Professor recognized for book on media, immigration

Amanda Morris, Contributing Writer

Associate MCC professor Rodney Benson received the Tankard Book Award for his book, “Shaping Immigration News: A French-American Comparison.” The Tankard Award, presented by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, honors work of in-depth reporting and investigation and was awarded on Aug. 6. Benson’s book, based on almost five years of research, explores the differences in the coverage of immigration news between France and the United States, and how the media shape public opinion.

Benson chose France to compare to the United States because the two countries have been debating similar issues in regard to illegal immigration.

“France is often America’s ‘other,’” Benson said. “People will criticize U.S. media and say that France’s is better, but they don’t say why. I was curious to see if it was.”

In his research, Benson examined a variety of news outlets and their coverage from the 1970s to modern day. He found that there was a big difference in the format of the news — the United States presented more personalized narratives, such as following the story of one immigrant, whereas France used a more holistic style.

Benson calls France’s organization a “debate ensemble approach,” where the first few pages of a newspaper are dedicated to one story, told through interviews, profiles, reporting and historical background.

“They do something we consider taboo by mixing editorial and commentary with news,” Benson said. “It’s presented in a more compelling way, and viewers can see the whole story. In the American approach, you have to piece it together yourself by following the story over time and looking at different outlets.”

He argues that this difference in formatting comes from the United States taking pride in the First Amendment and frowns on government funding for news outlets, whereas France’s government is more involved and the public stations are often the largest ones. However, Benson discovered that the less commercialized the news, the more ideologically diverse its coverage.

Benson hopes his research will highlight the democratic importance of having a wide range of coverage.

“If the market doesn’t support a certain outlook, we shouldn’t let it die because it provides a different viewpoint,” Benson said.

Additionally, Benson’s research showed that France’s immigration news coverage was more explanatory, focusing on topics such as the structural consequences, causes and costs of immigration. In comparison, the United States’ coverage often focused on American politics and legislation regarding immigration.

CAS professor Martin Schain agrees with the premise of Benson’s book, that the media hold influence in framing the way we look at issues such as immigration.

“This book teaches us that the media are important actors in shaping how we look at issues of immigration,” Schain said. “However, if we look at public opinion surveys on immigration, as well as the results of elections in both France and the United States, it is clear that the journalistic framing of these issues do not always dominate public reaction and behavior.”

In the future, Benson hopes the United States’ immigration news coverage will adapt models with a wider viewpoint like France’s.

“We [in the United States] have a view that we’re so great and that’s why people want to come here,” Benson said. “But people would rather stay home, they’re leaving out of desperation. If people understood this … people would be less hostile and not see immigrants as a problem, but as victims.”

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Sept. 15 print edition. Email Amanda Morris at [email protected].