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The Media’s Role in Stoking Xenophobia

World Policy Journal begins each issue with the Big Question, where we ask a panel of experts to provide insight into the cover theme. The question for the spring 2017 Fascism Rising issue is: What role does the media play in driving xenophobia? Below, Matt Mogekwu argues that reporters can exacerbate hatred when they emphasize the socio-economic status and cultural identity of their subjects.

By Matt Mogekwu

Xenophobia is an irrational—sometimes pathological—fear or hatred of strangers or foreigners or of what is strange or foreign. It is not indigenous to any particular part of the world, nor is it alien to any. It is embodied in discriminatory attitudes and behaviors toward non-nationals, and can culminate in violence. In its most explosive form, xenophobia can lead to mass killings and ethnic cleansing.  

The mass media do not necessarily incite xenophobia. But they often exacerbate it, either deliberately or inadvertently. Framing news in certain ways can suggest an intrusion or “invasion” of outsiders into the job market, which may deprive “legitimate” owners of the environment access to their source of livelihood.

Among the many theories that account for the rise and diffusion of hatred, two stand out in creating opportunities for the media to help drive xenophobia: the socio-economic status of individuals and cultural identity.

The first derives from a paradigm, the power theory, that views the relationship between groups as a function of their competitive positions. This theory suggests that when people are financially insecure, they feel resentment and hatred. Even the mere perception of such an economic threat can induce animosity.

The cultural symbolic approach holds that people prefer to be surrounded by their own kind rather than be exposed to others who are unlike them, creating an “us vs. them” binary.

Thus, when the media relentlessly covers Latino migrants in American working-class environments, African migrant workers in South Africa, or refugees in Europe, members of the host environment feel jittery based on the belief that these newcomers will diminish their opportunities to earn a decent living. Similarly, when people see the reported influx of foreigners as a threat to their cultural identity or as a disturbance to their cultural homogeneity, it engenders resentment and hatred. These events are newsworthy in their own right, but when such stories dominate the media, resentment grows, animosity follows, and the end point is often violent.

In their agenda-setting function, the media, whether knowingly or inadvertently, stoke xenophobia. Today, it is imperative that media practitioners have access to better and more comprehensive education that will enable them do a better job in cross-cultural and contextual reporting.

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Matt Mogekwu is chair of the journalism department at the Roy H. Park School of Communications at Ithaca College.

[Photo courtesy of John Hain]

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