Media coverage on migration in Uruguay associates phenomenon with conflict and lack of control, according to researchers

After examining more than 1,200 news items about human migration in Uruguayan media, two researchers from media observatory MigraMedios found that most focused on the negative, making associations with problems and conflict. 

Examining headlines, researcher and professor Mauricio Olivera found the main metaphors used to talk about migration were related to water, war, trees, and animals.

Woman with glasses and scarf looks at the camera. She specializes in migration and media.

Uruguayan professor and researcher Pilar Uriarte (Courtesy / Alessandro Maradei)

“All images that invite us to remain alert in the face of a phenomenon that tends to disorder and lack of control,” Oliviera and researcher Pilar Urirarte explained in their recent study, which looked at news on human migration from the six most-read media outlets in Uruguay between 2014 and 2020.

Aside from not looking at positive contributions of migration, such as cultural or social aspects, Olivera said the phenomenon is not analyzed in depth.

Thus, according to him, “we can fall back on stereotypes about the migrant population.”

The researcher also warned that, in general, this occurs due to the high level of precariousness in which journalists work, and because journalists do not have the tools or adequate awareness to deal with the issue

Following the headlines

Olivera and Uriarte presented their findings on Sept. 1 at the headquarters of the organization Idas y Vueltas in Montevideo. 

They are carrying out their research in a country in which the dynamics of human movement have changed profoundly in recent decades.

MigraMedio’s repository of news linked to human movement dates back to 2014.

Man with dark hair stands next tot a dark wall and looks at the camera, hands in his pockets. He specializes in migration and media.

Uruguayan professor and researcher Mauricio Olivera

After studying 1,224 news items from El País, El Observador, Búsqueda, La Diaria, Caras y Caretas and Brecha, they found that newspaper El País published the most articles on migration (44%). In terms of journalistic genre, articles prevailed (78%).

The research shows that 2015 and 2016 were the years with the most news related to migration, due to the coverage of the arrival of Syrian families and detainees from Guantánamo. For 2016 and 2017, the number of news items increased due to conflicts between the recipients of the resettlement plans and the authorities.

Then, between 2017 and 2018, there was a significant decrease in the amount of news about migration in the country; however, the focus on Latin American migration predominated. In 2019, the construction of news was based on the topics of housing and documentation.

For 2020, and with the COVID-19 pandemic, they show that there was an increase in news coverage on human movement, due to the entry of people across the borders with Argentina and Brazil and the boost that the government gave to the arrival of Argentine citizens, as explained on the MigraMedios website.

Metaphors and narratives on migration in media

Uruguay went from being a country of origin to a country of transit and settlement of migrant and refugee populations in recent decades. 

Although foreign people in the country have traditionally come from Argentina and Brazil, as of 2013 there was an increase in populations from other Latin American countries such as the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Venezuela.

In 2017, the Venezuelan population surpassed the Argentine population in the number of residences granted. As detailed on the project website, these new migration trends have generated challenges to “guarantee appropriate conditions for the exercise of the rights guaranteed in the Migration Law,” such as access to housing, health, education and working in decent conditions.

Of course, these challenges are detected by the press, and are a source of news, articles, editorial columns and opinions from journalists. In this sense, the observatory is responsible for analyzing how the Uruguayan media construct narratives around migration. Understanding, according to Pilar Uriarte, that media influence the migration policies of countries and social discourse about the phenomenon.

At the presentation of the report, Olivera explained that analysis of the news items for this study focused on headlines because they have “a key role” in the presentation of news, and “it has information that stays with readers the most.”

Regarding the metaphor, the researchers said that it is a resource through which “a set of collective symbols that establish cognitive and interpretative frameworks in public opinion about the migration phenomenon in Uruguay” are argued, formed and constructed.

The main metaphors used to talk about migration, according to Olivera, are those related to water (current, wave, torrent, avalanche); war metaphors (invasion, conquest, hostility); the phytomorphic (like that of the tree, with its roots and uprootings); and the zoomorphic (as with birds, referring to nomadism and permanent movement).

The wave that overwhelmed the system.” This is the title of a Nov. 4, 2018 article from El País about people of Cuban origin who approached the Foreign Ministry to request visas. Olivera reads the first lines of the article aloud: “The massive arrival of Cubans, especially in the last month, overflowed the doors of the Foreign Ministry and collapsed the system.” According to the researcher, “Cuban immigration, identified with that wave, is portrayed as responsible for what is actually a management inability of the Uruguayan Foreign Ministry.”

Olivera also spoke of an “allusion to quantities,” that is, when reporting an increase in immigrants or a certain number of people. For him, “quantifying only depersonalizes and objectifies” people, but also magnifies the number of immigrants who arrive in the country without explaining or delving into the context. He gave some example headlines: “There are 48% more foreigners in the Center's schools” (El País) or “The Foreign Ministry rejected 24 of 34,800 residences in four years” (El Observador).

Restaurant fined US$7,000 for employing illegal immigrants,” was the title of an article in El Observador from March 17, 2016. 

“The way the news is presented is perverse,” Olivera said. “In the headline they refer to the punishment and the amount. Furthermore, the person who commits the illegal act is the company that hired workers who are in an irregular situation, but in the headline it seems that the blame falls on the ‘illegal immigrants.’ 

At the same time, the researcher emphasized that “there are no illegal people, what does exist are illegal acts. There may be people who have not registered, but not illegal people.”

Another of the headlines he referred to is again from El País: “Two migratory currents that refresh the Uruguayan labor market.” For Olivera, this headline signals a shift in the Uruguayan media's narrative about migration, in which concern about the arrival of foreigners is not the center. He even emphasized the word “refresh” as something positive. However, he considered this turn to be based on a “utilitarian vision.”

It seems that the two reasons why Latin American migrations in Uruguay are viewed favorably are that they “refresh the labor market or because they increase the birth rate” of the country, Uriarte added. 

The researchers presented the other side of this vision: “this shows that those who do not refresh the labor market do not contribute anything, so they can be excluded” from society. 

The researcher also highlighted that it is very common in the Uruguayan press to show the conflict, and explains it with an example: "In 2014, a visa was imposed on people from the Dominican Republic, however the media only talked about the 42 people who came from Syria. It seemed like the only immigrants were Syrians.”

To improve media coverage of migration, Olivera recommended the manual on news treatment of migrants and refugees in the media from the Audiovisual Council of Catalonia.


Contributor Florencia Pagola is a freelance journalist from Uruguay. She does research and writes about human rights and freedom of speech in Latin America.