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Report: 40% of TV immigrant characters are tied to crime — that's too much and a misrepresentation

Poorna Jagannathan arrives at the Gold House Gala in May. The character from the Netflix series "Never Have I Ever" was cited as a positive example of an immigrant character on television.
Jordan Strauss
/
Invision/AP
Poorna Jagannathan arrives at the Gold House Gala in May. The character from the Netflix series "Never Have I Ever" was cited as a positive example of an immigrant character on television.

Whether immigrant characters appear on screen and how they’re portrayed can shape viewers’ perceptions of immigrants. That research is at the heart of a new study released by the Norman Lear Center Media Impact Project at the University of Southern California and the group Define American.

This is the third such study produced from research on immigrant representation on television. The report titled, "Change the Narrative, Change the World," reviewed 79 scripted TV shows that aired between July 2020 and June 2022.

One of the significant findings is that representation of Black and Asian American immigrants has doubled since 2020. However, the number of Latino immigrant characters dropped from 50% in 2020 to 34% this year — that’s well below the 44% of immigrants in the U.S. who are Latino.

And although there were more Asian American immigrant characters during the two-year period studied, Pacific Islander characters are virtually invisible.

Sarah E. Lowe, director of research and evaluation at Define American, which worked on the study says one of the troubling findings is that too many immigrant characters are associated with crime. That’s after seeing a drop in that category in 2020.

The report finds six times as many immigrant characters were featured in crime shows and procedurals this year than two years ago. In 2018, when the first report was published, 34% of immigrants characters were associated with crime. That dropped to 22% in 2020 and rose to 40% this year.

Even if they're like victim heroes or they've just witnessed a crime, it doesn't matter. It's still locking in the minds of the audience that immigrants are associated with criminality in a way that's toxic.
Sarah E. Lowe, director of research at Define American

“When you’re looking at 40% of immigrant characters associated to a crime, even if they’re like victim heroes or they’ve just witnessed a crime, it doesn’t matter,” Lowe said. “It’s still locking in the minds of the audience that immigrants are associated with criminality in a way that’s toxic.”

The study notes that these TV portrayals can influence how people treat immigrants and their views on immigration policy.

“Consistently showing immigrants as victims without agency also perpetuates a harmful and dehumanizing stereotype,” the report added.

Lowe said one of the promising findings in her research was that the viewers of some shows developed a better understanding of the immigrant experience in real life. She pointed to the hit Netflix series “Never Have I Ever,” which features an Indian immigrant mother.

Viewers who were surveyed were “more likely to report being comfortable sending their children to a school where the majority of students are immigrants and support increased immigration.”

Lowe and the other researchers often gets asked if viewers who lean a certain way politically watch shows like “Never Have a I Ever.”

That’s what’s surprising, she said.

“You can see ideologically each show has a pretty even mix of progressive, conservative, moderate,” Lowe said. “And that’s what’s sort of interesting too because that’s showing it’s not just one sort of ideological frame that’s watching the show and reacting positively, it’s really across the ideological spectrum.”

Define American has consulted on dozens of TV shows and movies to help the entertainment industry develop accurate portrayals of immigrants.

Lowe says she hopes this analysis sends a message to Hollywood that it still has a lot of work to do to improve immigrant representation on TV.

Got a tip? Email Stella M. Chávez at schavez@kera.org. You can follow Stella on Twitter @stellamchavez.

KERA News is made possible through the generosity of our members. If you find this reporting valuable, consider making a tax-deductible gifttoday. Thank you.

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.