Out of Focus

Too often, immigration is viewed through the narrow lens of Washington politics.

One of the first flash points Joe Biden faced as president came over the United States–Mexico border. Talk of the so-called Biden Border Crisis, led by Republican commentators, began even before inauguration. Everywhere from the Washington Examiner to the New York Times, journalists reported on a “new rush” of migrants and Biden’s “open-door approach” as GOP officials seized on opportunities to escalate the hysteria. A delegation of nineteen Republican senators led by Ted Cruz and John Cornyn toured the Rio Grande aboard a fleet of Border Patrol boats armed with machine guns; afterward, they held a press conference along the bank of the river, where Tom Cotton, of Arkansas, declared, “There’s a word for what’s happening at our border: it’s insanity.” Days later, Cotton and other members of his party encouraged reporters to consider the political nature of their crusade, calling immigration “a central issue in the campaign, in 2022.”

There could be no denying that the number of migrant apprehensions had risen since the previous summer, when Trump virtually closed the southern border. But, in their coverage, many news outlets glossed over crucial context. For one thing, consistently citing the arrests of people crossing told only part of the story; doing so did not reflect how many migrants were ultimately expelled. In March, when Customs and Border Protection reported having taken more than a hundred and seventy-two thousand migrants into custody, most of them from Central America, the Biden administration sent back the vast majority under Title 42, an emergency health order that Trump had used to expel people en masse.

By April, the number of migrants seeking refuge at the border rose slightly, yet talk of the “Biden Border Crisis” largely subsided—and a brief moment of reckoning ensued. In “The Washington Post owes Biden an apology,” Eric Boehlert, a media critic, wrote, “In terms of the amount of border news coverage this year, it’s been eye-popping, as the press continues to take its cues from Republicans. During Biden’s first nine weeks in office, immigration was the third most-common topic of news coverage, according to a Pew study—and that coverage was overwhelmingly negative.” He added, “The press and the GOP have helped create the border ‘crisis’ this year.”

The sensationalism rife in immigration news over the past several months not only showed how political rhetoric can permeate journalists’ work, it also laid bare the episodic nature of Latin America coverage in the US. Immigration is too often viewed through the narrow lens of Washington politics, as stories ignore the roots and ramifications beyond the southern border. “Latin America is a blind spot for the US media,” Brian Winter, the editor in chief of Americas Quarterly, said. “And Central America is the blindest spot of all.” Before the headlines around the “Border Crisis,” there had been minimal coverage of the pandemic’s ravages in the region or of two Category 4 hurricanes that, in two weeks last fall, devastated Northern Triangle countries. There had also been practically no mention of the fact that the countries migrants were fleeing have been grappling with some of the highest rates of violence and poverty the Western Hemisphere has seen. With Biden the central focus of Latin America–news reports, a reader could be forgiven for reaching the mistaken conclusion that his administration had provoked a sudden influx of migrants—and that this was the region’s biggest story.

 

When it comes to international reportage, the American press has been reductionist since the early days: “If you look back a hundred years, you will find that ten countries”—whether longtime US rivals, countries where American troops have been deployed, or world powers—“have dominated 70 percent of the coverage in the United States,” Guy J. Golan, an associate professor at the Bob Schieffer College of Communication at Texas Christian University, said. In 2014, when Golan worked at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, he coauthored a study with Greg Munno, a doctoral student, “Framing Latin America in Elite U.S. Media: An analysis of editorials and Op-Eds.” Their research explored what they called “the newsworthiness of nations”; they argued that the coverage a country receives depends on whether it is deemed powerful, peripheral, or semi-peripheral. “Coverage of most peripheral and semi-peripheral nations is limited to natural disasters, conflicts, and coups,” Golan and Munno wrote. Aside from a country’s position within the international arena, they found, its newsworthiness depended on its relationship to the US.

Despite Latin America’s geographic and economic proximity, Golan and Munno observed, it has been among the regions least covered by the US press. Even back in the seventies, when Washington intervened directly and indirectly in the political affairs of countries such as Chile and Argentina, Latin America accounted for less than 6 percent of TV coverage. More recent studies suggest that figure rarely exceeds 11 percent. In the course of their research, Golan and Munno examined more than a hundred opinion pieces published in the Times and the Post; the large majority were written by men based in the US, which also happened to be the focus of their writing. “In essence, the framing of Latin America in the opinion sections of both newspapers presents readers with a domestic frame to an international story,” Golan and Munno found.

Of course, any region’s coverage is a reflection of how outlets allocate resources. For decades, media scholars have denounced the lack of voices to report on Latin America in all its complexity; as of 1991, Ralph E. Kliesch, a professor at Ohio University, counted two hundred and forty-one correspondents working there, more than half of whom were concentrated in seven countries. In the years since, as US newspaper employment has fallen sharply—since 2008, it’s dropped 26 percent—many outlets have opted to close or downsize their bureaus abroad. The Puerto Rico outpost of the Associated Press, for instance, is now down from about ten staffers to one—a reporter who is responsible for covering stories across the Caribbean. With fewer correspondents on the ground, news organizations are left to rely on what’s known as “safari” or “swat” journalism, which is quick, reactive, and more heavily reliant on government sources than independent observation.

When reporters have less time to develop stories in place, and instead chase breaking news wherever it leads, the resulting coverage frames narratives of Latin America in response to emergencies, especially political exigencies. These dispatches convey a sense of urgency—which may well lead readers to favor swift and temporary solutions to what are, in reality, long-standing problems. “If immigration is always cast as a crisis, it will always be treated as a new phenomenon, unrelated to a structural issue which is directly tied to US foreign policy,” Alexandra Délano, the cochair of global studies at the New School, said. “It is from that idea of a crisis that more visible policies, such as the wall, the National Guard, or the border’s militarization, emerge.”

Once Trump kicked off his presidential campaign, in 2015, the most visible reports on Latin America were those that revolved around his talking points, often singling out Mexico, Cuba, and Venezuela. (“That was what drove clicks and drove traffic,” Winter said.) By the summer of 2018, news about the region had become a warped reflection of Washington political drama. It was no coincidence that journalists started referring to Jair Bolsonaro, the president of Brazil, as the “Trump of the Tropics” and to Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the president of Mexico, as the “Mexican Trump.” That is a familiar trope, casting foreign leaders as doppelgängers of American officials. Yet as Carlos Bravo Regidor, a Mexican political analyst, recalled of the AMLO comparisons, “It was as if his similarities to Trump were all there was to know about him, as if invoking Trump were enough.”

When the “crisis” at the border magically disappeared, in the view of news outlets, so did the countries from which migrants came.

 

With the White House in focus, Latin America often gets rendered in poorly drawn Manichaean extremes: countries are depicted either as vulnerable allies or as formidable enemies. “So much of the way that Americans look at the region is—very tragically—through the lens of drugs and thugs,” Winter said. Readers are left with a series of falsities and clichés (“3 Mexican Countries”; “Border jumpers”). “There’s a certain kind of stereotypical coverage, which is after exotic stories,” Graciela Mochkofsky, the director of the bilingual master’s program at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, said. “It’s as if everything in Latin America pertained to the realm of magic realism, or that of the ridiculous.”

The very notion of Latin America as a unit is questionable; the region encompasses thirty-three countries, where roughly five hundred languages are spoken. “This degree of homogenization obscures the nuances inherent to a region that is very diverse,” Bravo Regidor said. But unless media outlets recognize those nuances, and devote the reporting staff necessary to distill them, public debate will be as thin as the coverage. Katherine Vargas, who headed the office of Hispanic media at the White House during the Obama administration, complained to me recently that journalists have a “perverse incentive” to focus on negatives, such as diplomatic crises. It wasn’t until the middle of Obama’s second term, when he announced the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba, that Vargas started hearing from White House correspondents.

Recent events have brought to the fore more gaps in coverage of the region: little attention was paid to the state of democracy in Haiti before President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated, in early July; Raúl Castro’s retirement as the leader of Cuba’s Communist Party wasn’t thoroughly examined until protesters took to the streets months later to demand lasting change. And even if Biden does not provoke the same level of panic as his predecessor, the White House remains the primary driver of Latin America news—as assigning editors still, apparently, determine its importance (whether it’s “powerful” or “peripheral”) on the basis of Beltway discourse. As a case in point: when the Biden-created “crisis” at the border magically disappeared, in the view of news outlets, so did the countries from which migrants came. “Latin America is not seen by a lot of people as relevant to the US national interest,” Winter said. “I think they’re wrong, but it’s a lonely fight sometimes.” 

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Stephania Taladrid is a contributing writer at The New Yorker. Before that, she served as a speechwriter for the Obama administration. She holds a master’s in Latin American studies from the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

TOP IMAGE: Illustration by Kevin Whipple