As well as being disproportionately harmed by the health impacts of COVID-19, immigrants in the US were also exposed to racist rhetoric from politicians during the pandemic. In new research Benjamin Gonzalez O’Brien, Justin Reedy, and Elizabeth H. Hurst examine the role of the news media in framing public perceptions of immigrants during the pandemic. They find that media were more likely to characterize immigrants as a public health threat, but that local news coverage in border states like Texas and California was more nuanced than national coverage. National news focused on the threat immigration posed to the nation because of COVID-19, while local outlets more often framed the pandemic as a threat to immigrants themselves.
Immigrants, and communities of color more broadly, were some of the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Rates of COVID-19 among Latinos and Blacks were disproportionately high, and immigrants were particularly vulnerable, in part because of the climate of fear that Trump administration policies created. The former president racialized the pandemic from its earliest days, calling it the “China virus” and “kung flu,” leading to an increase in hate crimes towards the Asian community. In 2020, Florida Governor and 2024 Republican presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis blamed migrant workers for a surge in state COVID-19 numbers. The pandemic was used to limit immigration and asylum claims, construction sped up on almost 200 miles of border wall between the United States and Mexico, and rates of COVID-19 in immigrant detention centers skyrocketed.
Disease and illness have long been part of the debate around immigration. In the late 19th and throughout the 20th century, various immigrant groups were linked to health threats, such as cholera, typhus, trachoma, smallpox, and the bubonic plague. Groups that were characterized as undesirable or threats to racial purity in the United States were also labeled as threats to national public health. Similarly, the COVID-19 pandemic saw a rise in narratives related to immigration policy, with immigrants portrayed as potential disease vectors, thus justifying their exclusion or expulsion. This narrative was not limited to political elites like Trump or DeSantis: it also regularly appeared in news stories about the virus.
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Framing and public perceptions of a pandemic
How a news article or program portrays an issue can be thought of as the news frame. These frames have great power, as they provide the public with perspective on an issue. Frames make certain parts of an issue more relevant or important. They can subtly guide the audience into a way of thinking. Essentially, a journalist has the power to provide initial interpretation of a topic for the audience. These interpretations, or frames, are influenced by an ecosystem of political elites, public opinion, and journalistic norms. National and local outlets have different target audiences and past research has found differences between how local and national newspapers frame immigration.
Looking at newspaper coverage of immigration and COVID-19
We analyzed online newspaper coverage both nationally (Wall Street Journal, New York Times, USA Today) and in smaller local outlets in two border states (California and Texas) to understand how stories covering COVID-19 and immigration were framed. More specifically we compared national sources to local sources, searching for two frames: first, the framing of immigrants as a threat to the nation, and second, the framing of COVID-19 as a threat to immigrant communities. We first wanted to know if national sources discussed COVID-19 and immigration differently from border state news outlets, and which of the two frames above were the most common in news coverage. We also compared how local newspapers in Texas, a conservative-leaning state, and California, a left-leaning state, covered COVID-19 and immigration to assess the influence of state politics.
Local and national media followed Trump’s frame of immigrants as a health threat.
We found that when considered together, national and local news media did largely follow the Trump administration’s framing of the pandemic, with immigrants frequently characterized as a public health threat. The argument that immigrants could bring COVID-19 across the border, as held by the then administration, was commonly seen across our sample of news stories. Across the overall sample, including both national and border state online news sources, the threat to the nation frame was more prevalent than the framing of COVID-19 as a threat to immigrant communities.
Figure 1 – Framing of COVID-19 in Nationally Circulated Newspapers
When we compared national online news sources to the local online news sources though, significant differences emerged. We found that more than half (54.4 percent) of the national articles focused on the threat to the nation, as compared to only 27 percent focusing on the threat COVID-19 posed to immigrants. National news coverage of this issue often cited arguments from administration officials and from Trump himself, who regularly cited the “threat” of immigrants bringing the virus into the US to justify border crackdowns. While some sources referenced this frame but also pushed back on this argument or critiqued the position, they nonetheless still helped to spread this narrative.
We found that local news coverage in California and Texas differed significantly from that found in national outlets. Local newspapers focused more on the health impacts that COVID-19 had on immigrants and immigrant communities than national news sources. Over half of the local articles (58.9 percent) were coded as focusing on the threat to immigrants. Conversely, less than a third (26.5 percent) focused on the threat to the nation frame. There were little regional differences between sources from California and Texas; this finding reflected both sets of sources.
Figure 2 – Framing of COVID-19 in Local Papers (California and Texas)
Many of the local newspapers in California and Texas covered areas that are home to border crossings and detention facilities. These locations were often cited in coverage of the pandemic. Some articles focused on the threat of migrants being kept in crowded conditions inside of detention facilities during COVID-19. Others noted the threat to US immigration and border enforcement personnel as well as other American citizens in the area.
Local news coverage was more nuanced – especially closer to the border.
Local online news articles from California and Texas provided a more nuanced view of the US-Mexico borderlands. The threat posed by COVID-19 to often marginalized immigrant populations was, in some articles, framed as something the larger community in which these individuals moved and lived should also care about. Some articles included personal stories of how deeply COVID-19 had affected those who lived on one side of the border but had strong connections to the other. The picture of the border, from the perspective of local state news sources, was more complex than the Trump administration’s image of a “wall” that could close the US off from pathogens.
Research has shown that media plays a significant role in public understanding of complex political issues like immigration and that how issues are covered can influence political behavior. Our study demonstrates that the kind of media one consumed during the height of the pandemic was likely to influence how one saw immigration in the context of COVID-19. Thus, national news journalists may want to be careful with the framing of public health and immigration issues in the future. The characterization of immigrants as threats to public health is a trope almost as old as the nation, and one that was revived during the COVID-19 pandemic. This echoed earlier, uglier periods in US history when health threat narratives were used to demonize, marginalize, and exclude entire groups of people based on their race. Though we saw many outlets challenge the Trump administration claim linking immigrants to COVID-19, the framing of immigrants as a public health threat still dominated much of the national coverage. This crowded out discussion of the threat the pandemic posed to underserved immigrant communities, who were disproportionately affected by COVID-19.
- This article is based on the paper, ‘Pandemic Politics: Immigration, Framing, and Covid-19’, in the Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Politics.
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- Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor the London School of Economics.
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