Representation of immigrants and other social actors in a local Missouri newspaper: A linguistic analysis
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Each summer hundreds of migrants, the majority of whom were born in Spanish-speaking countries, arrive in Lafayette County (Missouri) to work on the apple orchards in the towns of Lexington, Waverly, Dover and Wellington. Their contact with local townspersons is minimal, but their presence is known. How might local townspersons views of immigrants be formed when contact and communication is limited? One possible answer is the local newspaper. This study examines the “representation of the social practice of immigration” (Leeuwen 2008: 28) as conveyed by The Lexington News, a newspaper with 2,000 subscribers, according to personal phone contact with the Lexington News Jan. 23, 2008, in a town with a population of 4,536 persons (City-data.com). Because the media not only report but also shape discourse in large part by linguistic means, examining word choice, word order, grammatical roles and other linguistics elements can reveal ideologies not evident in a more perfunctory reading. A few months before the migrants arrived in the summer of 2008 for the fall apple season, the Lexington News published an article that reported on a "raid of a residence," which resulted in the deportation of six men. Subsequently, seven articles or editorials related to the incident were published. How social actors are represented in the newspaper articles and the influence that might have on public perception is the topic of this study. Although all of the people involved in the event are social actors, this analysis revealed that the way they are represented in the discourse varies. For example, people in positions of power, e.g. the police chief and the city administrator are given primacy by being called by name, given the grammatical role of agent, etc. Van Leeuwen calls this process "activation" (2008: 33). Note the actor in this following example: No charges in the case have been filed by the U.S. District attorney. By contrast the immigrants are "passivated" (van Leeuwen 2008: 33) by a variety of strategies, including when they are the grammatical subject. Note the following example: Six Hispanic males were taken into custody by the ICE. The grammatical assignment of the "six Hispanic males" serves to put them in a marginal place of being acted upon. Of further interest is the adjectival use of "Hispanic" to describe the men taken into custody while no reference is made to the ethnicity of the ICE officers. The results of the analysis consequences of the representation of social actors are presented. In spite of claims to the contrary, newspapers and other media do not present neutral versions of reality or even influence only individual readers but shape public discourse in sometimes subtle, but powerful, ways. Consequently, how individuals and groups perceive and treat one another might be affected, which in turn could influence how well immigrants are able to integrate into communities. The result could be detrimental to both immigrants and native residents of Missouri.