Study: How major U.S. news sources cover immigration

September 12, 2019

We are thrilled to be launching a new research report today in cooperation with our friends at Define American. The report, The Language of Immigration Reporting: Normalizing vs. Watchdogging in a Nativist Age, uses Media Cloud to look at increases in dehumanizing speech about immigrants in U.S. media. Earlier today, we launched the report at ONA19, the annual conference of the Online News Association, and we're thrilled to share both the work and the idea of using quantitative media analysis to analyze newsroom coverage more widely.

The Intercept has released an excellent story on the report and its key findings, but here's an overview from our lab:

There has been a massive rise in immigration coverage in American media between 2014-2018. Along with that rise, we have found a significant rise in denigrating speech — including terms like "illegal aliens" — across media, from the far right to the left.

In four key news outlets, we found a significant rise in absolute use of denigrating speech, though denigrating speech actually shrinks in percentage terms — that's because there is such a huge growth in immigration coverage overall. This absolute rise in denigrating speech is accompanied by a growth of the use of these terms in quotes — we see lots of evidence that news organizations are usually using these terms either in "scare quotes" or when they are quoting a public figure.

We also noted that there are three ways a news organization can deal with denigrating speech:

  1. they can normalize it, adopting it as part of their official or unofficial style;
  2. they can distance themselves from it, keeping it within quotes;
  3. or they can gatekeep it, choosing not to showcase it, even within quotes.

We also saw a sharp increase in citation of three extreme anti-immigration think tanks. Using hand-coding, we found that these organizations are rarely cited with the context necessary to acknowledge that their views are extreme.

We hope that this report will encourage journalism organizations to take a close look at their coverage using tools like Media Cloud. If you’re interested in comparing your news organization to another, or in conducting the same searches we used to generate the report, visit this link. You'll need to have a Media Cloud account set up, but with that you'll be able to run queries to explore this type of speech in thousands of sources.

Beyond replicating this work, we hope that news organizations will take this report as a prompt to consider other aspects of their coverage that they should monitor, quantitatively, over time: How is your immigration coverage changing over time? Who are you citing and who's not getting featured?

Media Cloud is both free to use, and free as in open source software, so you can conduct studies like this one yourself, whether you're within a media organization or an external scholar trying to understand them. And if you ever have any questions about using our tools, feel free to reach out to us.

Lastly, we want to recognize the contributions of Emily Ndulue, who did the primary research and writing for this report, and Susan Benesch of the Dangerous Speech Project. Our report builds heavily on Susan’s work. Emily is currently on maternity leave with her new daughter, Chinyelu, and Susan is currently on maternity leave with her new daughter, Aya. This report also owes its existence to Jen Humke at the MacArthur Foundation, who brought the Media Cloud and Define American teams together at a critical summit on Civic Media.