Austin Forum keynote urges journalists to move beyond official sources to improve immigration coverage

"You can't imagine El Salvador without immigrants," said José Luis Benítez, keynote speaker for the 9th Austin Forum on Journalism in the Americas. But despite immigrants' key role in the social and economic fabric of Central America and Mexico, journalistic coverage of this transnational population is often framed as sensational crime and tragic victimization, or national heroism.

About 50 journalists and experts from 20 countries from Latin America and the Caribbean are gathering Sept. 8-10, 2011, in Austin, Texas, for theAustin Forum. This year's annual meeting is themed "Media Coverage of Migration in the Americas."

"Immigration is defined by official discourses that frame it as a security issue," said the professor from the José Simeón Cañas Central American University in El Salvador. Difficulty accessing public information on immigration in Latin American countries leads many journalists to depend on official statements about immigration. The government's ability to frame the issue is clear: articles on immigration in the region were dominated by phrases like insecurity, victims, and human rights abuses, Benítez said, citing several surveys of Central American and Mexican newspapers in recent years.

Benitez noted that despite the great numbers of immigrants in these countries, rarely do journalists interview migrants about their experiences, "The voice of the immigrants is fundamental," he said, "it's not the same as talking to an expert." Summer Harlow, a doctoral student working with the Knight Center, presented a paper the same morning indicating that less than 10 percent of articles on immigration in Mexican and Central American newspapers sampled interviewed immigrants for the story.

Not all stories about immigrants are negative, though. Benítez noted that when coverage is not dominated by security concerns, immigrants are often presented as national heroes. "When they appear they're portrayed as successful, someone that started with nothing and now owns a successful restaurant in Washington, D.C." Benítez said. "They're shown as the pride of the nation. But this is not the story of most. It affects their conception of the American Dream."

The media plays an important role in the conception of not just the American Dream, but immigrants themselves. Benítez pointed out that the media is often the only exposure many natives of destination countries have with immigrants. The coverage can then become an echo chamber for stereotypes, affecting public perception of immigrants. The media, as a result, has the potential to become the "most influential source of racism and prejudice" against immigrants, Benítez said.

While media attention to immigration has spiked in recent years, Benítez reminded the audience that the phenomenon has been shaping Latin American countries, like El Salvador, for generations. "We must never lose the historical perspective," Benítz said. "Immigration isn't new, just the intensity of its coverage."

The Austin Forum, organized by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas and the Latin American and Media programs of the Open Society Foundations, continues Friday and Saturday. A complete program is available here.