Post by Matthew Hershberger and John Cheefetz
According to the Agenda Setting Theory, the media influences the public’s attention and mind by choosing which issues to present. In line with this theory, the media is able to act as a gatekeeper by selecting stories they think are relevant, important, and popular, which leads the public to perceive the stories in these manners as well . An offshoot of the Agenda Setting Theory is the concept of framing, which is used to contextualize and interpret the light in which the selected issues are portrayed. By setting the agenda and framing issues in a certain manner, the media is able to influence public opinion and decision making processes. Immigration is a relevant news issue in Harrisonburg, Virginia, because it is one of the largest refugee relocation areas in the state. Since 1988, more than 3,500 refugees have settled in Harrisonburg, contributing to the vast ethnic and cultural diversity of the Shenandoah Valley . To learn about the media coverage and framing of immigration issues in Harrisonburg, four local media outlets were researched and the stories about immigration were quantified and qualified using a spreadsheet.
After examining 13 articles, spanning from May to October 2019, it was found that coverage of immigration by local media outlets generally focuses on the challenges faced by the immigrant population. Primarily, these challenges are based on language barriers, the non-transferability of foreign college degrees, and local activity of ICE. Overall, the main way in which these issues are framed is to elicit sympathy and support for the immigrant community. Although each article is written in a different light (positive, negative, neutral), the tone of most articles is chosen in favor of the immigrant community. A prime example is The Citizen’s article series, “Untapped Talent”, which highlights the difficulties faced by immigrants in assimilating to the community. These reports focus specifically on the stories of immigrants with degrees from foreign universities who face difficulties emanating from language abilities and non-transferable degrees. In The Citizen article, “Untapped Talents: A long to-do list won’t deter Congolese doctor from practicing medicine again”, the focus is an interview with a Congolese physician named Papi Sabiti, who recently won the immigration lottery. By focusing on the slim odds it took to win an immigrant visa (1:400), the financial burden new immigrants face, and the mental stress of transferring to a menial job , the article paints a very sad picture of Papi’s transition. The emotional portrayal was likely chosen to highlight the challenges to garner sympathy from readers. In turn, sympathetic readers are more likely to think, act, and vote in favor of things beneficial to immigrant populations.
On the converse, some articles framed the issue in a positive light in order to elicit support. In The Citizen article, “New report suggests international immigration drove city population growth last year,” the journalist wrote about how immigration helped stabilize Harrisonburg’s population . To accompany the focus on the positive outcome, subtle words and phrases were used to frame the story in a positive light; for example, “international migration” was used instead of “international immigration.” The almost nondescript use of the word ‘migration’ is a perfect example of vocabulary-based framing. ‘Immigration’ can have a negative connotation because of its frequent use in describing people who are undocumented. However, ‘migrant’ simply refers to someone moving from one place to another, so it has a softer, more positive connotation. Although subtle, this small change could positively influence people critical of international immigrant communities.
These articles support Barnett’s first framework of journalistic contributions to local democratic and civic life: informing . By shedding light on the immigration issue and providing a voice to those who are struggling, this information is projected out into the community. When people are better informed of local issues and any problems being faced by members of the community, they are given the proper knowledge that will allow them to take action. This carries over into Barnett’s second framework, representing. The local media is capable of compounding the opinions of citizens on local issues so that elected/appointed leaders can discern the public will. By providing insight into the barriers faced by some members of the community, the greater community can then call for a change to be made. City officials (and sometimes state officials), as a result, are better able to understand how they can adapt legislature to correct a problem. Another function of journalistic contributions is through campaigning. That is, championing local causes or organizations that seek a change or to prevent a change in the community. The Citizen’s interviews of FUEGO members is a prime example of campaigning by local media. FUEGO was able to gain publicity and voice their cause to the community through media reports. Interrogation, the final framework by Barnett, is also exemplified in The Citizen’s FUEGO coverage. Through interrogation, media outlets can monitor the actions of the government and provide a check on their activities. The Citizen did so by hearing the concerns of FUEGO members that the rights of immigrants were being infringed upon by Harrisonburg’s increasing cooperation with I.C.E. The Citizen was also able to interview local law enforcement officials to comment on their partnership with I.C.E. and their methods of operation. The watchdog role is essential to the issue of immigration as it will keep in check any officials who may have an agenda set against their settling in Harrisonburg.
Overall, it was found that the majority of immigration issue coverage by local media outlets was framed in support of immigrant communities. Articles with negative tones generally reported the challenges faced by immigrants, while articles with positive tones generally reported the positive outcomes of immigration. Thus, it can be concluded that Harrisonburg’s media outlets work to influence the public’s opinion on immigration in support of the topic. Interestingly, it was surprising to find that the coverage of immigration issues in Harrisonburg was very light. Out of the four main outlets that were examined, they provided very little on the topic. The Citizen provided the greatest amount of coverage (8 out of 13 articles found), while other local sources, namely WHSV, The Breeze, and The Daily News Record, offered very little reporting on local immigration issues. Most of the articles found on these three websites were concentrated on national immigration issues or sourced from national news outlets. Whatever factors play into the lack of local coverage, whether it be bias or lack of resources to adequately cover the issue, immigration is an important topic within Harrisonburg and the immigrant community deserves stronger media coverage. Without it, their struggles in successfully assimilating into the community may be grossly overlooked.