ANALYSIS: Major news outlets use inflammatory language to describe migrants despite calls to stop
Surge. Wave. Flood.
These words may bring to mind images of natural disasters, but as the nation’s focus on the U.S.-Mexico border continues to increase, many news organizations, including The Washington Post, The Associated Press, Wall Street Journal, CNN, among others, have fallen into the trap of using these terms to describe the migrants arriving at the country’s southern border.
Journalists, activists and others have denounced the use of these words, arguing that they are dehumanizing, and have pushed for changes in the way publications refer to migrants in their coverage. Although they have been used for years, the terms spurred renewed discussions earlier this year in newsrooms, including at The Associated Press, whose decisions around language use set a widely regarded standard for the news industry at large.
But a Latino Reporter analysis of New York Times and Los Angeles Times articles published between January 1 and June 18, 2021, found that these publications have continued to use these terms, even after an AP blog post urged restraint and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists put out guidance directing news organizations to reconsider words that perpetuate “dangerous misinformation.”
Attention to the language newsrooms use to describe recent arrivals to the U.S.-Mexico border has grown along with the number of migrants this year. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, 180,034 people, the majority of whom were single adults, attempted entry to the United States along the southwest border in May. This is an increase from May 2020, when there were 23,237 encounters, due to the COVID-19 restrictions at the border. Immigration at the border has been heavily covered in national news, as migrants are seeking to cross the border after traveling miles and miles to escape poverty, war, violence and threat, and expecting leniency from the Biden administration.
Earlier this year, Julio Ricardo Varela, co-interim executive director at Futuro Media Group and founder of LatinoRebels.com, tweeted that the latter would no longer use the word “surge” in the context of immigration.
The decision came after Varela noticed articles from The Associated Press using the words to describe immigration in their coverage.
“As a subscriber, I had serious issues as an editor that I would publish the stories as is,” Varela said in a recent interview with the Latino Reporter. “So we put an editor’s note on all the things that we did and changed some of the wordings and said ‘At Futuro Media we do not refer to people as surges or as waves, and that’s the editorial decision that we are making.’ ”
Days after his tweet, Varela published an op-ed article that addressed years of seeing the use of the water metaphors in news coverage. In the piece, which was published in the The Washington Post, he argued against the use of the terms “wave,” “surge” and “flood” to describe migrants and wrote that “such dehumanization is dangerous and serves only to sensationalize the moment.”
“American media, both English and Spanish, has made an industry of sensationalizing an issue,” Varela told the Latino Reporter. “I feel like fellow journalists tend to treat this issue like it’s a sporting event. They use language that tends to view people as not being human and there’s a huge dehumanization thread in American journalism that has been there for a while.”
Latino Rebels is one of many news sites that subscribe to publish articles from The Associated Press. Varela cited an example in his op-ed of an AP article published on March 19, which included “surge” and the phrase “waves of migrants have tried breaching in recent weeks.”
“In the end, I respect the AP for going on record with me. I respect the AP for sharing the memo and knowing that I was going to make it public,” said Varela, who had alerted an AP editor who then sent an internal memo about the use of these metaphors. “I’m not here to call anyone out, it’s about becoming a better journalist and a better editor and understanding where the shortcomings are.”
The response to Varela’s piece ultimately became politicized, which, he added, missed the point. According to Varela, his goal was to show how media outlets from both sides of the political spectrum cover immigration poorly. He felt it necessary to write to address a lack of understanding from editors about the migrant experience.
Language with a History
Amid increasing numbers of Latino migrants attempting to cross the U.S. border this year, the use of words like “surge,” “wave,” and “flood” in the media have caught renewed attention in the public sphere, but words such as these have been the subject of past research for decades.
In 2002, Otto Santa Ana, a sociolinguist and founding chair of the Cesar Chavez Foundation for Chicano and Chicano Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, published the book Brown Tide Rising: Metaphors of Latinos in Contemporary American Public Discourse, in which he explored the metaphorical language used to describe Latino immigration.
Santa Ana analyzed publications, like The Los Angeles Times, and found that news organizations were utilizing metaphors to describe migrants as animals, diseases or even weeds.
In 2017, researchers at Luther College analyzed the ways that English-language media in the U.S. represented unaccompanied child migrants. The study found that in 2014, U.S. media — particularly The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times — heavily relied on water-based metaphors to describe the kids.
Megan Strom, co-author of the study and now an assistant professor of Spanish at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, also found through that words like these can transmit a subliminal message to the public that children who arrive are a threat and do not deserve to be treated in a humane manner.
“The United States has a history of using its majority media to make the public afraid of immigrants,” Strom, also an expert in critical media studies, told the Latino Reporter. “Other studies have shown that in the past the media have used flood of immigrants, wave of immigrants, surge of immigrants and it might be conscious or unconscious but certainly we learn to do that from somewhere.”
In a Latino Reporter analysis of articles published between Jan. 1 and June 18 in the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times — two of the country’s leading newspapers on the issue of immigration — dozens of news stories incorporated these words before and well after AP and others began to warn against their usage. Researchers at Luther College had found similar patterns at publications featured in a 2017 study.
The Latino Reporter found that 17 articles published on the Los Angeles Times website and 78 published by the New York Times described migrants and immigration with the use of “surge,” “wave,” or “flood” — sometimes using more than one of these terms in that manner in an article.
Seven of the 18 Los Angeles Times articles were written and disseminated by The Associated Press or another news wire. The water metaphors found in both publications were used not only to describe immigration from Latin America, but also from or in other countries. AP stories were published within the last several months on the Los Angeles Times website used this terminology to describe immigration despite the news organization addressing the use of these words in their coverage of the U.S. border earlier this year.
Seeking better language
Experts have said that using different language in media coverage is the first step toward humanizing migrants in the southern U.S.-Mexican border. While some media organizations have begun to address this issue with discussions in newsrooms and internal directives on how to better report about immigration, the changes are far from universal.
John Daniszewski, vice president and editor at large for standards at the AP, decided to change language used in immigration coverage after speaking with Varela, of the Futuro Media Group, earlier this year. Daniszewski told Varela in an interview for his op-ed piece, that “the organization had indeed made some mistakes during its recent coverage from the border, citing ‘an element of human error.’ ” Daniszewski added that “words such as ‘surge’ or ‘breaching’ are terms AP journalists should not be using in this context.”
In an AP blog post, Daniszewski outlined several steps that were going to be taken to use more precise and less charged language. He urged caution among AP staff when referring to the situation at the border as a "crisis," and instructed journalists to avoid language that relates to war or natural disasters, relying instead on more neutral language. Daniszewski ended the post saying: “We should explore widely all perspectives on this controversial issue.”
The Poynter Institute, which writes regularly on journalism ethics, has also noted this language is inaccurate and misleading — “an uptick in illegal crossings happens as winter turns to spring, then declines when summer makes the desert hazardous,” wrote Doris Truong, Poynter’s director of training and diversity, citing a story from The Washington Post. And although headlines about crossings at “the Mexican border” may cause news consumers to think that most migrants are from Mexico, “a larger percentage of overall immigrants to the United States were born in Asia. And 10% come from Europe, Canada and elsewhere in North America,” Truong wrote, citing a Pew Research Center study.
Professional journalism organizations — particularly those that represent journalists of color in the industry — have advocated for the use of better language in reporting.
Earlier this year, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists revised its Culture Competence Handbook to include water-based terminology. According to the handbook, which is meant to guide journalists, academics, newsrooms, and students on the correct terminology to use when reporting about diverse communities, “Terminology including ‘invasion,’ ‘surge,’ or ‘flood’ creates a false narrative and perpetuates dangerous misinformation.”
Zita Arocha, interim executive director of NAHJ, said that the release of this handbook last summer came at a perfect time, especially as the issue of immigration becomes more urgent and prominent in news coverage.
“There are so many words used by the media today that are talking about immigration that have very negative stereotypes and implications in people’s minds,” Arocha said, adding that the handbook is "definitely a tool that NAHJ, the board, staff, and its members can use to bring attention to the problem.”
According to Arocha, NAHJ has plans to continue to raise awareness about the Cultural Competence Handbook through a public awareness campaign, in hopes that news organizations begin to consult it when determining the best language to use in stories about migrants or the Latino community at large.
Conversations about language choice is something newsrooms grapple with daily, and not only regarding immigration.
The Marshall Project recently published The Language Project, to raise awareness about the use of words such as “felon,” inmate,” or “offender” to describe individuals who have gone through the criminal justice system. Akiba Solomon, senior editor at The Marshall Project, said in an email that the project sought to “apply a journalistic lens to a discussion most often initiated by activists and advocates.” Adding, "as reporters and editors, we have to look at the nuances of language and figure out if and how they apply to our work."
For journalists covering immigration, Strom said reporters and editors should use phrases like “there was an increase in immigration,” “numbers have increased,” or “we’ve seen higher numbers.” This kind of language may seem plain, but as Strom said, it’s better that “a child isn’t being equated with a natural disaster.”
Journalists alone don’t carry the weight on their shoulders to portray this group in a fair manner — Strom believes that everyday people have a responsibility as well. She says that as consumers of media, one has the capability to reject what is being said, and can choose to not repeat certain language. Otherwise, that language can become ingrained.
“By dehumanizing someone, it is easy to blame that person, to attack the migrant community. It’s too easy because you don’t know the story, you don’t know the reason people are fleeing,” Varela said. “I hope that other journalists see why this is important."
The analysis of articles that used “surge,” “wave,” or “flood” to describe immigration was done using The New York Times and Los Angeles Times’ respective search tools, and included articles published on their site between Jan. 1 and June 18. Excluded from the analysis were instances where the word was used in a quote, a briefing, podcasts, letters to the editors and in the opinion section. Seven of the Los Angeles Times articles using this terminology were from a wire service: six had a byline from the Associated Press and one was from Kaiser Health News’ California Healthline.
CORRECTION: This story previously misstated the position of Assistant Professor Megan Strom. The story has been updated.
Denisse Quintanilla is a senior at Monmouth University, where she studies Spanish and communications with a concentration in media studies and production. She is an intern at CNBC En Español and is pursuing a career in broadcast journalism. Reach her at denissequintanilla9 [at] gmail [dot] com and on Twitter @denisseqtv.