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When reporting caravan, U.S. press regrettably plays ‘follow the leader’

By Steven Youngblood, director, Center for Global Peace Journalism

The American press’ regrettable “follow the leader” behavior while reporting the migrant “crisis” has served the Trump administration more than the public.

Trump sparked an avalanche of coverage as he repeatedly warned about the “threats” posed by a caravan of 3,000-7,000 Central American migrants winding their way through Mexico towards the U.S. Trump’s statements, and the accompanying press coverage, peaked in the 10 days before the midterms, and fell precipitously in the 10 days after the election.

From Oct. 27 to Nov. 5, the 10 days before the elections, Trump mentioned the migrant caravan more than 60 times, according to CNN ( https://tinyurl.com/ycek87o6). During those same 10 days, a LexisNexis broadcast transcript search showed 2,458 hits for news stories about the caravan. In the 10 days after the midterms, Nov. 7-16, Trump used the word “caravan” only once, during a news conference on Nov. 7 (CNN). In a LexisNexis broadcast transcript search for Nov. 7-16, there were only 904 hits for “caravan” stories—a 63% drop from the pre-midterm level.

This trend was especially, and predictably, true on Fox News. CNN reported that the caravan was mentioned on Fox 733 times in the seven days preceding the election, and only 126 times in the seven days after (through Nov. 15). ( https://tinyurl.com/ycek87o6)

This data showing press coverage mirroring Trump’s caravan statements would seem to answer the chicken-egg question, “Do the press lead or follow?”

Of course, media must report what the president says or does, even if it is demonstrably false political propaganda. However, once initial reporting makes clear the president’s virulent anti-migrant stance, how much daily repetition is really needed? Certainly, such repetitious reporting puts the press at risk for becoming a vehicle for political propaganda, xenophobia, and fear mongering.

Some of this repetitious caravan reporting included fact checking aimed at setting the record straight. A NexisUni search showed 318 hits under “caravan fact check” before the midterms. This includes fact checking reports by AP, The New York Times, and NPR among others. There’s no question that fact checking is important. But the same questions must be asked here: Once the record has been set straight again and again, at what point does the fact checking become self-defeating? When can legitimate fact checking be perceived (or dismissed) by the president’s supporters as Trump-bashing? Does too much fact checking feed the narratives that Trump is being unfairly targeted by a hostile, “fake news” press.

There is a better way. Instead of being led by any politician, the media should set the tone, and the agenda, with more insightful, thorough coverage. In this instance, better reporting would have started with the same prominent (front page, lead story) coverage about the president’s caravan claims, then backed off (less coverage, less prominent coverage, less live coverage) once the reporting became repetitious. Better reporting would have featured a majority of stories focused on the migrants themselves, as well as the impact of the caravan on Mexican host communities. Better reporting would have muted the red-faced pundits and political opportunists on both sides. Why report the same hate, fear, and anger from all sides over and over?

More responsible reporting about any migrants (immigrants, asylum seekers, and refuges) would avoid spreading propaganda (like that coming out of the White House); not use language that reinforces stereotypes, racism, sexism or xenophobia (“invasion” of terrorists and criminals, for example); proactively report stories that offer counter-narratives that debunk stereotypes and challenge exclusively negative narratives (stories explaining that migrants are actually fleeing for their lives); and tell stories that humanize migrants and border officials.

Whether real or politically-created, there will be another “crisis.” Perhaps next time, the media can avoid being used as a political megaphone, and instead report in a way that gives a more nuanced view of the situation and of those seeking refuge.

–Follow me on Twitter @PeaceJourn —


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