Jose Antonio Vargas’s media advocacy group Define American teamed with the Norman Lear Center at USC Annenberg to release its second annual “Change the Narrative, Change the World” report, which has found that the portrayal of immigrants on television is getting slightly better — the operative word being “slightly.” Even though there has been some improvement, there’s still significant work to be done for more accurate representation.
The new report analyzed 129 unique immigrant characters across 97 episodes of 59 scripted, narrative TV shows on broadcast, cable, and streaming platforms, airing between August 2018 and July 2019. Right out of the gate, the report showed crime is still an overrepresented theme in immigrant storylines with 22% of immigrant characters associated with some sort of crime. Even though this is down from 34% in 2018, it still reinforces negative stereotypes.
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There was a huge drop of immigrant characters with an accent going from 77% to 47% which indicates more nuanced writing — and that’s a good thing. Meanwhile, 63% of immigrant-identifying characters were undocumented immigrants or asylum seekers. This does not reflect the real world as only 24% of immigrants in the U.S. are unauthorized. That said, undocumented immigrants are heavily overrepresented on TV.
As we dive deeper into intersectional immigrant identities, Asian and Pacific Islander and Black undocumented characters are underrepresented. The same goes for older immigrants and women. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Middle Eastern/Muslim characters continued to be overrepresented on TV in 2019 while it was found that there were no transgender immigrant characters on TV.
The report clocked the most represented immigration issues included deportation (29% of episodes), ICE (25%), and mentions of the terms “illegal” (22%) and “undocumented” (17%).
The term “representation matters” is key in the report as it examined how TV shows with immigrant characters inspired viewers to step into real-life action. Audiences of immigrant-focused storylines on shows like Orange Is The New Black, Superstore and Madam Secretary are more likely to take action on immigrant-related issues. That said, viewers exposed to immigrant storylines showed more inclusive attitudes toward immigrants. This includes being comfort in comfort meeting undocumented people, opposition to charging undocumented immigrant parents as criminals, and supporting higher levels of immigration. While these shows had a strong pull on rural viewers – decreasing prejudice and support for anti-immigrant policies – they appear to have less impact on religious viewers.
Read the full report here.
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