo says, is, for different reasons, hard to get into written articles, especially for journalists who have to fire off stories on the fly. But coming from a Central American family can help.

“Sometimes, it’s as simple as calling people vos”—the informal, familiar second-person singular pronoun preferred by Central Americans, instead of usted, she says.

“There’s an immediate comfort level that another journalist will have a hard time establishing quickly,” says Carcamo. “You’re saying, ‘We speak the same Spanish’ and ‘I know where you and your family are from’ and this helps me connect with people. I’m not sure they would feel as willing to tell certain things if there wasn’t that connection.”

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Roberto Lovato is a writer working out the San Francisco Writer’s Grotto and has either worked or reported on Central American refugee issues for almost 30 years. His work on these issues has appeared in numerous publications, including The Boston Globe, the Pulitzer Center, and The Nation magazine.