How Immigration Coverage Shifted From People to Barriers

Immigrant women hold their children along the border wall as they await apprehension after illegally crossing into the US from Mexico in August 2018.

by Kalev Leetaru

One of the more intriguing findings in how the media covered President Trump’s State of the Union address earlier this month was the way last year’s focus on “immigration” gave way to this year’s focus on “borders” and “walls.” This raises the question of just when the media conversation shifted from people to barriers.

The timeline below shows the percentage of global online news coverage in 65 languages monitored by the GDELT Project from Jan. 1, 2017 (the start of the data) to Feb. 14, 2019, that contained the word “Trump” and either “immigration” or “immigrants” or “illegals” versus mentions of “Trump” and either “border” or “borders” or “wall” or “walls.”

Immediately apparent is that while physical barriers always received slightly greater attention than immigration, the two topics historically have been largely correlated up through the November 2018 elections.

Within days of the midterms in which the Democrats took control of the House, mentions of borders and walls began to systematically take over from coverage mentioning immigration.

On Dec. 18, 2018, with the federal government on the brink of what would become a historic shutdown, coverage mentioning physical barriers began to increase sharply, reaching more than four times the attention paid to immigration by Dec. 22.

After peaking that day with the start of the shutdown, coverage of barriers steadily decreased through the end of January as the funding impasse wound down, but it has steadily increased again in the days since Trump’s State of the Union address.

Looking to television coverage, the timeline below shows the percentage of combined airtime of the terms on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News from June 1, 2015 through Feb. 14, 2019, as monitored by the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive.

Television coverage of Trump’s approach to border control appears to have emphasized physical barriers over people since the very beginning of his candidacy. Similar to online news, coverage shifted immediately after the November 2018 election to more greatly emphasize walls over people. As with online news, coverage decreased over the course of the shutdown, but has rebounded again in the aftermath of Trump’s SOTU speech.

Putting this all together, we see that — at least through the eyes of the news media — Trump’s presidency has always been more about building physical walls than about reforming immigration policy. Since the November elections that swept Democrats into power in the House, it seems coverage of the president’s border policies have become more and more fixated on building a wall.

RealClear Media Fellow Kalev Leetaru is a senior fellow at the George Washington University Center for Cyber & Homeland Security. His past roles include fellow in residence at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Government.


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