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Trump, Populism and the Wall: Analyzing Media Coverage of His Immigration Tweets

Sat, August 31, 4:00 to 5:30pm, Hilton, Columbia 11


The news media have given Donald Trump’s tweets extensive coverage—out of proportion to his content or opponents. One policy that has gained considerable attention is immigration and particularly protecting the US southern border from “illegal Immigration” by building a “wall”. This issue has been key to the “populist” label that the media applied to Trump. Subsequent research identified Trump’s anti-immigrant crusade with racial resentment (Sides, Tesler and Vavrek 2018). Trump’s embrace of the immigration issue puts him squarely in the camp of right-wing, so-called “populist” leaders (Crigler, Just and Hua 2016). Trump and his followers define “the people” narrowly, while embracing anti-globalization and ardent nationalism (Norris and Inglehart 2018). What role has the press played in promulgating or undermining Trump’s populist messages?

Building on past literature on newsworthiness and the construction of political messages (Graber and Dunaway 2017, Harcup and O’Neill 2017), this paper examines media coverage of Trump’s immigration tweets during the campaign and his presidency. In a hybrid media system, politicians like Trump, use Twitter to shape news coverage of their issue priorities and policy positions (Chadwick 2017). Our research focuses on how journalists legitimized or delegitimized Trump’s position on immigration by examining their framing of Trump’s immigration tweets and the sources they relied on in their stories. We have collected the tweets and will rely on news coverage of those tweets in media indexed by ProQuest.

During the campaign, opponents vied for media attention using Twitter (as well as rallies, speeches, press releases, and other social media) with few institutional constraints on content. Trump’s tweets were especially newsworthy because of their brash tone and blatant untruths. Journalists wrote about his tweets in part to debunk them, giving Trump the lion’s share of the coverage during the campaign.

Once in office, however, Trump found himself in a system of competing elites, where presidents still have an advantage over other government entities in gaining the media spotlight (Kernell 2006). The focus of the immigration coverage shifted to disagreements between the President and other leaders and institutions. The debate over immigration widened, with the courts playing a major role in challenging Trump’s “populist” framing of the problem. State and local leaders also pushed back along with members of the public. Journalists mediated the racial and cultural struggle over immigration (Galston 2018, Ramakrishnan et al. 2016). The debate that has arisen over Trump’s “populist” anti-immigration rhetoric and policies gets to the heart of who we are as a people and as a nation.
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