In a period of increasing political contention and global displacement, the conversation around refugees, immigration status and documentation/legality has become more prominent within the news media. The Trump administration’s push for a U.S.-Mexico border wall and a travel ban targeting Muslims has caused many to question the impact of immigrant/refugee populations on the stability and success of U.S. native populations. But while such discussion often leads to a negative view of such populations and their presence within the U.S., the opposite has proven true in the case of Buffalo, NY, where discourse around refugees/immigrants has been mobilized to help create a positive portrayal of the city.

In the second part of the Covering The Margins series, I continue to delve into the trends of media coverage by focusing on the rhetorical device of reduction. This is done by deconstructing the use of the words refugee and immigrant found within a number of articles from The Buffalo News, WBFO (Buffalo’s NPR station), and The Challenger Community News (the city’s African-American newspaper). Key questions include: how are refugee and immigrant populations portrayed in Buffalo? How does such discourse compare with the larger U.S. framing of these populations? How does such framing of refugees and immigrants impact other vulnerable populations within the region?

Here some brief historical background is important. At the onset of the Great Depression, Buffalo held the ranking of the thirteenth largest city in America with a population of approximately 573,000. But in the nearly 90 years since, a reduction in the region's manufacturing (steel and auto) sector - originally the employment hub and reason for the city’s rapid population growth - caused a 55% decrease in the population as industry moved. Buffalo now maintains a poverty rate of 31.4%, twice as large as the national average.

The struggling city provides a perfect settlement opportunity for immigrants and refugees. Its low cost of living and mass of vacant and affordable housing reside just miles away from the Canadian border. The declining level of industrial employment allows for growing entrepreneurship. Even more so, it allows the city to claim diversity, acceptance and growth while downplaying the long-term struggles associated with economic stratification and racial segregation.

Of the three analyzed news outlets, the overrepresentation of positivity associated with refugees and immigrants emerged as a counter-narrative to President Trump’s negative national discourse. The articles within The Buffalo News and WBFO used immigrant and refugee stories and references to portray the revival of a previously dying city. The articles discussed the success of such populations within schools - the targeted programs created to help with English language learning - the community organizations working with these populations, and the overall happiness of the populations to be free from the “dangerous” or “struggling” conditions found within their countries of origin.  

Screen capture from WBFO article (1/30/17).

These articles worked through economic and cultural frames, discussing the success of such refugee populations, while neglecting to incorporate the experiences of  the city’s other vulnerable populations. They tended to focus within the west side of Buffalo, the historically white, upper middle class region that holds many of the city’s best schools (both public and private) and refugee resources. Framing the news around the city's own success places the blame for endemic social problems (e.g., high crime, insufficient funding, failing public schools) on federal and state governments. Local government officials, NGOs and experts/researchers still dominate the conversation, accounting for the majority of the interviewees appearing within the coverage. Other populations are offered little opportunity to communicate their needs and share their stories. The voices of immigrants/refugees themselves rarely appear within the Buffalo new stories unless to describe the harsh past within their country of origin in comparison to their  happiness, stability and acceptance within the communities of Buffalo.

By focusing solely on the positive outcomes of the growing refugee and immigrant populations, the media promotes the notion of individualism, specifically in terms of individual instances of turmoil. By portraying specific immigrant stories and focusing on specific failing schools, the Buffalo news outlets create a rosy narrative of refugee resettlement that absolves society of recognizing the city’s faults or helping to establish solutions. By reducing the terms of immigrant and refugee to positivity, it acquits the city itself of acknowledging its own systemic trends of marginalization for long-time residents who are primarily poor and/or of color, or the new hardships the immigrant/refugee populations may be facing within the city. It normalizes such fundamental instances of inequality while promoting the success of a small group within the already succeeding, predominantly white region of the city.

This constructed, optimistic narrative falls directly within the interest of white middle and upper class individuals from the west side of the city as well as present refugees within and future refugees to the region. The Buffalo News and WBFO attempt to continue to promote the city's population and economic growth, a counter to the many years of struggle. Though this narrative is not entirely negative, as it is important to show instances of refugee/immigrant acceptance, aid, and success especially in a time when the president's own narrative opposes such ideals, it remains essential to pursue a more realistic, inclusive narrative of the city. We must continue to find ways to improve the representation of all populations within the media, to understand the deeper structural issues that help perpetuate a city’s faults, and to focus attention on the aspirations and struggles of all vulnerable communities.

Logo by Alex Soto, Grotezk Designs. Skyline reference images courtesy Daniel Mayer, Wikimedia Commons (Buffalo), and Alex Bowyer, Flickr (Ahmedabad).

1 Comment