Communication Currents

Communication Current Crime News and Immigrants

Media Criminalization of Undocumented Immigrants

May 6, 2019
Political Communication

Despite President Donald Trump’s negative rhetoric on undocumented immigrants, studies have shown that first-generation immigrants are less likely to commit criminal acts than their native-born American counterparts (e.g., Hagan, Levi, & Dnovitzer, 2008; Sampson & Bean, 2006) and that there is no defined relationship between immigration and crime (Hickman & Suttorp, 2008; Martinez, Stowell, & Lee, 2010). But how has news coverage depicting undocumented immigrants as suspects and criminals affected White viewers’ judgements? A study recently published in NCA’s journal Communication Monographs seeks to answer the question, examining how crime news coverage that implicates undocumented immigrants influences biases against immigrants.

Through a two-part study, Andrea Figueroa-Caballero, Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Missouri, and Dana Mastro, Professor and Vice-Chair in the Department of Communication at the University of California – Santa Barbara, tested whether watching crime news coverage implicating undocumented immigrants influenced criminal sentencing. The study builds on mediated social identity-based research in three ways:

  • The research advances the study of the effects of intergroup threats in media messages by examining how defensive responses to crime might be intensified by threat levels.
  • In the existing research, immigration itself is the threat and reflects a major frame within immigration news stories. Unlike this new study, however, it does not speak to the implications of exposure to crime news.
  • Finally, the study explores the extent to which current crime news exposure promotes the “double punishment” of undocumented immigrants, through which immigrants are judged as committing not one but two criminal offenses and are treated more harshly as a consequence.

"...when an undocumented immigrant is on trial, so is the issue of immigration."

According to the researchers, news coverage of immigration has long been centered around Latinos and Mexicans in particular, and crime coverage almost always identifies Latino criminal suspects as undocumented. The authors also found that there “appears to be an inherent inseparability between the immigrant as an individual and immigration as a political issue.” Thus, when an undocumented immigrant is on trial, so is the issue of immigration.

Due to the nature of the study, only White participants were included in the two analyses. In total, there were 444 participants, with a nearly even split of male and females. In the first study, approximately 42.5 percent of participants identified as Democrat, 33 percent as Independent, and 19.3 percent as Republican. In the second study, approximately 46.2 percent of participants identified as Democrat, 28.7 percent as Independent, and 20 percent as Republican.

In both parts of the study, each participant was exposed to coverage that conveyed one of three news conditions: high threat, low threat and White/control, with the portrayal of undocumented immigration in the context of the crime news coverage manipulated to comport with the threat condition. Thus, while the same storyline was provided, the authors altered the content so that participants were exposed to just one of the following conditions:

  • Low Threat: The Latino suspect’s undocumented status was mentioned once.
  • High Threat: The coverage overly emphasized and stressed the endangerment of others, and repeatedly noted the Latino suspect’s undocumented immigrant status.
  • Control: The suspect was White, and citizenship was not referenced.

In the first part of the study, participants watched a news segment about an accident where a drunk driver killed a White victim. In all of the manipulated segments, the news anchor was White, photos of the drunk driver and victim were shown, and the victim’s friends and family were interviewed. However, through content manipulation, participants were exposed to the differing levels of threat noted above.

The participants then completed a questionnaire that included questions about the segment, immigration and relevant policy issues, and demographics. For example, participants were asked whether “illegal immigrants contribute to the decline of society,” with responses ranging from (1) strongly disagree to (7) strongly agree. The mean response was 3.58, with higher scores indicating even more negative feelings toward immigrants. When participants were asked whether “others respect my racial/ethnic group,” the average response on the same 7-point scale was 5.70, indicating participants’ more favorable feelings toward their own group identity. Participants were also asked, “How long (in years) should this man spend in prison?” The mean response across all conditions was approximately 26 years.

The second part of the study was conducted to ensure that the results revealed in the first study could apply beyond drunk driving to other forms of criminal news coverage. The researchers used a multiple-message design, where participants were shown one of two news segments featuring a crime. Half of the participants saw one news segment covering a murder, and the other half saw coverage of a hit-and-run incident featuring both Latino and White suspects. As in the first part of the study, the participants were exposed to three different levels of threats with both White and Latino suspects. Participants then completed a questionnaire on the segment, demographics, and immigration. The results provided more evidence that “exposure to crime news coverage featuring undocumented immigrants promotes bias in criminality judgements.” In both studies, the undocumented Mexican suspect accused of the crime received a greater punishment than their White counterpart.

The overall findings from this study echoed previous research indicating that racial/ethnic bias influences sentencing. The research revealed that undocumented Latino immigrants are unjustly implicated and overly represented as criminals in news coverage, and exposure to that news coverage triggers inequitable treatment. The researchers believe that given the current political climate, these “anti-immigrant frames are unlikely to disappear from the media landscape.”

The authors also note that this negative narrative of immigrants as criminals can implicate other immigrant groups, not only Latinos. For example, news coverage of Muslims as terrorists also suggests that Muslim immigrants are likely to face similar discriminatory behavior.

The researchers add that the impact of threatening immigration coverage on viewers should continue to be explored to ensure the safety and well-being of immigrants and native-born citizens alike.

This essay was translated from the scholarly article: Figueroa-Caballero, Andrea, & Mastro, Dana (2019). “Examining the effects of news coverage linking undocumented immigrants with criminality: Policy and punitive implications.” Communication Monographs. doi: 10.1080/03637751.2018.1505049

About the author (s)

Andrea Figueroa-Caballero

University of Missouri

Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication

Andrea Figueroa-Caballero

Dana Mastro

University of California – Santa Barbara

Professor and Vice-Chair in the Department of Communication

Dana Mastro