Jeremy Beck's picture


  by  Jeremy Beck

The number one threat to endangered species in the United States -- habitat loss -- is closely related to the increase in the number of Americans. The destruction of ecosystems often occurs around heavily populated cities, which were established on some of the richest bio-systems the land has to offer. Our expansion literally paves over what attracted us to these places in the first place. Around 70 percent of habitat and farmland loss is related to population growth. Immigration drives the majority of population growth. Good luck finding a mainstream media outlet that will connect the dots.

There is no one "story" about immigration, a process and policy that touches so many aspects of our individual and collective lives (not to mention the lives of the non-human species around us) that any attempt to frame the subject should be approached with humility. A multitude of perspectives are required to give immigration the breadth of scope and nuance that it deserves. One of those perspectives must look at the numerical impacts - the consequences of the sheer number of us - on the land and life that depends on our good stewardship to survive and thrive. But that is not the immigration "story" the media chooses to tell.

So there was no surprise this week when The New York Times reported new scientific findings about the dramatic decline in bird populations since 1970 without mentioning the dramatic increase in Americans since 1970.

In a corresponding op-ed, however, the Times does include a graph that hinted at a possible connection.

"More people, fewer birds," titles the graph, which shows the change in the combined Canada+U.S. populations of birds (-29%) and Canadians+Americans (+61%) from 1970-2018.

The article says nothing more about the subject; little nods like this are the exception to the rule in today's mainstream news outlets. Independent journalist Wudan Yan asked some of them why they omitted population from their climate coverage and detailed their responses in an article for Columbia Journalism Review. Confronted with the fact that population growth has an outsized influence in emissions (far more than the sources their coverage focused on), Quartz blamed graphing software for the omission, and The New York Times couldn't explain how the error slipped past everyone in the newsroom.

I believe The New York Times. Once a newsroom is committed to a certain narrative, blind spots are bound to develop at the same time as a heightened sensitivity to facts that align with the pre-ordained narrative. Media radars become more attuned to facts that fit, and miss the significance of facts that point to a different story.

A conscious aversion is also possible. After all, reporting that acknowledges population as a significant factor in habitat loss and emissions would raise additional, unwanted questions about the drivers of U.S. population growth, leading to an immigration story that today's media is not built to handle.

Journalism has changed since the first Earth Day, but so has the environmental movement. Mainstream environmental movements "all embraced policies and platforms that would limit population growth," Yan reports, including resetting annual immigration at a level that would cease to cause harm to the environment. No mainstream environmental organization calls for such a thing today.

"It got twisted by people," documentary filmmaker Terry Spahr tells Yan, "you were racist, or colonialist, imperialistic, or a believer in euthanasia and all kinds of crazy things."

That's how the mainstream media covers the immigration-reduction movement today. The attention to numbers gave way a long time ago. The business interests from 1970 won out over the environmental movement. They got what they wanted: 125 million more American consumers and counting.

For those concerned about habitat loss, there are many groups working to mitigate the destruction, but few advocating for policies to sufficiently address the chief underlying cause. For example, designating more areas as federally-protected lands (e.g., national parks, national wildlife refuges, national wilderness areas) would limit, but not stop the population-driven demand for new housing around protected lands, which remains a critical threat to the success of the protected areas themselves. Species cannot survive on isolated islands of habitat in sprawling seas of development.

For those concerned about the media's immigration blind spots and how they contribute to the coarsening of our national discourse, there are always reasons for hope. Just last week, Adam Jones, a first-year journalism student in the U.K., wrote a thoughtful column that praised the significant benefits of immigration ("diversity and the chance for different cultures to come together as one.") and stressed the need to manage immigration in a responsible manner ("the strain placed on already-stretched resources").

"Immigration is an issue that we need to debate sensibly and without xenophobia or racism," he writes. "People who are pro-mass immigration shouldn’t automatically accuse those who want strict immigration controls of being xenophobic."


JEREMY BECK is the Director of the Media Standards Project for NumbersUSA


Updated: Fri, Oct 11th 2019 @ 9:10am EDT

NumbersUSA's blogs are copyrighted and may be republished or reposted only if they are copied in their entirety, including this paragraph, and provide proper credit to NumbersUSA. NumbersUSA bears no responsibility for where our blogs may be republished or reposted. The views expressed in blogs do not necessarily reflect the official position of NumbersUSA.