California's Proposition 187, voted into law this November, denies access to education, non-emergency health care and other social services to undocumented immigrants. Many of those affected are students, as were many of the leading opponents to the measure, with youth in Los Angeles, San Francisco and other cities organizing walkouts and demonstrations.
While youth are less often consumers of traditional news from papers and TV, there is one form of media that many students are exposed to whether they want it not: Channel One, the in-school satellite TV news and advertising program that junior high and high school students in California and across the country are forced to watch.
Channel One's viewers are literally a captive audience: Schools who accept the program are contractually bound to show it to students, to keep the screen uncovered and maintain the volume at a prescribed level. Unlike other material presented to students, Channel One circumvents any traditional curriculum review process to be fed directly to young people as an accurate rendering of current events.
In October 1994, as the debate over Proposition 187 heated up, Channel One showed a four-part series (10/4-7/94) on undocumented immigration. The framing of the story illustrated common media myths about illegal immigration. The series focused almost exclusively on Mexican immigrants, implying that Mexico is overwhelmingly responsible for the immigration "problem." Given the series' focus, one would think that illegal immigrants were sneaking across the border, overrunning the country and exploiting social services. None of these presumptions are true.
Less than 1.5 percent of the U.S. population is undocumented, according to the U.S. Census. The percentage of the population that is foreign-born is half what it was at the turn of the century. Undocumented immigrants are ineligible for almost all public benefits, including unemployment and Social Security, even though they are required to pay into these programs through payroll taxes. According to the Urban Institute, only about one quarter of immigrants are undocumented; most of those do not sneak across the border, but instead enter legally and stay after their visas expire-- and only one-third of them come from Mexico (Houston Chronicle, 8/14/94).
The segments reflected a military mentality toward immigration: The first segment led with the question of whether the U.S. had "lost control of its borders"; the second took Channel One viewers along on an INS raid of a Texas factory; the third segment started off with U.S. border patrol agents describing "Operation Gatekeeper." Not until the fourth segment, which featured interviews with immigrants, was the story framed by anyone besides anti-immigration advocates or agencies.
Channel One reporters led with inflammatory language and war imagery, promising "a trip to the frontlines in the war on illegal immigration" and a look at "ground zero in what some people are calling the war against illegal immigration."
Use of anti-immigrant rhetoric in non-attributed quotes also slanted reporting. One of the opening comments from Channel One reporter Tracy Smith was: "It's been said that the U.S. has lost control of its borders. Despite high tech fences and armed guards on patrol, illegal immigrants just keep on coming." Smith later introduced an interview with a Proposition 187 supporter by declaring, "Some people even say illegal immigration will be the end of America as we know it."
A televised INS raid of a factory in Texas displayed blatant double standards and questionable journalistic practices. The cameras carefully avoided showing the faces of the INS agents "to protect their identities." Yet Channel One showed no qualms about airing the faces of the factory workers accused of being undocumented. In coverage reminiscent of the TV show Cops, reporters behaved more like deputized INS agents than like journalists, as cameras accompanied officers running through the woods, hunting down individual fleeing workers.
Much of the reporting seemed to encourage viewers to stereotype based on ethnicity or place of residence. "Half of the millions of illegal immigrants live here in this state, a lot of them in neighborhoods like this one," one reporter declared, standing in a park populated by Latinos. "In this neighborhood, most of the people are recent arrivals who don't speak much English," another announced. Demonstrating the same stereotyping that such coverage is likely to encourage, a Channel One journalist pointed out a group of Latino men talking to someone in a car as an example of illegal immigrants looking for work-- without offering any evidence that the men were undocumented.
Consider the Source
Sources determine whose point of view the story is told from, and shape the parameters of debate. In every segment but the last, anti-immigration sources outnumbered immigrants or immigrant rights advocates. In the first segment, five anti-immigration advocates were quoted before the single dissenting source appeared. The last segment was
introduced: "Today, the view from the other side. The immigrants' story from the immigrants themselves." The "other" side are immigrants, implying that the "U.S. side" is the anti-immigration position.
When advocates for one side come on first, outnumber their opponents and receive more air time, their points of view will set the terms of debate. Those who appear after the terms of debate are set end up primarily answering their opponents points rather than making their own.
Much of the discussion centered around the point of view of border guards and INS agents, interviewed at length, often without being balanced by critical sources. Left out was any mention of the harassment by border guards of legal immigrants and citizens of Latino descent, long documented by such organizations as the American Friends Service Committee's Immigration Law Enforcement Monitoring Project.
In the third segment, Ronald Prince, a sponsor of Proposition 187, blamed illegal immigrants for California's economic problems:
If immigrant advocates had been setting the terms of the debate, they might have argued that it was Proposition 13, a 1978 law that has drastically limited property tax revenues, that has hurt California's schools and other social services. They also might have pointed out, as the Urban Institute's Michael Fix and Jeffrey Passel did in the Houston Chronicle (8/14/94), that undocumented workers are not eligible for welfare and that unauthorized use is "so low as to be undetectable." (See Report on the Legalized Alien Population, INS, 1992)
In the same segment, which focused on Proposition 187, Channel One cited as definitive California Gov. Pete Wilson's estimates of how much illegal immigrants cost the state. A significant part of the series revolved around the question of whether immigrants were costing the U.S. "too much." In fact, claims of immigrants bankrupting the country have been challenged in such studies as the Urban Institute's Immigration and Immigrants: Setting the Record Straight, which showed that immigrants contribute billions of dollars a year more to the economy than they take out in services.
The study found that while immigrants use more services on the state level than they do pay in state taxes, this is also true of native citizens. Each resident normally uses more state services than he or she pays in taxes, with the difference being made up by commercial taxes.