The Production of Cultural Boundaries: The Influence of Participatory Journalism on the Immigration Debate in Texas


Comparative cultural sociologists argue that Americans are likely to utilize “economic boundaries” and a market logic to justify their social judgments. In this study, I discuss a recent trend that appears to challenge these assertions: a shift within American public discourse toward moral and cultural arguments against illegal immigration. I document this trend with a content analysis of the editorial section in a major Dallas-area newspaper. I hypothesize that changes in anti-immigration public discourse are due to changes in the production of newspaper editorial pages, specifically the inclusion of participatory journalism as a response to the rise of the Internet. Results of the content analysis support our hypotheses, and suggest new ways of theorizing how social boundaries are produced through the media and transformed due to technological and political shifts.

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    Hispanic Americans, now the largest minority in the United States, continue to grow at the highest rate of any ethnic group, presenting a drastic change in the social fields Americans are a part of, with competition for financial, cultural, and social capital increasing (Bernstein, 2006). As Texas shares a large border with Mexico, the state has been at the forefront of the national immigration debate. In recent years, the city of Farmers Branch, Texas, has received national exposure due to its measures to require apartment renters to provide proof of citizenship or residency, making English the city’s official language, outlawing bright home aesthetics common to Latinos, and joining a federal program allowing them to check the residency status of suspects in custody and initiate deportation proceedings in certain cases (Sandoval, 2006). Nearby, Irving, Texas, received national attention in 2006 when it led the nation in the number of people in jail due to utilizing the Immigrant Customs Enforcement Criminal Aliens Program. As a result, the Mexican consul warned immigrants to avoid Irving (Formby, 2007). Furthermore, the largest protest in the United States for immigrant and Hispanic rights was conducted with police estimates as high as 500,000 in Dallas, Texas, near both Farmers Branch and Irving (McFadden, 2006).

    Within this political climate, illegal immigrants are increasingly accused of failing to assimilate quickly enough into American culture. For example, President Bush described a “fair and orderly system” of immigration as one in which immigrants are assimilated into learning the “values and history and language of America” (Stolberg, 2006). Moreover, in response to the mass demonstrations by immigrants demanding citizenship and equal rights for undocumented workers, syndicated CNN news anchor Lou Dobbs remarked, “Why don’t we hear that they’re willing to learn English?” (Dobbs, 2007).

    As a result, a national linguistic debate has culminated in several federal and local proposals. To elaborate, the English Language Unity Act of 2007, proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives for the second straight congressional session, includes a growing list of co-sponsors representing both parties and nearly 40 states, and would require the U.S. government to conduct official business in English. Furthermore, according to Reuters:

    At the state level, 13 states have pending measures related to official language policies during the early stages of the 2008 session. Measures in Delaware, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin would make English the official language of those states, while bills pending in Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia would strengthen existing law. The Missouri legislature has already passed strengthening legislation that will appear on the November general election ballot. (Toonkel, 2008)

    This suggests that Lamont’s assertion that the American professionals and workers, as well as workers, “were not much concerned with immigrants” must be reevaluated (Lamont, 2000, p. 88). As illegal immigrants continue to be scrutinized as drains on the economy, it appears that an increasing amount of citizens criticize illegal immigrants for not assimilating into American culture. Due to the role of the media in shaping and reflecting public opinion, this study analyzes the editorial coverage of the immigration debate in the major regional newspaper of Dallas, Texas, to analyze symbolic boundaries performed from 1985–2007.

    Theorizing the Media

    Lamont’s symbolic boundaries paradigm in the field of comparative cultural sociology is advantageous in analyzing the media’s role in the immigration debate. That is, it is useful in analyzing social groups’ arguments “for” or “against” other groups by providing moral, socioeconomic, and cultural heuristics. Furthermore, the theory contextualizes these arguments in comparison to contrasting countries. As a result, the theory proposes that the arguments used and available are cultural repertoires, socially acceptable discourses concerning the evaluation of social groups and popular culture that members of a common culture share.

    The most dominant paradigm utilized in analyzing anti-immigration sentiment is realistic group theory, which proposes that the threat of economic competition for natives causes opposition toward immigration (Paxton & Mughan, 2006). This theory has been widely supported in studies that demonstrate that resentment toward immigration rises during economic recessions (Gimpel & Edwards, 1998; Simon & Alexander, 1993). However, recently political scientists have noted that an individual’s economic security does not predict immigration opinions as well as the individual’s perception of the national economy (Burns & Gimpel, 2000). Therefore, the role of the media and political leaders’ dissemination of information regarding the effects of immigration have been highlighted as a focal point in understanding individuals’ perceptions of immigration within political science (Rule, 1988; Burns & Gimpel, 2000; McLaren, 2003). Additionally, as the public is often unable to distinguish an ethnic minority from a first-generation immigrant of the same ethnicity, racial attitudes are often times synonymous with attitudes toward immigration. Media coverage of minorities and immigrants strongly informs individuals’ perceptions toward these social groups, especially in regards to crime and welfare dependency (Rule, 1988; Alvarez & Brehm, 1997). The editorial page, based on editorialists’ opinions and thus free of the professional goal of objectivity, can drastically amplify or challenge criticisms of immigration in an agenda-setting role for politicians (Hartzel, 2006).

    As news media legitimize and cultivate opinions, and thus symbolic boundaries, of many observers, the possible effects of recent trends in the direction of major national newspapers’ editorial pages on the cultural repertoires of the United States is noteworthy. For example, increasingly the Dallas Morning News has attempted to incorporate and reflect readers’ opinions. This shift has likely been greatly aided by the Internet, which now allows the online community to send electronic “letters” to the editor. Newspapers, as a result, spend less time transcribing and counting letters while the ease of sending a reply to an editorial has been increased for readers. As a result, the Dallas Morning News has increasingly printed more letters and has taken pains to demonstrate that their political coverage is objective and proportionate to viewers’ opinions. I hypothesized that due to this “democratization” of the editorial pages, the Dallas Morning News is printing more coherent moral and cultural boundaries. I theorized that letters, in contrast to traditional editorialists, would draw less abstract economic boundaries and favor moral and cultural rhetoric. As a result, readers of the Dallas Morning News are reading more moral and cultural boundaries in mainstream media than before.

    Research Design

    Newspaper media, as opposed to television news pieces, became our focus as arguments in editorials tend to be more elaborate and succinct. Our analysis is based on the Dallas Morning News because it is the major regional newspaper in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex with a daily circulation of approximately 400,000 and a Sunday circulation of about 600,000 (Hartzel, 2006). The Dallas Morning News has won eight Pulitzer Prizes for both reporting and photography, further supplementing its role in providing information in the community. The editorial pages of the Dallas Morning News have shifted toward a progressive conservatism to reflect the change in demographics of North Texans in the past 30 years. According to editorial writer Bill McKenzie, the Dallas Morning News editorial board is “a center-right paper. That means a kind of progressive conservatism. When we’re progressive, we’re more distinctly progressive. And when we’re conservative, we’re still conservative” (Hartzel, 2006).

    The editorial section of the Dallas Morning News consists of editorials, opinion editorials, letters to the editor, and mailbags. Editorials are attributed to the editorial board as opposed to a particular editor. Opinion editorials, referred to in the Dallas Morning News as Viewpoints, are editorials written by an editorialist, syndicated opinion writer, or at times a member of the community. Beginning in late 1996, the Dallas Morning News began printing letters to the editor, a form of participatory journalism, daily. In 2003, the Dallas Morning News instituted “The Mailbag,” a small weekly editorial that lists the “hot topics” as defined by topics that received the most letters. Occasionally, when publishing opinions concerning controversial topics such as immigration reform, “The Mailbag” will list the amount of received letters “for” or “against” the topic.

    This study analyzes both the opinion-editorials and editorial pages that include the Letters to the Editor and Mailbag sections. The composition of these editorial pages has consisted of seven to nine articles printed daily from 1985–2006However, in 2007, the Dallas Morning News printed an average of 11 articles a day in the editorials section, demonstrating the growth of the editorial pages. For this study, editorials including the words “immigrant,” “immigration,” or “illegal alien” in each January from 1985–2007 as archived in the database Access World News are analyzed. These words were chosen because they demonstrate a focus on aspects of immigration. While some editorials included in this study are not exclusively focused on immigration, the decision to include one of these words demonstrates rhetoric toward immigration in the United States. The sample is comprised of 207 editorials and 127 letters to the editor for a total sample size of 334 articles. Specific attention is paid to analyze possible changes in the symbolic boundaries printed in the editorial pages using longitudinal data.

    Using sets of 4-year increments, I can observe shifts in discourse between 1985 and 2007. The development of the letter section of the editorial page became our focus due to its contrast in comparison to editorials. Using Lamont’s symbolic boundary types, our preliminary interpretations of the data were based on cultural, socioeconomic, or moral argument categorizations. In order to decrease subjectivity in our data interpretations, I employ TextAnalyst. This program processes textual data through natural language text analysis to create visual representations of the semantic networks within the text. It begins by eliminating common words while viewing the text as a sequence of symbols that are analyzed as groups to generate a hierarchical semantic network structure based on the frequency of terms and the relationships between them. Each term within the network is then assigned statistical weights (range 0–100) to demonstrate its importance to the text and its relationship to other terms. High semantic weights indicate the term has considerable significance within the overall text.

    The collected text data were divided into two documents, one pertaining to letters and another document for editorials. Additionally, I divided these sets by 4-year increments to analyze possible changes in the symbolic boundaries used within the editorial pages. These data sets were analyzed individually using TextAnalyst to construct the semantic networks reported here.


    Figure 1 illustrates the semantic network of editorials within the sample. “Work,” a socioeconomic term, is the parent node illustrating its high importance within the compilation. Numerous other socioeconomic terms, such as “Economic” (weight of 82), “Jobs” (89), “Taxes” (75), and “Wages” (83), are central to the semantic network. The high weight of these terms confirms their strong presence in the editorial pages.

    Concepts related to culture strongly cluster together as evidenced by “Culture” (68), “Language” (77), and “English” (62) concepts in Figure 1. However, these concepts display relatively low weights demonstrating weak significance within the semantic network of the editorials. Aside from this branch of the semantic network, “Mexican” and “Food” are the only other cultural concepts in the semantic network of editorials and do not cluster alongside other cultural terms. Lastly, moral terms in Figure 1 include “Illegal” (88), “Family” (87), “Legal” (69) and “Security” (82). These terms are loosely connected to each other, suggesting that they do not represent coherent moral boundaries toward immigrants.

    Figure 2 reports the semantic network of letters printed in the Dallas Morning Newsconcerning immigration. The term “Illegal,” a moral term, is the parent node in contrast to “work” in the editorials illustrating a stark difference between editorials and letters. Moral terms including “Family” (89), “Values” (89), and “Threaten” (83) are loosely connected. Additionally, the terms “Abuse” (45) and “Values” (89) are moral concepts that were insignificant to the semantic network of editorials.

    Cultural terms, including “English” (80), “Language” (64), and “Culture” (53), strongly cluster together similar to the cluster in editorials. However, the Figure 2 displays that English is discussed alongside “Spanish” (53) in contrast to editorials. The term “American” (96) is also much more central in the semantic network as compared to editorials. “Assimilation” (87), a term insignificant within the semantic network of editorials, is prominent in the rhetoric used in letters to the editor.

    Socioeconomic terms, while relevant, are interspersed alongside moral and cultural concepts throughout the semantic network. “Budget,” “Dollars,” “Income,” and “Money” are economic terms that were significant in Figure 1 but are not present in the semantic network of letters to the editor.



    The semantic network of editorials demonstrated strong utilization of socioeconomic boundaries as evidenced by the prevalence of economic terms and clusters in contrast to moral and cultural concepts in Figure 1. This is understandable as editorialists, while opinionated, likely fear alienating readers with rhetoric based on cultural or moral arguments. Generally, when evaluating policy proposals or the immigration debate in general, editorialists are likely to display a market logic in their discourse. Specifically, they argue that to understand the effects of illegal immigration or its causes, one should look at economic factors. However, a small portion of editorials viewed the immigration debate using a cultural diversity form of reasoning aimed at analyzing the cultural benefits or cost of immigration for the United States.

    Nationalist Pro-Market Logic

    Editorialists who utilized a nationalist form of analysis are represented by the cluster of “Taxes” (75), “Security” (82), “Labor” (85), “and “Wages” (83). For these editorialists, the evaluation of immigration is based on the economic costs and benefits to the economy of the United States. In one example, the editorialist draws socioeconomic boundaries toward immigrants on the basis that they force American families into poverty while hurting American’s tax system. For these editorialists, the basis of support or opposition toward immigrants is informed by whether they will help or hurt the economy for citizens of the United States. Therefore, they draw strong socioeconomic boundaries toward illegal immigrants believing that they hurt the American economy unlike themselves.

    Global Market Logic

    Another significant portion of editorialists use a global market logic to evaluate the illegal immigration debate. For these editorialists, the immigration debate must be analyzed holistically, with attention paid to the economy of both the United States as well as the economic situation of the native country. These arguments are best represented by the “Illegal” (88), “Economic” (82), and “Mexican” (90) concepts in Figure 1. As the earlier example illustrates, these authors believe the root of illegal immigration is the lack of economic opportunities in their home country. As a result, immigrants will break laws in order to earn a living and help provide for the families. Thus, these authors advocate economic assistance for Mexico in the belief that these efforts have the greatest likelihood of curtailing illegal immigration into the United States. As a result, their socioeconomic boundaries against immigrants are weak compared to editorialists using a nationalist pro-market logic. Instead, they believe immigrants exercise a market logic when deciding to immigrate to America. Consequentially, they imply that immigrants follow the same method of reasoning as most Americans do and resist drawing social boundaries toward them.

    Cultural Diversity Logic

    A small proportion of editorials, however, focused on culture and the immigration debate as evidenced by the “Culture” (68), “Language” (77), and “English” (62) nodes. These editorials emphasized whether immigration added to or challenged American culture. In the previous example, the editorialist insinuates that American society must not force assimilation upon illegal immigrants in the hopes that it will solve their moral plight. In another example, an editorialist analyzes the arguments for declaring English the official language of the United States. The author argues the belief that the necessity of learning English in order to become successful in America ensures that immigrants make efforts to learn the language. These editorialists generally argue against strengthening assimilation practices in America on the basis that they infringed upon immigrant rights and impede cultural diversity in the United States. Therefore, they strive to weaken cultural boundaries toward immigrants.


    In contrast, letters to the editor emphasized moral and cultural rhetoric as evidenced by Figure 2. Socioeconomic terms are scattered, illustrating weak economic boundaries toward immigrants demonstrating a stark difference between editorials and letters to the editor. This suggests that while editorialists draw socioeconomic boundaries, readers utilize moral and cultural boundaries. This contradicts notions that Americans rely on socioeconomic reasoning when analyzing social groups. However, it is not surprising. The average American likely does not concretely realize whether immigrant groups have helped or hindered the economy, a debate that lingers in both politics and the media. In contrast, they can analyze whether they find them unpatriotic, challenging of American culture, or abusive of the U.S. economy. Similar to Paxton and Mughan’s 2006 study of Americans’ perception of immigrants as cultural threats, letters emphasized expectations of assimilation into American culture.


    A significant portion of letters strongly sought to address the loss of American culture due to immigration in their opinion. This is evidenced by the cluster of “English” (80), “Language” (64), “Assimilation” (87), “Culture” (53), and “Spanish” (41) nodes in the semantic network. Specifically, they believed that the current wave of illegal immigrants is refusing to assimilate into American culture as previous generations of immigrants had done. The perceived prominence of Spanish, illegal immigration, and pride for native countries led many letters to argue that immigrants no longer respect American culture, laws, and heritage. Thus, they believed that American patriotism, in terms of being respectful and committed to the values and heritage of the United States, is being challenged by immigrants. Consequentially, some believed the assimilation practices had to be strengthened. In the earlier example, the author draws a strong cultural boundary toward immigrants who do not assimilate into American culture. In his view, failing to do so constitutes a clear divide causing him to request them to refrain from entering the United States. In another letter, a citizen states that “illegal aliens are intruders who have the gall to flaunt their illegal presence with demonstrations while waving Mexican flags.” Thus, in the author’s analysis, illegal immigrants should not be bold enough to have mass demonstrations because they are breaking the law. Moreover, waving the Mexican flag symbolizes disrespect for the country they should be assimilating into. Letters to the editor focusing on patriotism draw strong cultural boundaries against immigrants by defining them as challenges to American culture in contrast to themselves.


    The linguistic debate became symbolic of the fear that immigrants do not respect American culture. Many charged that immigrants did not respect the importance of English because they would not learn it. Those who echoed this sentiment believe the high number of immigrants incapable of speaking English challenged American culture. In their minds, English helped distinguish who was American like them. The notion that public schools would emphasize learning Spanish added to the debate. For example, it led a concerned citizen to remark, “If this country would enforce learning English as a language, then our children wouldn’t need to learn Spanish to communicate in the U.S.” Thus, the letter argues that the lack of enforcement to learn English has forced Americans to learn Spanish. Many of these authors believed that English was the unifying language of the United States. Consequentially, those who did not learn English choose to be different from Americans. Authors of these letters draw strong cultural boundaries toward immigrants seemingly believing that they have chosen to be “against” Americans and their culture.

    Moral Obligation to Work

    In addition to demonstrating respect for American citizenship, a portion of letters to the editors demonstrated an expectation that immigrants need to be productive members of the United States. This expectation differs from organic socioeconomic boundaries because this expectation is patriotic. Rather than evaluate whether they are helping or hurting the economy, these letters insinuate that immigrants should be grateful for the American economy, as evidenced by the parent node “Illegal,” alongside its relationship to “American,” “Work,” “Education,” and “Taxes.” In the earlier example, the author believes that immigrants who work in the United States and send money to their home countries are not contributing to the American economy. However, he seems to imply that this is wrong not only for socioeconomic reasons, but also on a moral basis. Thus, the author criticizes immigrants who burden the economy by not working but also those that work without rewarding the tax base that generously supports them. Rhetoric such as this distinguishes immigrants as being ungrateful and disrespectful of the economy of the United States. Consequentially, a combination of moral and socioeconomic boundaries are drawn toward immigrants in the belief that they immorally take advantage of the American economy.


    Interestingly, when several citizens did talk about immigration and jobs, the ire was not directed solely at immigration. Rather, a significant portion of citizens felt that economic globalization, specifically the shifting of jobs from the United States to foreign countries, was the object of criticism. This is represented in Figure 2 in the focus toward “American” (96), and “Jobs” (90). In this light, organic “market logic,” which excuses companies to use economic globalization to increase profits, was criticized for neglecting American workers. In the aforementioned example, the author notes that our government has not stopped corporations from ignoring the welfare of the American people. Seemingly, the author is looking for someone to stop companies from exclusively exercising the “market logic” that has characterized American society. Another citizen was angry about his difficulty in finding a job believing that foreigners were hired before him. The author implies that Americans are being left behind by the government and corporations that allow economic globalization. Thus, anti-globalization letters draw social boundaries toward American corporations and politicians who put profits before American workers.

    Longitudinal Changes

    Analyzing both editorials and letters to the editor in separate 4-year increments, relevant differences emerged between 1985 and 2007. Specifically, the editorial pages semantic networks show dramatic differences over this time period. The small number of editorials concerning immigration between 1985–1987 show “Education” as the parent node. Editorials during this time period emphasize the educational linguistic debate occurring at this time. With the exception of editorials from 1992–1995 and 2004–2007, editorials’ parent nodes remained economic concepts, similar to the compilation described earlier. However, in 1992–1995 and 2004–2007, the parent node changes to “Illegal” suggesting shifts in immigration coverage during these time periods.

    Prior to 1992, attitudes toward immigrants were characterized as generally ambivalent and uninformed. As Lamont (2000) cites in her analysis of respondents’ ambivalence toward immigration, opinion polls during this time period reported that “controlling immigration ranks well below controlling taxes, crime, and health costs in public priorities” (Martin, 1994). However, the Zoe Baird controversy in 1993, in which the attorney general nominee was shown to have hired illegal immigrants to serve as her nanny, as well as the controversial California state Proposition 187 in 1994, helped create a national immigration debate and media frenzy. This attention culminated in Congress focusing on controversial immigration reform proposals beginning in 1995 and likely strongly influenced the salience of opinions toward immigration between 1992 and 1996 (Burns & Gimpel, 2000). During this media attention, the Dallas Morning News’ coverage of immigration seems to have shifted from an economic focus toward addressing “illegal” immigration.

    As discussed in the introduction, from 2004–2007, a focus on immigration reform has once again emerged that has coincided with shifts in editorial coverage toward emphasizing “illegal” immigration. While each of these semantic networks continued to rely on socioeconomic boundaries when discussing immigration, the term “illegal” is viewed by many to be an insulting label because it suggests low morality. Hence, the debate over whether immigrants without citizenship should be referred to as “illegal” or “undocumented” workers. This suggests that the Dallas Morning News’ editorial coverage of the immigration debate may strengthen moral boundaries toward immigrants during immigration reform debates.


    These vivid differences are increasingly relevant due to the “democratization” of the editorial pages within the Dallas Morning News. The effect of becoming more inclusive of ordinary individuals’ opinions within traditional media has yet to be realized. However, individuals tend to believe the media legitimizes opinions due to its objectivity and expertise. As letters seem to draw cultural and moral boundaries more frequently, the expansion of the letter section is noteworthy. Specifically, if individuals rely on the media to inform their opinions, the inclusion of ordinary citizens’ opinions, which lack expertise as compared to traditional media, alters the media coverage. As a result, the cultural repertoires, based on public discourse, may be altered due to the growth of participatory journalism.

    In 1998, an average of one-half of online newspapers, which implies greater prominence, provided a letters to the editor section (Schultz, 1998; cited in Nip, 2006). By 2004, 89% of newspapers surveyed printed letters to the editor (Rosenberry, 2005; cited in Nip, 2006). This increase may largely be contributed to technological advances in the production of letters to the editor. As Internet access increased in the 1990s, newspapers began posting editorials online, which increased the range of access to editorials and potential authors of letters. Internet links to e-mail letters to the editor became more prominent on the Internet to lessen the burden of sending a letter through traditional mail. Additionally, electronic letters do not need to be transcribed while also being able to keep greater count of topics in order to demonstrate accountability to readers. The Internet likely increased the amount of potential readers and thus replies to editorials, diminished the amount of time and effort it took to send a letter, and lessened the amount of time it takes the editorial board to analyze and print them.

    Longitudinal data seem to display a relationship between political climate and the symbolic boundaries drawn toward immigrants in the media. Individuals’ view of immigrants as economic threats, the main source of opposition toward immigration in the past, has been shown to be traceable to perceptions about collective trends that are informed by the media and politicians (Citrin, Green, Muste, & Wong, 1997). Consequentially, the media’s discourse, likely coupled with that of politicians, may produce and alter the symbolic boundaries used by citizens. This suggests the importance of analyzing the media’s production of symbolic boundaries in the field of comparative cultural sociology. As evidenced by opinion polls demonstrating that concern over immigration has dramatically increased over the last decade, often overtaking traditional concerns such as health and education, longitudinal data are vital to assuring validity when attempting to analyze cultural repertoires (Newman, 2007). This study demonstrates the technological and political shifts that seem to have altered the symbolic boundaries used in the Dallas Morning News’ editorial coverage of immigration, suggesting a new method of analyzing symbolic boundaries.


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    Figure 1: Semantic Network of Editorials

    Figure 2: Semantic Network of Letters