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Shaping Immigration News

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Shaping Immigration News

In Shaping Immigration News: A French-American Comparison Rodney Benson brings his deep knowledge of media actors and practices to the specific subject of ‘immigration news’. The French-American comparison is an innovative way of looking at American immigration news coverage. By using the French case, the American media field is put into perspective, which gives the researcher, and therefore the American reader, the distance necessary for scientific analysis, thus following Durkheim’s conception of any sociological work.[1]

Based on a mixed-method articulating, on the one hand, journalists’, activists’, scholars’, and politicians’ narratives on immigration news coverage (1995–2012), and on the other, the content analysis of the news itself throughout the past 40 years (the ‘Peak Media Attention years’), Benson shows how the ‘logic’, ‘position’ and ‘structure’ of journalistic ‘fields’ in the United States and France frame immigration news in both countries. Benson’s book will be of great interest to sociologists specialized in the media and to journalists themselves. Benson’s rich analysis of newspaper and television ‘news packages’ from the early 1970s to 2006 allows him to challenge critics against both market and state interventions in the media.

After an introduction to the theoretical framework and field of study of this research (Chapter 1), Benson delves deeper into the presentation of his ‘field position-logic-structure model’ and highlights its relevance in both France and the U.S. (Chapter 2). Using this model, he separately analyzes immigration news coverage in the U.S. (Chapter 3) and in France (Chapter 4), before drawing general pre-concluding remarks from this empirical study in Chapter 5. Benson then investigates the question of the ‘multiperspectival’ (Chapter 6) and ‘critical’ (Chapter 7) character of newspaper news in both countries, and then reveals that the same pattern can be noticed in French and American immigration television news coverage (Chapter 8). The concluding chapter offers a synthesis of the results and suggests directions for future research, in addition to recommendations for journalists (Chapter 9). The author adds rich appendixes, including further information on method, sources, and the French-U.S. immigration context.

Benson’s analysis is based on Bourdieu’s concept of ‘field’ while criticizing and enriching his conclusions regarding the media. “Contra Bourdieu, [Benson] conceive[s] the journalistic field as organized around a basic opposition between two heteronomous poles – a civic, nonmarket pole and a market pole” (p. 13). The author uses “the concept of ‘journalistic field’ to analyze the complex interplay of market, civic, class, and organizational ecological dynamics. In contrast to the chasm that often separates political economy, organizational studies, and news content analyses, [the scholar] seeks to bring these strands together to provide a more complete account of how and why news is produced as it is and what it might take to produce it in different and better ways” (p. 25). To do so, he conceives a ‘field model’ with three levels of analysis: the field position, the field logic, and the field structure. The journalistic field position refers to “its relation to other logics within the broader field of power” (p. 195). The field logic is the “field’s societal position and the historical path by which it arrived there. Finally the field’s structure refers to the class hierarchies that shape relations between journalists and their sources, as well as between journalistic organizations and their audiences” (Ibid.).

Based on Lamont and Thévenot’s conceptualization of ‘cultural repertoires’,[2] Benson identified 10 different ‘immigration frames’, which are used differently in France and the United States. There are three ‘Victim’ frames (‘Global economy’ frame, ‘Humanitarian’ frame, and ‘Racism/Xenophobia’ frame), three ‘Hero’ frames (‘Cultural diversity’ frame, ‘Integration’ frame, and ‘Good worker’ frame), and four ‘Threat’ frames (‘Jobs’ frame, ‘Public order’ frame, ‘Fiscal’ frame, and ‘National cohesion’ frame).[3]

This complex conceptual framework helps the reader understand both the convergence and divergence between French and American immigration news coverage. In both countries, the habitus gap between immigration restrictionists and journalists underlines why the former’s voice is so often neglected or criticized in media coverage. Another similarity is “the dominance (…) of the public order and humanitarian frames, [and] of political elites as sources” (p. 196). Beyond these similarities however, Benson explains that the differing extent of market pressures in each national case explains why ‘narrative formats’ and the ‘good worker frame’ are dominant in the U.S., while complex frames are more present in France. In addition, French state interventionism, in addition to more positive public opinion about the state than in the United States explains why the national cohesion frame is more frequent in France. Moreover, the higher degree of media independence from advertising in France, as well as the presence of civil society activists and scholars allow for more multiperspectival immigration news. Thus, Benson’s findings “complicate both the standard liberal and political economy predictions about the French and U.S. media” (p. 199).

This book is a big contribution to the sociology of the media, and an invitation for further research, which could take into account other variables like gender. Benson conducted an in in-depth analysis of the impact of social inequalities and the personal social background of journalists in comparison to other actors shaping immigration news, as well as the position of immigration news within the hierarchy of news. In addition, he showed that the ethnic background of journalists shaped immigration news in the U.S. Using intersectional theory,[4] it would be interesting to see what impact gender has, parallel to, and in articulation with race, and class on the shaping of immigration news. Is the treatment of news regarding migrant women based on different frames than when the news is about migrant men? Does the choice of one frame over another differ according to the gender of the journalist?

Benson’s analysis is based on important material, which allows for a detailed analysis of the French and American journalistic fields. Each conclusion is illustrated by rich data, allowing the author to anchor his findings in reality, and thus be more convincing. The choice to present such rich material also gives the reader the opportunity to build his/her own analysis regarding the immigration news coverage in France and the United States. For example, the author chooses to emphasize divergence between both countries and through time, yet the reader can also observe many instance of cultural convergence. For instance, the author writes: “humanitarian association activists (11 vs. 7 percent[5]) and academics (35 vs. 30 percent) are more likely to author op-ed articles in France, whereas think tank researchers and other experts write more op-eds in the United States (15 vs. 5 percent)” (p. 135). While he chose to emphasize national divergence, Benson’s intellectual honesty led a reader like me to see more convergence as the gap between France and the U.S. is of maximum 10 percent, and, between 2002 and 2006, academics dominated op-ed articles in the core newspapers selected by the author. Such research can then be contradicted, which makes it a scientific research in the Popperian sense, and encourages other scholars to use it in future research.

The book has been written predominantly for American journalists or academics specialized in sociology of the media. Thus, the French context of the journalistic field is described in depth, allowing the target readership to understand the French-American comparison. As a French sociologist specializing in migration, I would have been very interested in a deeper contextualization of both national contexts, and comparison of them. For example, the ‘left-wing’ versus ‘right-wing’ distinction in the political fields in France and the U.S. is not the same, nor is the definition of ‘integration’ of migrants. In addition, while the ‘field’ model is highly conceptualized thanks to both literature discussion and empirical data, the definition of ‘immigration news’ seems secondary, and detailed only in the Appendix. What is ‘immigration news’? Benson limited his systematized discourse analysis to certain words (immigr* and alien* in the U.S., étranger, clandestin, sans papier, banlieue, and laïcité in France). This selection might have overlooked some immigration news in both countries, and not in the same way. While in French vernacular ‘immigré’ refers both to first- and second-generation migrants, in the U.S., ‘immigrant’ refers primarily to the first generation of migrants. Thus, for the sake of comparison if the author wanted to cover both generations, a terminology referring to ‘ethnicity’ and ‘race’ would have been necessary, knowing that in France a ‘racialization’ process is also at stake (Fassin and Fassin 2006; Fassin 2010).[6] The lack of words referring to ‘ethnic minorities’ and ‘race’, or ‘discrimination’ might have had an impact on the importance of some frames over others, in particular the ‘racism/xenophobia’ frame. Indeed, Benson concludes that this frame became less important over time in France, which is quite surprising to me since by the end of the 1990s there was a modification of the political discourse focusing on the fight against racism becoming a fight against discrimination, parallel to a debate on ethnic statistics relayed by the media. A more in-depth definition by the author of the terms ‘immigration’ and ‘immigration news’, and an explanation of the choices he made regarding the delimitation of his research object would have allowed the reader to follow him further in his demonstration.

Benson is aware of the potential criticism regarding the lack of generalizability of his findings, since his research was limited to certain newspapers, television channels, and immigration news peaks, and stopped in 2006. He confronts these criticisms by arguing that “past predictions of epochal change initiated by new technologies have generally been overstated” (p. 20), and that the tendencies noticed in his sample are fairly representative. Future research on the subject will tell us if there was a conservation, or rupture in past trends. In the French case, did the 2009 law aiming at progressively stopping advertising on French public television change the journalistic practices regarding immigration news coverage? Did the creation in 2008 of Mediapart, an important online newspaper financed 95 percent by readers’ subscriptions, change anything on the immigration news coverage in France?

This example raises another issue: the author used advertising as a proxy to evaluate the extent to which markets impact immigration news. However, another issue, highlighted by the author himself, is media ownership. To what extent is it possible for a newspaper to criticize business leaders or companies when it is owned by investors and/or is part of a business conglomerate? He argues that, “[a]lthough state policies and commercialism differ in France and the United States, these differences are more of degree rather than fundamental type: both countries are democracies (…) and are deeply integrated into the world capitalist economy. Mainstream journalism in both countries occupies a central position in the field of power. Although less dependent on business advertising, many French newspapers are owned by consortium of business investors” (p. 171). This factor would explain the lack of criticism of business in both countries.

Benson’s main conclusion is that “we are more likely to get a clearer picture of this complex reality when the ‘journalistic field’ is shaped more by civic-cultural ends than by commercial or instrumental political ends” (p. 1). This French-American comparison thus shows that alternatives to the form and content of American immigration news were possible and desirable. However, the question remains as to what the position of both journalistic fields is compared with other countries. Regarding a typology of immigration news, articulating the logic, position, and structure of the field, is the U.S. closer to one type, and France closer to another? Or is France in an in-between position? This French-American comparison is thus an invitation to broader intefrnational comparison, allowing further investigation into the conceptualization of immigration news

Reviewed by Anne Unterreiner, Migration Policy Centre, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies — European University Institute

Shaping Immigration News: A French-American Comparison
by Rodney Benson
Cambridge University Press
Hardcover / 296 pages / 2013
ISBN: 978-0-5218-8767-0

[1] See Emile Durkheim. Education et Sociologie (Paris : PUF, 2003).

[2] See Michèle Lamont and Laurent Thévenot, “Introduction: Toward a Renewed Comparative Cultural Sociology,” in Rethinking Comparative Cultural Sociology: Repertoires of Evaluation in France and the United States, ed. Michèle Lamont and Laurent Thévenot (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 1–22.

[3] A brief presentation of these frames can be seen in the figure on p. 8.

[4] See Kimberly Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43, no. 6 (1991): 1241–99.

[5] In the United States, 7 percent of authors of op-ed articles are humanitarian association activists, as opposed to 11 percent in France.

[6] See Didier Fassin, ed., Les Nouvelles Frontières de La Société Française.(Paris: La Découverte, 2010) and Didier Fassin and Eric Fassin, ed., De La Question Sociale À La Question Raciale? Représenter La Société Française (Paris: La Découverte, 2006).


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