According to a study conducted by the culture change organization Define American and the USC Norman Lear Center Media Impact Project, immigrant representation on television continues to evolve, with positive gains amid some setbacks.
The 42-page report, entitled Change the Narrative, Change the World 2022, contains detailed analysis of immigrant portrayals and storylines, analyzing their effect on the viewing audience, and offers suggestions for how to improve authentic storytelling involving the immigrant experience.
For this study, which comes after similar studies conducted in 2018 and 2019, researchers analyzed 167 characters across 169 episodes of 79 scripted series that aired between July 1, 2020 and June 30, 2022.
The researchers also conducted an audience survey to examine the impact of four television series on attitudes toward immigrants and immigration, reaching out to 1,272 U.S. television viewers of Bob Hearts Abishola (CBS), Never Have I Ever (Netflix
Key findings from the research have concluded that representation of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) immigrant characters on television has more than doubled since the 2020 study, and that there are twice as many Black immigrant characters on television than there were in that same time frame.
However, the number of Latinx immigrant characters has plummeted since 2020.
The study also points out that increased representation is not always better, showing that when immigrant characters are depicted in reductive or stereotypical ways audiences can develop inaccurate perceptions of immigrants and their experiences.
This dovetails with the findings that while there was shown to be a dramatic drop in depictions of immigrant characters associated with crimes in the last report, this trend did not continue. Six times as many immigrant characters were featured in crime shows and procedurals in 2022 as compared to 2020.
A positive finding was that more than two-thirds (69%) of immigrant characters on television were series regulars or recurring characters and consequential to the plot.
With regard to terminology, the study concluded that there has been a substantial decrease in the use of the term “illegal” when referring to undocumented immigrant characters, from 22% of all episodes in the 2020 research to 5% in the 2022 report.
The researchers see this as progress, hoping that soon this number will drop to zero, but in the interim, they express that the term “illegal” is dehumanizing and replaces complex legal circumstances with an assumption of guilt. The preferred terms are “undocumented” or “unauthorized.”
In immigration enforcement storylines, the study found that the term “undocumented” was used far more often than “illegal(s)”: 50 times in 30 episodes, compared to 11 times in 8 episodes, respectively. The term “unauthorized” was not found in the sample.
Recommendations on how to improve representation and authenticity with regards to immigrant storytelling include; hiring more immigrants to create accurate narratives, working to positively reflect diversity within immigrant communities, featuring more immigrants in prominent roles, and moving away from the criminal stereotypes that have been prominent in the past.
Overall, the report says that the findings show, “that nuanced immigrant characters and storylines engage audiences on deeply psychological levels, create more understanding of immigrant experiences, and foster more positive attitudes towards immigrants and immigration.”
And, that even though there have been improvements in immigrant representation on television since the last report, “there is still much work to be done to tell more of those stories and to do so authentically.”
To view the complete report, please visit this site.
For more information about Define American, please click here.
To learn more about this research, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information about Define American’s TV and film consulting, connect with us at email@example.com
To follow Define American on Twitter: @ DefineAmerican