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Analysis of News Reports on Migrants at the U.S.-Mexico Border

A Critical Discourse Analysis


Critical discourse analysis (CDA) is my favourite field of study in applied

linguistics. CDA is chiefly concerned with examining the often subtle ways

in which ideology is encoded in discourse, and how language choices can 

serve to construct and maintain structures of social dominance and

inequality. The power of language to both reflect and shape society -

particularly in the discourse of the news media - is perhaps clearer now more than ever, which is why news discourse is a key focus of CDA.


This assignment is one of several I wrote as part of my master's studies that employs the tools of CDA to examine news discourse about important issues. In this case, I took a deep dive into the revealing ways language was used in three articles about Latinx migrants held at the U.S.-Mexico border. Below I include the introduction and background sections from the paper, as well as some extracts from other sections.

Key Info







Critical Discourse Analysis, Master's paper



Academic writing, discourse analysis, critical thinking


1. Introduction


Immigration and border security have long been areas of contention in the socio-political environment of the United States (Golash-Boza, 2009). The U.S.-Mexico border, in particular, has become a central focus of political debate in the U.S. In 2016, Donald Trump was elected to the presidency based in part on anti-immigrant rhetoric and a promise to secure the southern border (Heyer, 2018). Meanwhile, conditions of violence and inequality are driving many undocumented Central American migrants to seek safety and economic opportunity in the U.S. (Stephen, 2017). However, these migrants have recently found themselves embroiled in a moment of acute political and social turmoil in the U.S., where ideological divisions abound in public discourse - not least in the discourse of the news media.


While news practitioners may aspire to principles of impartiality, sociolinguists tend to argue that journalistic discourse is far from objective (Schudson, 2003). Rather, it is argued that encoded in the language of news discourse is ideology, which is often a product - and promoter of - the interests of those in power (van Dijk, 2006). This is because news discourse (like any discourse) both reflects and affects its context; it is a product of its surrounding social, political and economic practices, but it also works to shape beliefs and behaviours in society around it (Fowler, 1991). This conception of discourse as ideology is a central tenet of critical discourse analysis (CDA), an approach to critical research that provides methods of exposing the often hidden ideology in texts and their relationship with society (Machin and Mayr, 2012). Such an approach is therefore ideal for the critical analysis of media texts.


The aim of this assignment is to examine discursive strategies and their ideological significance in three news reports on the arrival of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, using a CDA approach. Firstly, section 2 provides context to the issue of migration at the border, followed by a general overview of CDA and discussion of the framework chosen for this analysis in sections 3 and 4. Section 5 examines practices of news production and consumption, before shifting focus to an overview of the articles under analysis in section 6, and continuing with a textual analysis in section 7 that includes the analysis of headlines, lexical choices, transitivity and quotation patterns.


2. Background


Historically, the U.S.-Mexico border has represented both a cultural intersection between the U.S. and Latin America and a stark economic divide, separating developed countries to the north from developing countries to the south (Anderson and Gerber, 2008). Since the terrorist attack of 9/11, this cultural, political and economic “colliding ground” (Heyman, 2012: 52) has been the subject of increased anxiety in the U.S. around issues of border security (Brunet-Jailly, 2012). From 2003 to 2016, the number of U.S. Border Patrol agents has been almost doubled, while the current annual budget for Border Patrol is ten times that of 1993 (Ramji-Nogales, 2018: 90).


In the lead-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, Donald Trump’s campaign made southern border security a central campaign focus. Trump promised to build a border wall to stem the alleged flow of migrants from Mexico, people he characterised as rapists, criminals and drug dealers, casting them as a pervasive threat to U.S. security and sovereignty (Schubert, 2017). This nationalist, anti-immigrant rhetoric resonated with many voters and helped him gain the presidency (Heyer, 2018). Meanwhile, some have criticised the role of the news media in Trump’s election win, pointing to a toxic commercial imperative in U.S. news media, whose prolific exposure of the Trump campaign served to normalise Trump’s divisive discourse (Pickard, 2017).


At the same time, conditions of worsening violence and inequality in the ‘Northern Triangle’ countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras have continued to drive Central American migrants to seek better conditions elsewhere (Isacson, 2016). Annually, between 250,000 and 400,000 Central American migrants, many undocumented, are estimated to travel through Mexico with hopes of entering the U.S. (Basok and Rojas Wiesner, 2018: 1275). Shortly before the 2018 mid-term elections in the U.S., groups of such migrants, termed ‘caravans’, became the focus of political and ideological contention, with Trump ordering military deployment to the southern border, ostensibly to prevent illegal entry. This year, shortly before Trump declared a national emergency in the hope of securing funding for his promised border wall, a group of Central American migrants arrived at the Mexican border town Piedras Negras, where they were detained by Mexican authorities. It is this situation that forms the focus of the news reports under analysis in this assignment.


These two pages from the paper examine syntactical features of the news articles and how language choices reflect an underlying ideology.

CDA transitivity
CDA transitivity

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