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The Portrayal of Illegal Immigrants in Fox News Videos: Problem Framing and Moral Panics

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In this essay, I explain how the media frames crime and illegal immigrants using three select readings, and then utilize them to understand how this framing is going on in two Fox News clips about the caravan of illegal immigrants coming from Central America. I argue that the media generally frames illegal immigrants in fear-mongering light, and are designed to perpetuate the belief that these illegal immigrants are scary and a threat to American society, rather than people genuinely wanting to seek help and asylum. In this way, the media effectively reframes victims of poverty and war in other countries as enemies of the U. S., preying on deep-seated prejudicial beliefs that news consumers have about these illegal immigrants, most typically on the basis of the colour of their skin. Firstly, it is important to recognize how crime is portrayed by the media. As Altheide (1997) (as cited in Steeves & Milford, 2015) discusses, crime is sensationalized and hyper focused because news organizations and popular media producers all want to entertain – and what’s more naturally built for entertainment than grisly crime narratives that burrow their way into the collective imagination and plants highly visual and emotional seeds in viewers? This is precisely why the media stories about crime are set within what he calls a problem frame which creates a narrative that not only is easy to understand but also highly saleable (Steeves & Milford, 2015).

The problem frame highlights stories that are out of the ordinary and “bad” that negatively impacts a lot of people, calling for a solution that are expected to resolve the problem in the future (Steeves & Milford, 2015). Illegal immigrant narratives are set within problem frames, as can be seen from how they are constantly talked about as a problem that the U. S. needs to get rid of, as a people that the U. S. needs to stop from ‘rampaging’ their borders. However, problem frames are problematic because they present solutions that may not necessarily be the correct reforms needed to prevent the crime from happening again in the future.

In an example that Steeves and Milford (2015) provide, the solution the media came up with in response to the Columbine High School Shooting was to blame violent video games as the root cause of the shooters’ violence, which the government then followed up on to ‘solve’ the problem by discussing youth consumption of violent media and implementing legislation for content warnings and rating labels on media content. This only serves to worsen the problem as, instead of pinpointing the real root cause for the violence, they make violent video games scapegoats and also misdirect and misinform people about the pertinent issues of the crime (Steeves & Milford, 2015). It oversimplifies the criminal issue and pushes to vilify someone as soon as possible, without close, thorough examination of the facts (Steeves & Milford, 2015). It also solidifies boundaries of what can and cannot be discussed about the criminal event (Steeves & Milford, 2015). For example, after the Columbine incident, discussion focused on violent video games, but not on youths’ mental health and providing better services for young people in crisis which were the issues that were much more pressing and probably the true root causes of the violence (Steeves & Milford, 2015).

We can use this analogy with illegal immigrants. One of the root causes for crime in the U. S., as news sources and politicians constantly tell us, is the unchecked immigration problem. In one Fox News video, a former ICE agent explains how the illegal immigrants are diverting U. S. border patrol resources towards their cause, leaving the U. S. border vulnerable to drug cartels and the like to infiltrate (“DHS secretary,” 2018). Therefore, he holds these illegal immigrants responsible for draining the U. S. resources and aiding criminals from entering the U. S. territory. He also repeatedly emphasizes that these illegal immigrants are unknown and that some of them are definitely criminals, which corrupts the rest: “Some of them are actually coming from overseas, from probably the Middle East or wherever… We don’t know who is all in this group… The groups are infiltrated by cartel members… We don’t know who’s coming in; there’s no way to vet them” (“DHS secretary,” 2018, 00:03:03-00:03:15”).

By introducing the location of the Middle East, which has its own load of negative connotations and racist prejudices attached to it, this ICE agent makes a number of accusations that are only based on guesswork but which are now being portrayed by the media as facts. The solution, as the media and politicians are always telling us, is to stop illegal immigrants from entering the U. S., by tightening immigration controls and by repeatedly demonizing these illegal immigrants until people begin to believe in these policies and reforms. In the process, the narratives that illegal immigrants are simply refugees seeking asylum are repeatedly squashed, and the real root causes of the crime in the U. S., which is not being exacerbated by the illegal immigrants, are being covered up and ignored. This is why problem framing is so nefarious: because it leads to moral panics. As Cohen (1972/1980) states, moral panic is when a “condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests” (p. 9, as cited by Hall et al., 1978, as cited by Steeves & Milford, 2015, p. 32).

Moral panics are fear-based and latch onto the stereotypes people have about certain races and genders, among other group identities, to cement certain criminal perceptions about them (Steeves & Milford, 2015). Moral panics amplify social tensions and exaggerate crises by preying on historical prejudices against minority groups, like people of colour and, in the case of this paper, Caravan Central American migrants crossing the US-Mexico border (Steeves & Milford, 2015). This was the objective of that former ICE agent citing the Middle East as a part of the threat of illegal immigrants, and other instances where illegal immigrants are vilified, made out to be responsible for exacerbating problems in the U. S. like poverty and crime which, in fact, were already present and are only being exaggerated by the media. As Longazel (2012) argues, moral panic is racial hoarding.

The media’s portrayal of illegal immigrants is based in the ideas of racial stratification, which as Longazel (2012) writes, is “perpetuated by exploitation – ‘when people in one social group expropriate a resource produced by members of another social group’ (Massey, 2007: 6) – and opportunity hoarding – where ‘beneficiaries do not enlist the efforts of outsiders but instead exclude them from access to relevant resources’ (Tilly, 1998: 91)” (p. 98). Also important to consider in these prevailing narratives is how undocumented immigrants are portrayed as “symbolic assailants” by the media, which has fuelled the operation of crimmigration: a conflating of the two issues of criminality and immigration as one and the same, for the purpose of crime prevention rather than terrorism and national security concerns (Jiang & Erez, 2018, p. 5). Because immigrants are perceived as “threats to the social order, employment options and political organization” of the U. S., their put-on identities as “symbolic assailants” are only reinforced (Jiang & Erez, 2018, p. 6).

In other words, it is the Americans’ own fear of having their American cultural identity changed in negative ways that prompts them to vilify these immigrants, attaching a “constellation of sensibilities, symbols, and meanings” to the newcomers (Jiang & Erez, 2018, p. 6). The illegal immigrants as the former ICE agent depicted them were therefore being characterized as symbolic assailants and can be seen to be victims of racial hoarding. These dynamics can also be seen in how the reporting of the Central American immigrants making their way to the U. S. border to seek asylum is talked about within a necessary system of paperwork and processing to ensure that they are not national security threats to the U. S (Jiang & Erez, 2018).

For example, in one Fox News video, certain phrases jump out about how the process of screening these immigrants is discussed: “we’ll take them into custody, we’ll do hours’ worth of processing, then we’ll turn them over to ICE. ICE will release them based upon what they call a ‘credible fear’” (“Caravan of”, 2018, 00:00:41-00:00:51). Right off the bat, these phrases communicate an atmosphere of fear and potential violence, depicting the immigrants in a similar way to how people would talk about criminals, about people who have already been convicted of crimes and are being imprisoned. As opposed to how the U. S. normally views individuals are innocent until proven guilty, these immigrants are classified as guilty until proven innocent, until proven they have a ‘credible fear’ which means that their reason for seeking asylum in the U. S. is considered legitimate enough by the U. S. government to allow them refuge.

These phrases perhaps seem subtle enough to fly over people’s heads when they view videos that report on immigrants in such a way, but that is because most viewers have already become accustomed to thinking about immigrants in this light that it takes a discerning viewer to uncover the ingrained vocabulary and language used for immigrants and, indeed, crimmigration. The video even outright says that immigrants are likely to need re-evaluation of their status in the U. S., reporting with the purposely vague lead-in of “studies show”, without actually providing the precise source, that “88% who claim asylum ultimately get their date in immigration court” (“Caravan of”, 2018, 00:01:04-00:01:09).

The video reinforces common notions that immigrants have to be kept out and present them almost as if they are going to overwhelm the U. S. border, with President Trump stating, “Mexico has got to help us at the border. They flow right through Mexico; they send them right to the United States. Can’t happen that way anymore” (“Caravan of”, 2018, 00:01:33-00:01:41). These mentalities perpetuated in the media reflect attempts to incite moral panics and make these illegal immigrants out to be villains and threats to the U. S. In conclusion, it is clear how illegal immigrants are having their names smeared by the campaign by the media and the government to portray them as criminals before they even enter the U. S. These videos, like much of the mainstream media, do not provide any voice to the illegal immigrants to explain themselves, because if they did, they would be humanized . Instead, the media portrayals are constructed in such ways to incite moral panics and monger fear about the ‘scary unknown’ that is the illegal immigrant, because that serves their agenda. Setting these narratives about illegal immigrants within problem frames is extremely problematic and only creates more problems than it solves. Hence, as discerning consumers of the media, we have an obligation to see through these attempts to blindside us and paint the illegal immigrants as criminals. Only then can real crimes be solved, and resources put where they truly need to go.

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The Portrayal of Illegal Immigrants in Fox News Videos: Problem Framing and Moral Panics. (2019, Jun 27). GradesFixer. Retrieved August 15, 2022, from
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