Research Paper

Contrasting, Constructing, and Confirming Realities of Immigration

Contrasting, Constrcuting, and Confirming Realities of Immigration

Kate Schaefer


“[Mexico] has been overtaken by lawbreakers from the bottom to the top. And now, what you’re protesting for is to have lawbreakers come here.”
Glenn Beck, Mar. 27, 2006

“Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity, until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.”
Barack Obama, Jan. 21, 2013


Today’s global refugee crisis has spurred American antagonism towards immigration, with even the most vulnerable refugees targeted with fear and bigotry. Economists and policy experts alike argue that immigration provides many benefits to the US through labor, taxes, business innovation and development.[1] In fact, immigrants offer dynamic contributions to the social fabric of the new nations they call home.[2] So why then are they met with such resistance? Where do these fears come from? What measures lead some to welcome their presence, and others to demean their journey, or worse, suggest they are perpetrators of violence?

There are three frameworks that shed light on this contradiction: the theory of information, the role of emotion in narrative, and the ritual model of communication. First, the theory of information overload explains how people can believe contradictory realities. Second, Marshall Ganz’s and Drew Westen’s analyses of the role of emotion in narrative illustrate why people gravitate towards certain perspectives. Finally, the ritual model of communication shows how people choose among different sources of information to confirm their own espoused reality, which further exacerbates differences between knowledges. Together, these theories suggest that people who already hold strong views on immigration are difficult to persuade once they develop and reaffirm their views through exposure to political and media rhetoric.[3]

Contrasting Realities

Americans are deeply divided in their views of immigration. A 2016 Pew Research Center poll found that 59 percent of Americans had a favorable view of immigration, while 33 percent viewed immigration negatively.[4] According to Pew, views on immigration have improved since 1994, but since 2006 differences have deepened, especially between the opinions of Democrats and Republicans. Of those who held positive views on immigration in the 2016 poll, an astonishing 78 percent identified themselves as Democrats. The 2016 presidential campaign only exacerbated those differences. In March of 2016, 17 percent of Clinton supporters thought immigrants were a burden on the US, while 69 percent of Trump proponents said the same.[5] These divergent views on immigration are formed and confirmed through emotional narratives in media and political rhetoric.

Stories on immigration abound with competing narratives. In the information age, obtaining comprehensive information on an issue takes both time and effort. With so many sources offering biased or competing information, it becomes difficult to know when the narrative matches fact. For this reason, citizens often gravitate towards information that fulfills their own worldview rather than seeking out contradictory narratives. Economists describe this acceptance of narratives at face value as part of rational ignorance. In other words, if the cost of educating oneself outweighs the benefit of obtaining deeper or more accurate information, then it is rational to simply ignore contradictory inputs. The sheer quantity of information available on the Internet certainly makes comprehending all information on even one issue impossible. Lankshear, Peters, and Knobel describe this “superabundance of information” as “info-glut” or “data smog.”[6] Because this information is unfiltered, customizable, and presented, they urge users to exercise caution in evaluating its credibility. No external entity ensures that information on the Internet is factual; determining a source’s accuracy is left up to the user alone, which can be a challenge when there is so much data to sort through. This data smog leads not only to difficulties in assessing credibility, but also to competition for attention.

The plethora of information available creates incentives for individuals as well as media organizations to strive for “endless originality” in order to garner maximum attention by the consumer, especially in a profit-making media industry.[7] Information thrives in abundance, but attention is inherently scarce, Lankshear et al. explain. As a result, when basic needs are met, economic activity shifts towards capturing attention for profit.[8] In the US today, as politics have become more polarized; so has the media. Opinion leaders in both the media and the political sphere present views that reflect and create the perspectives of their audiences. Narratives that match what a person already believes are more appealing to those people. Combined with information overload, this means (perhaps not surprisingly) that “media choices increasingly reflect partisan considerations.”[9]

In an attention economy, actors such as government leaders can capture the public’s attention by presenting views that cater to their constituencies. Rather than paying with money, consumers quite literally pay their attention to these leaders and the news media that report on them. This environment also fuels the economic incentive for media organizations to target their news to specific views, which in turn gives politicians an electoral incentive to focus their rhetoric. Media organizations and political leaders that earn the most attention are generally the most successful. At the same time, with the quantity of information available, when people “buy” certain sources with their attention, they do not necessarily have the capacity to learn about other perspectives. Instead, they devote their attention to people and organizations advocating the views they already hold. These actors then have a further incentive to tailor their content and rhetoric even more, deepening the cycle of polarization. The more the public focuses on stories that match its own perceived reality, the deeper the divisions become between these realities and that of the public media.

Understanding the attention economy highlights why individuals gravitate towards certain sources, but how do they form their views in the first place? What makes some people focus on positive aspects of immigration and others on the negative? Discussions of emotion and narrative illustrate how people act on emotions that are constructed through narrative.

Constructing Realities

According to public policy expert Marshall Ganz, narratives forge an emotional connection between a person and an idea. Through narrative, people experience emotions that can motivate or inhibit action. These emotions move people towards what Ganz describes as public narrative: a way to link “self, us, and now” to inspire action.[10] Organizations and individuals can use public narrative to inspire action on an issue by creating an emotional connection between an individual (the self), a group (the us), and an initiative (the now). As scholar Drew Westen argues, emotions are the basis for human motivation.[11] Through principles of evolution, behavioral psychology, and psychoanalysis, Westen explains how people are attracted to things that make them feel good, and are repelled from things that make them feel bad. He infers that behavior can be altered if communicators elicit specific emotions. Ganz shows how leaders can use narrative to reconstruct reality around motivating emotions such as hope and solidarity, and can overcome emotions like apathy and doubt, which inhibit action.

Ganz and Westen’s theories show how leaders in politics and the media have the means to choose which emotions to engage and which to dampen. By selectively reporting information infused with imagery or rhetoric, they can raise or diminish fears about immigrants, regardless of the facts. For example, politicians and the media often employ rhetoric that suggests immigrants depress wages and steal jobs, which instills fear among the public. They can also use rhetoric to conjure positive feelings surrounding immigrants, such as their contribution to cultural diversity and innovation. In appealing to different emotions, these narratives inspire different actions or inaction.

The narrative surrounding immigration as a result of leader and media bias has shifted throughout history. The idea of the US as a “nation of immigrants” became widely accepted only in the 1960s—and even then, “immigrants” referred to the waves of European arrivals.[12] Conflicting immigration narratives suggest an ambivalent attitude toward immigrants; the idea of accepting “your tired, your poor,” as famously enshrined on the Statue of Liberty, contrasts with negative media and the political rhetoric surrounding successive waves of German, Italian, Irish, East Asian, and Mexican immigrants. Clearly, different groups of immigrants experience different receptions at different times in American history. These shifts in attitudes result in part from a change in narrative.

In the past and today, public narrative is central to establishing attitudes and inspiring action. For Ganz, public narrative encompasses a story of self, us, and now that is reflected in discourse on both sides of the aisle. From Republican leaders and Fox News, a story emerges of immigrants who threaten American jobs and values, where “us” comprises (white) Americans. Their public narrative uses fear and anger to mobilize their audience. On the Democratic side, political and media rhetoric celebrates diversity and innovation, calling forth the motivating emotions of hope and solidarity. Their audience responds to these narratives by welcoming immigrants.

Based on the analyses of Ganz and Westen, one would expect that when competing narratives exist, people determine the facts of the issue and rally behind whichever idea they find to be most accurate. Unfortunately, reality fails to live up to this ideal. The ritual model of communication explains, to some extent, why people split between competing realities.

Confirming Realities

The ritual model of communication treats communication not just as a means of passing information, but as a way of establishing and confirming one’s place within a group. Historically, communication scholars have used the transmission model to describe communication. In the transmission model, the sender encodes a message into some medium, such as writing or speaking. The message reaches the receiver, who decodes the message. The ritual model differs from this more standard transmission model in that the ritual model views communication as a means of maintaining society rather than as an extension of messages in space. In the ritual model, instead of passing on information, communication serves as a way of confirming an individual’s place in the world through the creation of a symbolic order that constructs and reaffirms a social process.[13]

Communications scholar James Carey uses the example of a newspaper to contrast the transmission and ritual models of communication, a particularly relevant issue for examining attitudes toward immigration. Carey says that in the transmission view, the newspaper disseminates information to the public “in larger and larger packages over greater distances.”[14] In other words, more information gets to people who are farther and farther away. This example depicts people as blank slates, waiting to observe whatever information comes their way. But experience shows that this is not the case. Sensationalism, bias, and selective exposure get in the way of pure sharing of information. As an alternative, Carey presents the ritual perspective on newspapers as tools of communication. Newspapers are “dramatically satisfying, which is not to say pleasing, presentations of what the world at root is.”[15] As such, they confirm people’s views of society.

As news distribution fragments along ideological lines, newspapers and other sources of news help construct and reaffirm those divisions. Selective exposure and confirmation bias leads people to choose and believe those sources that confirm their reality. And on the Internet, where far more news options exist than anyone could ever read, selective exposure can be as much a defense against information overload as a deliberate narrowing of perspective. Yet the effect is the same—people gravitate towards the outlets that share their view of the world.


The concepts of information overload, emotion and narrative, and ritual communication explain various aspects of public attitudes toward immigration. First, due to information overload, no individual can comprehend all of the information and perspectives on even a minor issue, let alone one as complex as immigration. Second, the idea of public narrative shows that rather than relying on data to inform their opinions, the emotion that people associate with immigrants as a result of media and political rhetoric dictates their views on immigration. People who believe immigration leads to dynamism and cultural growth welcome immigrants, while those who see immigrants as a threat to their jobs and even their lives, abhor them. Finally, the ritual model of communication shows how people confirm these beliefs by choosing sources of information that conform to their views about the world. Taken together, these themes provide a lens through which to examine divergent immigration attitudes among Americans.

The possibilities for shifting attitudes seem bleak, although Ganz’s public narrative offers a glimmer of hope. By appealing to different emotions—curiosity rather than fear, for instance— opinion leaders may be able to develop consensus around more humanizing opinions of immigration. But such a consensus among individuals would first require a consensus among opinion leaders, an unlikely proposition in today’s media and political environment.

Works Cited

Beck, Glenn. March 27, 2006, quoted in Elizabeth Titus and Tim Mak. “10 Wild Immigration Quotes.” Politico, June 21, 2012, accessed October 15, 2015,

Carey, James W. “A Cultural Approach to Communication.” Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society. New York: Routledge, 1989.

“Campaign Exposes Fissures Over Issues, Values and How Life Has Changed in the U.S.” Pew Research Center. March 31, 2016,

Ganz, Marshall. “Public Narrative, Collective Action, and Power.” Accountability through Public Opinion: From Inertia to Public Action. Ed. Sina Odugbemi and Taeku Lee. Washington, DC: World Bank, 2011.

Iyengar, Shanto and Kyu S. Hahn. “Red Media, Blue Media: Evidence of Ideological Selectivity in Media Use.” Journal of Communication 59 (2009): 19-39. doi:10.1111/j.1460-2466.2008.01402.x.

Jones, Bradley. “Americans’ Views of Immigrants Marked by Widening Partisan, Generational Divides.” Pew Research Center. April 15, 2016.

Kotowski, J. M. “Narratives of Immigration and National Identity: Findings from a Discourse Analysis of German and U.S. Social Studies Textbooks.” Stud Ethn Nation 13 (2013): 295–318. doi:10.1111/sena.12048.

Lankshear, Colin, Michael Peters, and Michele Knobel, “Information, Knowledge and Learning: Some Issues Facing Epistemology and Education in a Digital Age.” Journal of Philosophy of Education 34, 1 (2000): 17–39.

“Migration Policy Debates.” OECD. May 2014.

Obama, Barack. Second Inaugural Address. January 21, 2012.

West, Darrell M. Brain Gain: Rethinking U.S. Immigration Policy. New York: Brookings Institution Press, 2010.

Westen, Drew. “The Emotion Behind the Curtain.” The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation. New York: Public Affairs, 2007.

[1] Jean-Christophe Dumont and Thomas Liebig, “Is Migration Good for the Economy?” OECD, May 2014.

[2] Darrell M. West, Brain Gain: Rethinking U.S. Immigration Policy (New York: Brookings Institution Press, 2006).

[3] No essay is written, no research conducted, in a void. Biases always color narratives; let me then share my own perspective in order to allow the reader to view this analysis in the necessary frame. My views on immigration are strongly positive. Having grown up in a multicultural environment and having dedicated myself to traveling and learning about other cultures, I believe that legitimizing myriad voices strengthens a nation and an individual. As one might expect from that issue, I hold generally liberal views and subscribe to media that, though relatively fair, reflects those views, including NPR, the BBC, Vox, Slate, The Economist, and so forth. I try to balance my input at least a little by occasionally reading The Wall Street Journal, but its effects are probably limited at best.

[4] Jones, Bradley, “Americans’ Views of Immigrants Marked by Widening Partisan, Generational Divides,” Pew Research Center, April 15, 2016. Researchers asked survey participants which of two statements corresponded most closely to their own views: that immigrants “strengthen our country because of their hard work and talents” or that they “are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing and health care”.

[5] “Campaign Exposes Fissures Over Issues, Values and How Life Has Changed in the U.S,” Pew Research Center, March 31, 2016.

[6] Colin Lankshear, Michael Peters, and Michele Knobel, “Information, Knowledge and Learning: Some Issues Facing Epistemology and Education in a Digital Age,” Journal of Philosophy of Education 34 (2000): 1, 26-27.

[7] Michael H. Goldhaber, in Lankshear et al., “Information, Knowledge and Learning,” 32.

[8] Lankshear et al., “Information, Knowledge and Learning,” 33.

[9] Shanto Iyengar and Kyu S. Hahn, “Red Media, Blue Media: Evidence of Ideological Selectivity in Media Use,” Journal of Communication 59 (2009), 20.

[10] Marshall Ganz, “Public Narrative, Collective Action, and Power,” in Accountability through Public Opinion: From Inertia to Public Action, ed. Sina Odugbemi and Taeku Lee (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2011), 274.

[11] Westen, Drew, “The Emotion Behind the Curtain,” in The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation (New York: Public Affairs, 2007).

[12] J.M. Kotowski, “Narratives of Immigration and National Identity: Findings from a Discourse Analysis of German and U.S. Social Studies Textbooks.” Stud Ethn Nation 13 (2013).

[13] James W. Carey, “A Cultural Approach to Communication,” in Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society (New York: Routledge, 1989), 18-19.

[14] Carey, “A Cultural Approach to Communication,” 20.

[15] Ibid., 21.

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