New York University professor to visit campus

By Mara Shapiro

Rodney Benson, New York University associate professor of Media, Culture and Communication, will be speaking to University students about the findings in his new book, “Shaping Immigration News: A French-American Comparison,” in room 3057 of Lincoln Hall on Friday, Jan. 31, at 3 p.m.

Benson’s book describes how immigration is viewed in both France and the United States, with insight into how factors of this social issue shape news coverage in both countries.

“By giving more attention to some aspects of immigration and less attention to others, news media play a role in setting the agenda for public discussion. But at the same time, as my research shows, media coverage tends to follow rather than lead the mainstream political debate,” Benson wrote in an email. “So I think media power is overrated. They don’t necessarily change public opinion, and they rarely get ahead of elite political opinion. At the same time, they always have the potential to widen or deepen the public debate — and some types of media do a better job at this than others.”

Benson compared the differences between the way French journalism portrays immigration and the way American journalism presents it, saying that there are “a greater range of voices and viewpoints in the French media.”

“It’s an instructive comparison, because French and American journalism are different in many ways,” he said. “French media are less commercialized, often subsidized by the state, and the news is presented not so much as personalized narratives, but more as a debate of ideas. The French case shows that government intervention in the media sector is not always negative — in fact it can be quite positive.”

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    Benson has been showcasing his book and presenting his findings at various universities across the nation, including the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

    Benson advised Elly Hanauer, associate director for the Center of Global Studies at the University and graduate student at the University, while she was a graduate student at NYU about five years ago. After learning that Benson was presenting his book at various schools across the country, she reached out to him about three months ago with an invitation to visit Champaign. His upcoming lecture will be sponsored by the European Union Center and Global Studies, Journalism, French, Communications and Sociology departments, she said.

    Hanauer said she believes that students should attend Benson’s lecture, mainly because the issue of immigration garners a lot of attention in the United States.

    “Immigration is a hot-button issue in politics and (in) this country, Europe — really all over the world,” she said.

    Hanauer also said that most of the students at the University live in a generation where the news tries to influence opinions, and that “it’s important to look at how media covers something that influences millions on an important issue.”

    Benson worked on “Shaping Immigration” for five years, and conducted more than 75 interviews for the piece, working with more than a dozen research assistants to collect samples and help do the news framing and image analysis.

    According to Benson, both France and the U.S. have been exploiting their spikes in immigration through media and politics.

    “Not everyone has strong views about immigration, but in both countries certain activists and politicians have sought to sensationalize and exploit the issue for their own purposes,” he said. “In the context of increasing economic insecurity and inequality, and the absence of policies directly addressing these problems, scapegoating of immigrants has resonated with some voters.”

    Onur Cam, freshman in Engineering, emigrated from Turkey to attend the University in 2013. Cam said that while he does not plan to attend Benson’s lecture, he believes immigration is an important issue for students to discuss, and while he doesn’t notice an unwelcoming attitude toward immigrants on campus, he has noticed it outside of the University.

    “We’re a college town, so people are more chill about it, but in other places people aren’t as welcoming,” Cam said. “I think people are sick of immigrants coming into the country, because so many are coming in. When one immigrant does something bad, all immigrants are blamed. It’s just something that happens in human nature.”

    Benson explained that while the media doesn’t necessarily change public opinion, it combines with political discourse when it comes to how the issue is portrayed. He believes that in presenting the issue, citizens “need less personalized narrative and more explanation and structural analysis, drawing on the rich body of social scientific and historical research that journalists mostly ignore.”

    Mara can be reached at [email protected].