Framing Immigration: Geo-Ethnic Context in California Newspapers

By Grimm, Josh; Andsager, Julie L. | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Framing Immigration: Geo-Ethnic Context in California Newspapers


Grimm, Josh, Andsager, Julie L., Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


In 2006, millions of immigrants protested against H.R. 4437, a new bill in Congress that threatened to treat undocumented immigrants as felons. Content analysis of news coverage of the bill reveals that frames of the restrictionist legislation varied based on race and geography of the surrounding community. These results suggest that geo-ethnic context, which has been studied in terms of communication infrastructure within communities, should be taken into account when trying to understand how an issue is framed, particularly when trying to explain and predict why and when certain frames might occur.

While immigration remained a prominent and divisive issue during the past century,1 the debate has recently resurfaced as immigration numbers remain high. President Obama's DREAM Act, which sought to legalize undocumented immigrants living in the United States, was voted down in the Senate in December 2010. 2 The opposition has gained a sense of urgency as demographic trends show that whites will constitute a minority of the population by 2050.3

Given that a region's ethnic composition may affect how stories are shared among its residents,4 the purpose of this study is to examine how controversial immigration legislation was framed in California newspapers. This study will address the following broad research question: Does geo-ethnic context influence the frames that are most prominent in different regions' newspapers?

California newspapers are ideal for examining this issue because of the state's large immigrant population,5 its shared border with Mexico, and the state's unique role when it comes to immigration. Due in part to the state's long history with racial strife involving newcomers to the state6 and because of the state's ballot initiative, which allows for legislation to be introduced by popular vote,7 California serves as a "bellwether state in forecasting social change in the rest of the United States," especially for immigration.8 We examined the news coverage in California daily newspapers of various sizes, each with a different geographic location and with different proportions of Latinos in each readership, to determine whether frames shift in accordance with those differences.

This study is important because it brings together two theoretical frameworks: framing9 and geo-ethnic context.1" It expands framing research by adding geo-ethnic context variables that are missing in newsframing research. Taken together, framing and geo-ethnic context help to better illustrate how frames manifest in media texts. Additionally, this study helps to explain better the process by which frames are transmitted from news outlet to news outlets. It moves beyond the role of sources and journalists to a larger, more theoretical look at what factors, particularly geography and ethnic composition of a region, determine which frames are included and emphasized in the news. Ideally, it will provide a muchneeded theoretical grounding to an area of research that has grown unwieldy.

Race and Immigration

Recent controversies over immigration provide a useful lens for examining the intersection of framing and geo-ethnic context. While the United States has a long tradition of immigration, that tradition has not always been a proud one.11 Despite the vast number and variety of immigrants arriving in the past century, nativist attitudes have remained relatively consistent. Daniels found that complaints against immigrants by U.S. citizens tended to fall into at least one of the following categories: "they have bad habits, they are clannish, they don't speak English, and they are going to take over."12 Because Anglo whites have been so visible in U.S. society, the connection between "being American" and "being white" has been established as the norm.13

Issues of skin color, loyalty, and language have continued to intensify feelings of nativism toward Latinos,14 but unlike immigrant groups such as the Chinese and Japanese, no laws were passed to limit Latino immigration because of their value as laborers.

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