Media Content Analysis: Immigration On-The-Air

// Published: 2009


This report was made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. Project support from Unbound Philanthropy and the Four Freedoms Fund at Public Interest Projects, Inc. (PIP) also helped support this research and collateral communications materials. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the  authors.

The research and writing of this report was performed by Douglas Gould and Associates, under the direction of Sharon Lewis. Further contributions were made by The Opportunity Agenda. Editing was done by Laura Morris, with layout and design by Element Group, New York.


In the summer and fall of 2008, The Opportunity Agenda commissioned three reports, to look more closely at the current attitudes and perceptions of immigration in the United States. Following its collection of research from 2006 and 2007, which examined the overall dominant message frames around immigration with specific focus on Web 2.0, African American and Spanish speaking press, we determined it would be beneficial to expand the body of literature by examining more closely two specific issues and two specific media of communication that help shape public discourse and opinion around immigration in our country. The findings and recommendations of our research are presented here in this three-part series.

In the first report of this series, two issues deeply tied to the immigrant experience are examined, public opinion and media coverage of English language acquisition and the children of immigrants. Previous research has shown that the public is greatly interested in immigrants’ ability and willingness to learn English, and also that some openings to promote pro-immigrant policy exist around children. Thus, understanding public perception of these issues is critical to developing strategies to build support for immigration policies.

The second report in this series focuses on Chinese print media in the United States. While continuing to expand the base of immigration support is important, also crucial is further connecting the existing bases. Therefore, examining media coverage of immigrants within their own native speaking and ethnic press offers insight into how these outlets can play a role in promoting immigration reform and integration policies.

Finally, The Opportunity Agenda commissioned a media analysis of broadcast news and talk radio, a gap in our previous scans which focused only on print media. Anecdotal evidence suggested that broadcast coverage played a substantial role in influencing the immigration debate. In this report, both national and local television news outlets were examined, as well as leading television and radio news commentary programs. We were interested in broad trends and how they related to our earlier findings in print as well as to our ethnic media scans.

The Opportunity Agenda is committed to working with leading voices in the pro-immigration movement, understanding that the immigrant experience is an important part of the American story— often an icon of the principles and values that encompass the promise of America. In working to build a national will for opportunity and equality that includes all persons living within our borders, The Opportunity Agenda has developed, with help from its many partners, a core narrative that unifies and strengthens the movement, calling for real solutions that uphold our nation’s values and move us all forward together as one group. In presenting these three reports, we hope that voices in the field not just better understand the messages that frame the immigrant experience, but move closer toward a unified vision that expands the scope of opportunity to all.


Broadcast coverage – from 24-hour news channels to talk radio – has played a central role in shaping the public discourse around immigration. In fact, when immigration legislation died in Congress in 2007, many blamed talk radio.1

We examined how the topic was treated by major radio and television news and commentary shows, including those of broadcasters Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, NPR’s Michel Martin, CNN’s Lou Dobbs, and Fox News’s Laura Ingraham and Bill O’Reilly. We also looked at local television and radio immigration coverage in New York, Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Dallas. A methodology is presented in an appendix to this report.

Major Findings

  1. People get their news more from television (where there is less time to uncover the nuances of an issue) than from newspapers,2 so the American public is getting a skewed picture of the immigration issue.

  2. The language used to describe immigrants on popular television and radio shows is often extremely biased.

  3. Some speakers who are pro-immigrant or those who are assumed to be objective use words that can dehumanize immigrants.

  4. Right-wing talk show hosts inflame anti-immigration fears and sentiments by suggesting that immigrants cause and commit crimes.

  5. Most of the coverage on immigration and immigrants focused on Latinos, who make up about half the foreign-born population in the United States.3 Many stories in the sample focused on the Latino voting bloc and immigration. However, Latino advocates often stated that immigration is not necessarily as important an issue for them as other hot-button issues such as health care and the economy.

  6. Regionally, immigration stories spanned a range of issues from crime (the main focus of sample coverage from New York), to enforcement practices (Los Angeles), deportation  (Miami), public events (Chicago), and politics and policies (Dallas).

  7. More spokespeople were public and government officials (28%) than any other category, with advocates—both pro-immigrant and anti-immigrant—not far behind with 22%. Most of the public and government officials were elected officials (62%).

  8. The visuals accompanying local coverage tended toward the negative and reinforced the idea of immigrants as criminals.

Detailed Topic Analysis

Nearly half our stories focused on either politics and policies (including stories about the election and legislation) or enforcement practices. It is not surprising that in an election year, politics dominated the coverage.

Politics and Policies (26%)

More than a quarter of the stories were political in nature, primarily about the election and the Latino voting bloc (34 stories). Coverage included presidential candidates speaking to Latino groups or addressing general immigration reform, and panel discussions that covered the full range of immigration issues. Another popular topic was speculation about the direction that Latino voters would swing in the presidential election, and the level of importance that this group assigned the issue of immigration.

Other stories in the politics and policies category focused on legislation, lawsuits, and court rulings (12 stories). Most of these were local stories that focused on state-level immigration policies, in the absence of national immigration reform. There were also several items from pundit Rush Limbaugh, who spoke about negotiations for proposed five-year visas given to “noncriminal immigrants,” which he dubbed “amnesty visas.”4

Enforcement Practices (21%)

Many of the stories in this category focused on sanctuary (13 stories) mainly in San Francisco and Chicago.5 Stories about sanctuary were found at both the local and national level (locally on WBBM in Chicago and KCRW in Los Angeles; nationally on ABC, CNN, NPR, and Fox News). Sanctuary was a popular topic on Fox News, where it was treated negatively in several stories. There were 10 stories on immigration raids, which occurred in both workplaces and homes (including a kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa). In one story a pro-immigrant advocate pointed out that the raids tear families apart and happen more in Latino communities; the speaker said this is racial profiling.6 A local story in Miami described how SWAT teams raided the wrong house, kicking the door in with their guns drawn and throwing concussion grenades into the house before realizing the mistake.7

Ten stories focused on police and security. Many of these were news pieces from Los Angeles that described how the police there continued to be under investigation a year after May Day marchers clashed with police; other stories focused on Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s policies. Surprisingly, there were only six stories on border security. By contrast, in May–June of 2007, when national legislation was being discussed, border security was a much bigger topic. Since that time it has faded into the background, though it has not disappeared entirely. Furthermore, it is likely to be raised again if legislation is revived.

Deportation (12%)

Most of the deportation stories covered the Scheduled Departure pilot program that launched in the summer of 2008 in five cities. It offers undocumented immigrants with no criminal record the opportunity to schedule their own deportation within three months, rather than risk being caught residing in the country without documentation. The bulk of these stories ran nationally, with NPR running the most stories, then Fox News and CNN, followed by MSNBC. Many of the stories were critical of the program. For example, Dan Abrams cited the program for his piece “Why America Hates Washington,” and said the program was “drawing more than a few chuckles.” When the Abrams piece aired, only one person had self-deported.8 Advocates arguing against the program used words such as “ill-conceived,” “silly,” “failure,” and “fantasy”; they also described the policy as a response to bad publicity from recent raids conducted by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency.

The acting director of ICE was interviewed several times and argued in favor of the program: “It provides an alternative to what many have criticized us for, which is the way in which we conduct fugitive operations, which are targeted enforcement actions at people’s residences, places of business, or other places that we can find them.”9 Stories ran locally in Chicago and Los Angeles. (Chicago and San Diego were two of the cities testing the program.) Other deportation stories focused on individual deportations and mass deportations by ICE, with fewer devoted to the mistreatment of detained individuals.

Crime (11%)

In our sample there was nearly equal coverage of crimes committed by immigrants as crimes committed against immigrants. Many crimes committed against immigrants were hate crimes. For example, in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, a Mexican immigrant was fatally assaulted in the street, while the attackers yelled racial slurs.10

Additional national coverage focused on a new study reporting hate crimes to be on the rise in Los Angeles, which some experts suggested to be the result of the increasingly vitriolic anti-immigration language used by opponents of “illegal” immigration.11

Much of the crime coverage focused on a case in Westchester County, New York, in which a Mount Kisco police officer was accused of wrongfully killing an immigrant.

Workplace and Social Services (10%)

Most of the stories on the workplace and social services focused on living and working conditions and compensation (seven stories). Stories in this category ranged from broad claims from Glenn Beck that immigrants’ working conditions are like modern-day slavery12 to evidence-based reports of abuses and mistreatment in the workplace.

Five stories related to health care are also part of this category. Most of these stories focused on treating immigrants without medical coverage over the long term.13 Another story focused on an undocumented immigrant in Chicago who was almost denied a kidney transplant because of his immigration status.14

There were three stories in this category that focused on education. These pieces covered how immigrants can get into college and what they can do with their degrees after graduation. These reports highlighted successful undocumented immigrant students, giving the audience a glimpse into the struggles students face due to citizenship status issues.

Events (6%)

Most event coverage in our sample was local and focused on pro-immigration protests and marches, many of which took place on May Day. Reporters covered these events objectively.

One of the anti-immigration events covered was a controversial exhibit in Chicago that displayed empty shoes representing people who died in crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. Victims ranged from those who died in drunk-driving accidents to victims of violent crimes. This story included the perspective of the anti-immigrant group responsible for the display, as well as of people viewing the exhibit who voiced their opposition to it.15 The other story in our sample that covered an anti-immigrant event focused on the president of Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, Chris Simcox, speaking at DePaul University, Chicago.16

Integration (5%)

Most stories on integration focused on naturalization ceremonies or on debates about a national language. Several stories covered Senator Barack Obama’s statement that American children should learn foreign languages to keep up with their European counterparts. Lou Dobbs was critical of Obama’s opinion.17

In addition, a study came out this year called “Inheriting the City,” which received some press locally in New York and nationally on NPR in our sample. The study looked at children of immigrants from five different ethnic groups. It found that these groups were fluent in English and were working in the mainstream economy.18

Immigrant Success Stories (3%)

Immigrant success stories were scarce. One story was that of John Aba, a native of Nigeria who signed up with the U.S. Army Reserves and served in Iraq.19 Another story focused on the son of undocumented immigrants who won a gold medal at the Olympics.20 A third story was on Manny Diaz, the mayor of Miami and the first immigrant to become president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.21

Interestingly, in The Opportunity Agenda’s 2006 analysis of mainstream print media, a major focus was the “immigrant striver” story, a double-edged sword from an advocate’s standpoint for its focus on individualism. By contrast, this was not a major focus for broadcast media.

Other (6%)

Some stories did not fit into any of the categories listed above. Many of these were local stories focused on tragedies suffered by immigrants, including fatal car accidents or fires. Stories also focused on public perception of immigrants and changes in demographics because of immigration.

Two stories (both from NPR’s Tell Me More) focused on America’s perception of immigrants. In the first interview Michel Martin asked Latino leader Belen Robles to comment.22 Robles contended that immigrant communities have allowed the media to define immigrants, despite the fact that immigrants are the ones who continue to develop the country. She said: “We need to take the lead and clarify just how much immigrants contribute not only to the economic but the cultural development of our country. . . . Studies show that most immigrants contribute more than they ever receive from this country.”

The second story included an interview with Congresswoman Hilda Solis of California, who was outspoken about a recent analysis (produced by Media Matters) of immigration coverage by Dobbs, Bill O’Reilly, and Beck.23 She said such negative coverage can incite hatred and crime against immigrants.24 She noted the need for balance in immigration news stories and called for coverage of positive aspects of immigrants’ contributions. She pointed out that immigrant workers help to revitalize cities in California.

Just one story focused on the negative implications of immigration on population growth.25 Rick Oltman of Californians for Population Stabilization believes that immigration reform is needed to control population growth. This point of view was not widespread in our sample, and Oltman was challenged to defend his opinions in this interview.

Terminology Analysis

We observed dehumanizing language across stories—from the word “illegal” to describe undocumented workers to words describing animals that are considered pests.

Some of the language seems intended to invoke public fear: dominant themes emphasized immigrants as taking away jobs and health care and bringing violent crime to “our” shores. For example, in one piece California Congressman Dana Rohrabacher used the words “swarm” and “flood” to connote parasites, while referring to immigrants. He said: “We cannot afford to have tens of millions of people swarming into our country and expect that our country is going to stay the same, and that it’s not going to hurt our own people. In this case, we have so many young people swarming in, flooding into our country illegally . . .  ”26

One news report focused on identification cards for undocumented immigrants in New Haven, Connecticut. The ID-card program allows undocumented immigrants to hold resident ID cards, which gives them access to city services. The story appeared on the Fox affiliate in New York and cited hate mail sent to public officials from people opposed to the city’s ID card policy. One email read: “I can’t wait for the rioting to break out. I have my automatic rifle ready to go and won’t hesitate to use it to kill these rodents.”27

Another phrase used to describe undocumented immigrants was “on the loose.” In one piece the anchor described how ICE is “no longer just concentrating on picking up immigration violators who have criminal records—they are going after everybody.”28 The reporter said: “Almost 600,000 individuals who are deportable are on the loose.” By stating that they are on the loose, the reporter likened undocumented immigrants to fugitives who have committed serious crimes and are on the run from the law, even though the piece mentioned that 90% of undocumented immigrants in South Florida who had been arrested in the raids did not have a criminal past.

“Fugitive alien,” “criminal alien,” “alien criminal,” and “immigration fugitive” are all phrases in sample stories that can incite fear in the viewer or listener. Moreover, these phrases were used to describe people found to be in the United States illegally, but who have not necessarily committed any crime.29

Anti-immigrant spokespeople, including the outspoken hosts of shows, sometimes used this fear- based language explicitly to drive wedges between undocumented immigrants and other communities. For example, in one piece Laura Ingraham said: “And the Hispanic community, legally in this country, whether it’s permanent residents or citizens, they themselves have been ravaged by crime committed by illegal immigrants who aren’t just here to do work but are here to cause trouble. And I think minority communities, more than anyone else, have suffered under the crushing wake of illegal immigration. That is also a problem that black Americans have spoken out against, and other people as well. So I think it crosses racial and ethnic lines here.”30 In several pieces Ingraham cited examples of illegal immigrants who have committed violent crimes, reinforcing a stereotype of immigrants as criminals and as people to be feared.31

Further drawing lines, both Rush Limbaugh and Ingraham criticized the so-called open borders crowd (among them, according to Limbaugh, are the editors of The Wall Street Journal; Ingraham cited The New York Times and the ACLU).32

At times pro-immigrant spokespeople repeated negative language. In a story from the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, which focused on new immigration laws in Arizona, reporter Jeffrey Kaye interviewed a pro-immigrant businessman, who said: “We must not go about the business of acting as if immigrants, even illegal ones, are leeches on our society. They aren’t.”33

We classified the tone of the terminology as either neutral (mostly when terms like “undocumented immigrant” were used) or dehumanizing (when terms like “illegal alien” or “illegals” were used). As the figures below indicate, the vast majority of stories used more dehumanizing than neutral terminology.

Spokesperson Analysis

Spokespeople were defined as guests or people interviewed or quoted on news programs, including journalists who were sometimes invited to offer commentary. However, the hosts of the shows themselves (such as Lou Dobbs, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh) were not considered spokespeople.

More spokespeople were public and government officials (28%) than any other category, with advocates—both pro-immigrant and anti-immigrant—not far behind with 22%. It is important to note that most of the public and government officials (62%) were elected officials.

Upon closer review of the advocates, we observed that more pro-immigration advocates (51) were quoted than anti-immigration advocates (32). Furthermore, pro-immigrant speakers were more often quoted first (68%).

Who is quoted first?

As pro-immigration advocates are frequently called upon to defend their positions, there are many opportunities available, both nationally and locally.

However, one noted trend was the tendency of pro-immigrant advocates to repeat their opponents’ negative messages. In an NPR story, for example, a pro-immigrant advocate said: “Immigrants are not just troublemakers that come in and milk the economy of this country, that we’re involved in drugs, that we are involved in all of those things, but rather that we have people that are hard working, that the only reason that they’ve come to this country is because they want a better life for themselves and their families . . . ”34 Research shows that “myth-busting” tactics tend to reinforce myths and preconceived notions rather than dispel them.

Public/Government Officials (28%)

Local law enforcement and ICE officials typically described operations such as Scheduled Departure, raids, and cases involving undocumented immigrants engaged in criminal activity. Members of Congress and other elected officials gave more opinionated assessments on the immigration system and law enforcement. Senator Barack Obama was quoted the most (16 stories), followed by Senator John McCain (13 stories). Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona, and Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco were each quoted in four stories.

Barack Obama

Barack Obama was quoted in sixteen stories. In five stories he explained his approach to immigration reform, which includes penalizing employers who hire undocumented workers, promoting a system that ensures diverse groups of immigrants are represented, and reforming the legal system to ensure that people are not “being pushed” into entering the country outside legal channels.35 In three stories he attacked McCain for what Obama saw as a wavering commitment to immigration reform.36 He criticized the Arizona senator for saying that he (McCain) would not vote for McCain’s own immigration bill if it came up for a vote. Obama addressed the concerns of Latino voters in one story, and commented on the enforcement of current immigration policies.37 Five stories included Obama’s quote on American children learning foreign languages: he said that he believes the focus should shift from immigrants learning English, which he believes they will learn, to American children, who should learn foreign languages in an effort to keep up with their European counterparts.38

John McCain

John McCain was quoted in thirteen stories. In two stories McCain said the country must secure its borders in order to regain the trust of the American public.39 In another story McCain addressed securing borders, establishing a “truly temporary” guest worker program, and putting undocumented immigrants already in the United States on a “pathway to citizenship, requiring they pay fines, learn English . . . with the principle that they cannot have priority over those who came into the country legally.”40 McCain was also quoted as saying that he would support an “amnesty bill,” but under- stands that the American public would not accept it.41

Joe Arpaio

Joe Arpaio, the sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, has received a fair amount of media attention for his focus on capturing and deporting undocumented immigrants. In all four stories in which he was quoted, he expressed his belief that his job is to “enforce all of the laws in this land, including immigration laws.” Arpaio feels he should not be criticized for enforcing laws that are the responsibility of federal law enforcement officials, because he believes “they aren’t doing their job.”42

Gavin Newsom

Mayor Gavin Newsom was quoted throughout the sample on immigration policy in San Francisco. In one story Newsom said: “We are a sanctuary city, we don’t cooperate with the federal government as relates to these raids.”43 In another piece the reporter described how Newsom rescinded the sanctuary policy for juvenile offenders. Newsom said: “The fact is people have broken the law because the system is broken. You have no one to blame but every single federal elected official.”44 Newsom added in another piece: “We’ve always said that you’ll be deported if you commit felonies. That’s been the case in the adult system. There’s been this loophole in the juvenile system. That loophole has now been closed.”45

Advocates (22%)

Pro-immigrant advocates voiced a range of opinions on immigrant rights and policies. Anti-immigrant advocates used more consistent messages focused on the need for enforcement of immigration laws to protect the country and on the notion that immigrants should not receive “special treatment.”

There was little consistency in the messaging of pro-immigrant advocates. For example, some (such as Benjamin Johnson of the American Immigration Law Foundation) cited the need for better enforcement of immigration laws;46 others (such as Enrique Morones, founder of a group called Border Angels) called immigration raids immoral.47 Others, including Edward Juarez of the International Immigrants Foundation, spoke of the United States’ need for immigrants to further the nation’s social and economic development.48

While pro-immigrant advocates represented the majority of advocates in our sample, an anti-immigrant advocate, Rosanna Pulido (founder and director of the Illinois Minuteman Project), was the most quoted advocate in our analysis.

Rosanna Pulido

In one story Rosanna Pulido said undocumented workers come into the country and “steal American jobs.”49 In an ABC news piece, she expressed her anger at how law enforcement handles undocumented immigrants.50 Pulido was also quoted saying Americans should not have to “foot the bill” for undocumented immigrants, in reference to a controversy sparked by a kidney transplant performed on an undocumented teen.51 When the founder of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, Chris Simcox, was invited to speak at DePaul University, Chicago, Pulido said she was unhappy with the protests against the president of the student organization that invited Simcox to speak. She said that the students’ intention was to “rally controversy, not inspire hatred.”52

Attorneys (10%)

Some attorneys spoke out on behalf of their clients who ranged from undocumented immigrants, such as alleged gang member and undocumented immigrant Edwin Ramos; to individuals who allegedly committed crimes against undocumented immigrants, such as Colin Walsh, who was accused of killing an undocumented immigrant; to individuals affected by crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. Other attorneys provided analysis on both crimes committed by undocumented immigrants and crimes whose victims were undocumented immigrants, and discussed enforcement of immigration policies.

Joe Russoniello

Joe Russoniello, U.S. Attorney for Northern California, was quoted in four stories. He was cited regarding San Francisco’s sanctuary policy and cases that have put that policy into question. Russoniello said that he was angry that San Francisco used taxpayer money to purchase plane tickets back to Honduras for undocumented drug dealers, and that this amounted to a “potential federal offense.”53 Russoniello also called San Francisco’s policy of shielding undocumented juvenile offenders “incompetent.”54 In another piece he said that San Francisco allows undocumented juvenile offenders to “game the system” by shielding them from federal authorities.55

Members of the General Public (8%)

Some examples of members of the general public included friends and family of undocumented immigrants who faced deportation, and residents commenting on policies affecting undocumented immigrants in their area. There was no general consensus in their opinions, which covered a range of topics.

Immigrants/Immigrant Workers (8%)

Immigrants made up just 8% of the people quoted, despite being the subject of discussion. Part of the reason for this discrepancy in the case of undocumented immigrants is the fear of being exposed and perhaps arrested and deported. However, it is important to note that, for the most part, immigrants across the board are not speaking for themselves in the media.

Flor Crisóstomo

One clear exception was Flor Crisóstomo, an undocumented immigrant who sought sanctuary in a Chicago church. Quoted in four stories, she was the only immigrant in our sample who was quoted in both national and local media. In one story she said the reason she is in the United States is to provide for her children who are back in Mexico.56 In another story Crisóstomo said she is not a criminal, and in another she said if she is arrested like a “common criminal,” she wants other undocumented workers to not give up.57 She blamed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) for the current immigration crisis, because Mexicans are unable to compete in the United States with workers and goods from abroad.58

Journalists (7%)

Journalists who were guests on various programs represented 7% of the spokespeople in our analysis. Several journalists discussed immigration policies, such as Scheduled Departure, San Francisco’s sanctuary policy, and the ICE raids in Postville, Iowa, and Miami. Journalists also discussed the importance of the presidential candidates’ standing among Latino voters.

Business Leaders and Other Professionals (5%)

Some business owners expressed concerns about how local immigration policies affected their businesses. One business owner denied allegations of hiring undocumented workers; another business owner said he had hired undocumented workers because his concern was “getting what [he] . . . wants done,” not meddling in immigration affairs.59

Outlet Analysis

Over the three-month time period we analyzed, of the national outlets that were accessed through LexisNexis, NPR represented the majority of stories, with Fox News a close second, and CNN just behind. We found no stories from CBS or NBC and only a handful of stories on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, ABC, and MSNBC.

Of the national stories in our sample, 38% came from NPR. Pro-immigrant speakers and advocates were quoted first in 17 of the 32 stories, and the general tone of most of the stories was objective. NPR’s Tell Me More featured more stories on immigration than any of its other programs (10 of 32); while All Things Considered had 9 of the immigration stories, and Morning Edition had 6.

Fox News was another leading outlet, making up 30% of the stories in our sample. Most of the Fox News stories were critical of pro-immigration policies, and many guests had an anti-immigrant position. Hosts and guests alike used negative language, such as “illegal alien” and “illegals.” Pro- immigrant advocates were sometimes cut short by hosts including Laura Ingraham and Bill O’Reilly.

CNN was the source of 25% of the stories in our sample. The tone of these stories varied (some were critical; others were objective), and there was a mixture of people quoted—both pro- and anti- immigrant. Shows hosted by Fareed Zakaria and Wolf Blitzer were more objective and thoughtful in nature, while those hosted by Casey Wian and Dobbs were more one-sided.

Regional Analysis

We found distinctive patterns in the subjects covered by region. Immigration stories focused on a range of issues from crime (the main focus of our coverage from New York) to enforcement practices (Los Angeles), deportation (Miami), events (Chicago), and politics and policies (Dallas).

New York

Most of the immigration stories covered in the New York region were about crimes against immigrants. For example, a police officer in Westchester County was acquitted for allegedly beating a homeless undocumented immigrant to death; other stories addressed the murder of a Hungarian immigrant in Brooklyn and a Guyanese cab driver from Westchester. Other stories addressed crimes committed by immigrants, the deportation of an imam, inhumane conditions for undocumented immigrants who were detained, and the integration of children of immigrants.

Los Angeles

Enforcement practices were covered more heavily in Los Angeles than any other topic, because pro-immigrant protesters clashed with police at the annual May Day march in 2007, and an investigation was still under way one year later. Other stories from this city addressed deportation, the potential influence of new citizens on the election, and issues related to immigrants and the workforce or social services.


Immigration coverage in Miami focused primarily on individuals facing deportation. One news story focused on raids against immigrants facing deportation; one piece included interviews with people who witnessed Haitian refugees being smuggled onto a South Florida beach; another piece discussed SWAT officials conducting a raid on the wrong home; and one story examined federal legislation.


The main focus of the Chicago stories was on events such as the annual May Day march, local immigration-related exhibits, and the controversy surrounding DePaul University’s invitation to Chris Simcox, founder of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, to speak. One exhibit questioned the necessity of building a border fence, while another displayed the shoes of people killed by undocumented immigrants. Other subjects included enforcement practices, integration, politics, deportation, and crime. The story of Flor Crisóstomo, an undocumented immigrant seeking sanctuary in a church, was also covered.


Immigration coverage in Dallas centered heavily on politics and policies. One story described the government’s attempt to relieve its resident green-card backlogs; another piece featured a local politician who was promoting stricter immigration policies; and two stories described a rental policy approved in a Dallas-area town barring undocumented immigrants from renting apartments.

Analysis of Visuals

We examined the visuals used for the news stories, because research has revealed that what is shown can be much more persuasive than what is said.

Many of the visuals reinforced the notion of immigrants as criminals, even when this was not the focus of the story. For example, one story focused on a legal immigrant who was caught up in raids and assumed to be undocumented. Although this piece addressed a story about mistaken identity and a legal immigrant who was treated like a criminal, the images—which consisted of one person after another being arrested—reinforced a negative stereotype.60

In addition to people being handcuffed and escorted into police cars, other visuals that reinforced the notion of immigrants as criminals included photographs of alleged criminals, images of police and crime scenes, photos of victims of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants, footage of immigrants crossing the border (in one case, they were ducking under a fence; in another they were escorted by someone in uniform), and court scenes.

Another trend we noticed while examining the visuals was the focus of individual stories. For example, several stories focused on Flor Crisóstomo, a woman seeking sanctuary in a Chicago church. Images of her were mostly positive: she was shown surrounded by supporters, hugging members of the church, learning English by reading the Bible with a reverend, and working in the church. However, these news pieces focused on her individual story, which would not necessarily move people toward policy change. In addition, these stories also included some negative visuals, including images of people getting arrested, reinforcing the notion of immigrants as criminals.

Another trend we observed was that those marching in favor of immigrant rights (or in protest of the Minutemen) often had disparate messages. We took a close look at the signs that marchers held up. For example, some signs said:

  • Equal high-quality education
  • No one is illegal
  • Legalization for all/legalization for everyone
  • Full rights for all immigrants now
  • Racism should be illegal, not humans
  • The workers’ struggle has no borders
  • Amnesty now
  • Immigrants work with pride
  • Stop raids


  1. When using messages focused on economic opportunity, pro-immigrant spokespeople should talk about the economic system as a whole, including how it functions best when the needs and contributions of all workers are considered, and how it would not function without the services immigrants provide. Stories framed to focus on the system, as opposed to the individual, are more likely to motivate audiences to see policy changes, rather than individual initiative, as the solution to any problem posed. Advocates should be wary of the story of individual immigrants who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps; such stories likely lead viewers and listeners to believe that sheer hard work will allow all immigrants to get ahead, as long as they wait in line and work hard when they get here. This perception ignores the fact that systemic conditions keep some immigrants from accessing opportunities and suppress support for systemic policy solutions.

  2. When selecting spokespeople to talk about a more humane and compassionate approach to the immigration issue, advocates might seek out unexpected messengers. For example, immigration advocates might wish to partner more visibly with business leaders who understand that the economic system would not survive without immigrants. In an economic downturn this point can be used to counteract the idea propagated by anti-immigrant groups that immigrants are “stealing” jobs.

  3. Messages should emphasize protecting all workers from employer abuse, because this issue may transcend party lines. Research from The Opportunity Agenda shows that 87% of Americans see the right to fair pay for workers, to meet basic needs of food and housing, as a human right. However, it is not clear that the American public would extend this right to undocumented immigrants, since 77% of Americans believe healthcare is a human right, but about half of Americans do not view medical care for undocumented immigrants as a human right. That said, both conservatives and liberals acknowledge that immigrants are often working under terrible conditions, though their proposed solutions might differ. Therefore, discussions of shared values may be a good place to start the conversation, since there is room for agreement. Advocates should step up coverage of this issue and find ways to insert it into news.

  4. It is helpful to start conversations with basic American values of fairness and justice, and by asking what kind of a country the United States will become if we do not insist that our policies uphold these ideals. After all, our country has a long history of immigration. Actions such as building walls or fences, terrorizing people who have not committed a violent crime, and generally taking militant and drastic measures against immigrants demean us all. We must ask ourselves, “To what end?” This is not just a question for civil libertarians but for all Americans.

  5. Story ideas and studies around immigrant integration, citizenship, and success that show the positive impact of immigrants are helpful to reporters and can increase the likelihood of positive coverage. For example, a study entitled “Inheriting the City”— which was included in several news stories from our sample—focused on how immigrants are assimilating and contributing to New York’s culture and economy. Perhaps advocates can release studies in states across the nation that show the positive impact immigrants have.61 Citywide or nationwide studies are helpful when they present immigrants within a larger context, beyond an individual. These stories should be framed with the idea that immigrants are an integral part of our communities at all levels. They contribute and benefit, as all of us do. Messages should not reinforce the notion that people have to earn the right to be here by being model contributors.

  6. Pro-immigrant religious leaders should proactively reach out to reporters covering immigration. The group most frequently quoted in the analysis was public officials; by contrast, religious leaders—who can add an important humanitarian perspective to the immigration debate—were rarely quoted.

  7. Immigrants should also do more to reach out to the media, as they were rarely quoted in the sample, despite being the subject of discussion.

  8. Immigration advocates can counter dehumanizing language by using language focused on immigrants as people; “immigrant families” or “people who are immigrants” are two phrases that could be used. Shining a spotlight on immigrants as families will further allow viewers and listeners to relate to immigrants. Advocates can also use positive messaging focused on the contributions immigrants make to our nation and on integration.

  9. Immigration advocates should focus on values when addressing stories about enforcement. Cases of raids in which undocumented immigrants were denied due process, or in which legal immigrants were mistaken for undocumented immigrants, are clear violations of our national values of fairness and justice. Messages focusing on this, rather than on harm experienced by individual immigrants, are more likely to strike a chord with the public and raise support for fixing a flawed system. This approach can also shift attention away from the notion of immigrants breaking the law. In addition, when it comes to law enforcement topics, it is important to try to expand stories beyond portraying immigrants as either victims or perpetrators, dominant characters in the law enforcement theme, and find ways to include them in other roles.

  10. Immigration reform goes beyond economic implications and affects other aspects of life, including hate crimes. It is critical that immigration advocates make their voices heard to emphasize the contributions that immigrants make. While this might not immediately result in a decrease in hate crimes, it will reinforce a positive view of immigrants and is certainly a step in the right direction.

  11. Immigration advocates need to use consistent messages about the positive role immigrants play, and they must be careful not to use terminology or language that reinforces the negative stereotypes that anti-immigration advocates offer.

  12. Only advocates with ample media training and experience should go on shows with hosts who might be hostile to their point of view (Laura Ingraham or Bill O’Reilly, for example). A pro-immigrant advocate hoping to receive more-objective coverage would do better on an NPR show, since this outlet can offer advocates the opportunity to be heard without having to confront net- work biases. Advocates should also seek out cable shows where hosts are more objective on the immigration issue (such as Fareed Zakaria and Wolf Blitzer).


Television and radio news coverage is crucial in influencing the public discourse around immigration. Although many broadcast hosts and anti-immigrant advocates are propagating misinformation, immigration advocates can take the concrete steps outlined in this analysis to sway policymakers and the public. One of the most important points made in this analysis is that advocates need to use consistent values-based messages to be more effective.

Appendix A: Methodology

We undertook an analysis of broadcast coverage of immigration, including radio, cable, and broadcast television outlets. Using, we searched transcripts from the following sources:

  • ABC News
  • CBS News
  • CNN
  • Fox News Network
  • National Public Radio (NPR)
  • NewsHour with Jim Lehrer
  • NBC News

We searched for stories on immigration in these outlets over a three-month time period, sorted them by relevance within Nexis, and chose the top 84 stories for in-depth analysis.

We searched for stories from the archives of popular talk radio hosts with wide listenerships:

  • Rush Limbaugh
  • Glenn Beck

We examined 10 stories from Limbaugh and 10 from Beck.

We also searched the websites of the following radio show personalities, most of which lack archives:

  • Sean Hannity’s site does not have an archive, but since he is also on Fox News, he was covered when we performed a Nexis search.
  • Don Imus does not have an archive.
  • Paul Harvey does not have an archive.
  • Ed Schultz does not have a searchable archive.
  • We searched Rachel Maddow’s archive using our keywords and did not turn up any results.

We searched by accessing archives for Limbaugh and Beck, since Nexis does not include them in its archives. Unfortunately, the technology on these sites does not support an advanced search through which a time frame can be specified. Moreover, the number of search terms one can use is limited.

In addition to stories from the national outlets, we examined 82 local stories. In order to search local television and radio coverage and to include geographic diversity, we searched broadcast outlets from the following cities:

  • Los Angeles
  • Dallas
  • Miami
  • New York
  • Chicago

Stories from these cities provided us with an on the ground perspective from diverse regions with large immigrant populations and/or a heated immigration debate.

As we did for Limbaugh and Beck, we searched outlets in the cities listed above by accessing archives for individual stations, since Nexis does not include these stations in its archives. Unfortunately, often the technology on the sites of local television and radio outlets did not support an advanced search in which we could specify a time frame. Where it was impossible to specify dates, we at- tempted to choose one relevant story per month from a three-month time period. In some cases, we needed to go back several months to find relevant stories.

For consistency, we selected the local ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX television stations to view how each region covered the issue of immigration. We also included a variety of talk and news radio stations. Based on in-depth research, we selected the following outlets to include in our analysis:

Los Angeles

  • KABC (TV)
    • Local ABC affiliate
  • KCAL (TV)
    • Local CBS affiliate
  • KCOP (TV)
    • Local FOX affiliate
  • KNBC (TV)
    • Local NBC affiliate
  • KCRW (radio)
    • An NPR affiliate owned by Santa Monica College
  • KNX (radio)
    • A commercial station owned by CBS Radio


  • KTXA (TV)
    • Local CBS affiliate
  • WFAA (TV)
    • Local ABC affiliate
  • NBC 5 (TV)
    • Local NBC affiliate
  • KDFW (TV)
    • Local Fox affiliate
  • KRLD (radio)
    • Local CBS Radio affiliate
  • KERA (radio)
    • Local NPR affiliate


  • WFOR (TV)
    • Local CBS affiliate
  • WTVJ (TV)
    • Local NBC affiliate
  • WPLG (TV)
    • Local ABC affiliate
  • WSVN (TV)
    • Local FOX affiliate
  • We were unable to provide radio stations for the Miami area, as they either lack websites with search capacity or their search function yielded no results.

New York

  • WABC (TV)
    • Local ABC affiliate
  • WCBS (TV)
    • Local CBS affiliate
  • WNBC (TV)
    • Local NBC affiliate
  • WNYW (TV)
    • Local FOX affiliate
  • WNYC (radio)
    • An NPR affiliate with classical music, news, and talk
  • WINS (radio)
    • A commercial station owned by CBS Radio with a news format


  • WBBM (TV)
    • Local CBS affiliate
  • WFLD (TV)
    • Local FOX affiliate
  • WLS (TV)
    • Local ABC affiliate
  • WMAQ (TV)
    • Local NBC affiliate
  • WGN (radio)
    • A commercial station owned by Tribune Broadcasting Co. with a news and talk format
  • WBEZ (radio)
    • An NPR affiliate with a talk and news format


In keeping with past media analyses undertaken for The Opportunity Agenda, we used the following keywords:

  • Immigration
  • Immigrant

Appendix B: Bylines

ABC News

  • Andrea Canning (GMA)
  • Eric Horng

Glenn Beck (9 stories)

  • Amy Holmes
  • Joe Pagliarulo (subbing for Beck)


  • Wolf Blitzer
  • Campbell Brown
  • Alina Cho
  • Lou  Dobbs
  • Tony Harris
  • Chris Lawrence
  • David Mattingly
  • Kitty Pilgrim
  • Susan Roesgen
  • Dan Simon
  • Mary Snow
  • Bill Tucker (2 stories)
  • Fredricka Whitfield
  • Casey Wian (5 stories, all on Lou Dobbs’s program)
  • Fareed Zakaria (2 stories)

Fox News

  • Alan Colmes (3 stories)
  • Sean Hannity (2 stories)
  • E. D. Hill (3 stories)
  • Laura Ingraham (9 stories)
  • David Lee Miller (2 stories)
  • Heather Nauert
  • Oliver North
  • Robert Novak
  • Bill O’Reilly (5 stories)
  • Caroline  Shively
  • Jane Skinner
  • Greta Van Susteren

Rush Limbaugh (10 stories)


  • Dan Abrams


  • Margot Adler
  • Barbara Bradley
  • Hagerty Madeleine Brand (2 stories)
  • Farai Chideya
  • Cheryl Corley (2 stories)
  • Richard Gonzales (2 stories)
  • Adam Hochberg
  • Scott Horsley
  • Carrie Khan (2 stories)
  • Jennifer Ludden (5 stories)
  • Michel Martin (8 stories)
  • Renee Montagne
  • Michele Norris
  • Ted Robbins (2 stories)
  • Claudio Sanchez

NewsHour with Jim Lehrer

  • Jeffrey Kaye
  • Paul Solman
  • Judy Woodruff



  • Susan Carlson
  • Katie McCall
  • Mai Martinez


  • Lynette Kalsnes
  • Chip Mitchell (2 stories)


  • Jeff Goldblatt
  • Byron Harlan
  • Darlene Hill


  • Jim Gudas
  • Milt Rosenberg
  • Orien Samuelson


  • Teresa Gutierrez (3 stories)


  • Mary Ann Ahern
  • Natalie Martinez
  • Alex Perez



  • Shaun Rabb


  • BJ Austin (2 stories)
  • Bill Zeeble


  • Scott Braddock


  • Mark Johnson


  • Ashanti Blaize
  • Meredith Land
  • Grant Stinchfield


  • Monika Diaz
  • Gary Reaves

Los Angeles


  • Miriam Hernandez
  • Melissa MacBride
  • Subha Ravindhran


  • Ken Wayne


  • Bob DeCastro
  • Steve Edwards
  • Dorothy Lucey
  • Jillian Reynolds
  • Phil Shuman


  • Warren Olney (3 stories)


  • Cary Berglund
  • Conan Nolan
  • Vicky Vargas


  • Claudio Pescuita



  • Carey Codd
  • Ileana Varela


  • Jen Herrera
  • Jim Piggott


  • Carmel Cafiero


  • Nick Bogert
  • Sharon Lawson
  • Tom Llamas
  • Hank Tester

New York


  • Tony Aiello
  • Hazel Sanchez


  • Al Jones


  • Vivian Lee
  • Andrew Siff


  • Brian Lehrer
  • Leonard Lopate (2 stories)


  • Mike Sheehan

Appendix C: Notes

1. Mike Allen, “Talk Radio Helped Sink Immigration Reform,” Politico, August 20, 2007.

2.  The 2008 biennial news consumption survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press shows that 54% of respondents regularly watch local TV news; by contrast, 40% of re- spondents had read the newspaper the previous day.

3. Pew Hispanic Center, “Statistical Portrait of the Foreign-Born Population in the United States, 2006.”.

4. Rush Limbaugh, “Secret Washington Deal on Amnesty Lite?” February 14, 2008.

5. WBBM, “Second Illegal Immigrant Seeks Refuge in Church,” January 27, 2008.

6.  Fox News, “Immigration Reform,” June 20, 2008.

7.  WSVN, “SWAT Raids Wrong Home, Calls Error ‘Mistake,’” April 10,   2008.

8.  MSNBC, “Verdict with Dan Abrams,” August 6, 2008.

9.  NPR (Tell Me More), “Government Ads Nudge Immigrants to Self-Deport,” August 13, 2008.

10. CNN, “Violent Death in a Small Town Turning into Questions of Race and Hate,” August 3, 2008.

11. Fox News, “Is Talk Radio Fueling Hate Crimes?” July 25,   2008.

12. Glenn Beck, “Modern Day Slavery,” July 28,  2008.

13. NPR (Tell Me More), “Hospitals Fly Immigrants Back to Native Lands,” August 7, 2008; CNN (American Morning), “How Much Free Care Is a Hospital Required to Provide?” August 21, 2008.

14. WMAQ, “Undocumented Immigrant Teen Receives Kidney Transplant,” August 7, 2008.

15. WLS, “‘Empty Shoes’ Exhibit Draws Controversy,” May 8, 2008.

16. WBBM, “Head of Minuteman Group Speaks Amid Protests,” May 19, 2008.

17. CNN (Lou Dobbs Tonight), “Obama Wants American Kids Learning Spanish,” July 9, 2008.

18. NPR (Weekend Edition Sunday), “‘Second Generation’ Has Edge,” August 24, 2008.

19. KTXA, “New Citizen Has Special Respect for America,” May 22, 2008.

20. KNBC, “Son of Illegal Immigrants Wins Olympic Gold,” August 20,  2008.

21. WPLG, “Miami Mayor Becomes President of U.S. Conference of Mayors,” August 7,   2008.

22. NPR (Tell Me More), “Robles Shares Wisdom from Trailblazing Career,” July 9,    2008.

23. Media Matters, “Fear and Loathing in Prime Time: Immigration Myths and Cable News,” May 21, 2008.

24. NPR (Tell Me More), “California Rep. Says Immigration Issue Is Misunderstood,” May 27, 2008.

25. Fox News, “Just In,” June 19, 2008.

26. Fox News, “America’s Election Headquarters,” July 14, 2008.

27. WNYW, “Immigrant ID Card Controversy,” July 13, 2008.

28. WTVJ, “Immigration Attorney Criticizes ICE Raids,” April 7, 2008.

29. KCAL, “SoCal Cities Test ‘Deport Yourself’ Program,” August 3, 2008; WSVN, “Family and Friends Hold Vigil for Teen Facing Deportation,” June 11, 2008.

30. Fox News (The O’Reilly Factor), “Immigration Reform,” June 20, 2008.

31. Fox News (The O’Reilly Factor), “Unresolved Problem: Immigration Raids,” August 1, 2008; Fox News, “Just In,” June 30, 2008.

32. Fox News (The O’Reilly Factor), “Unresolved Problem: Immigration Raids,” August 1,   2008.

33. NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, “South Koreans Protest U.S. Beef Imports Policy,” June 11, 2008.

34. NPR (Tell Me More), “Robles Shares Wisdom from Trailblazing Career,” July 9,    2008.

35. NPR (Tell Me More), “Candidates Court Latino Voters at a Major Conference,” July 9, 2008; CNN, “Interview with John McCain; Q & A with Barack Obama,” July 27, 2008; NPR (Tell Me More), “Foreign Policy, Islam Rumors Headline Obama Forum,” July 28, 2008; Fox News, “Just In,” June 30, 2008; Fox News, “Reality Check: Obama on Immigration,” July 14, 2008.

36. CNN, “NALEO Conference,” June 28, 2008; CNN, “Obama, McCain Address Latino Groups,” July 8, 2008; NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, “Fed Announces New Lending Rules to Help Housing and Credit Markets,” July 8, 2008.

37. NPR (Morning Edition), “Immigration Issue Doesn’t Divide McCain, Obama,” June 10, 2008; Fox News, “America’s Election Headquarters,” July 8, 2008.

38. CNN, “Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Controversial Remarks about Obama,” July 9, 2008; CNN, “Mc- Cain’s Failure to Relaunch?; Country-Wide: Locating the Political Pulse on Importance of Presidential Election,” July 11, 2008; Fox News, “Obama English-Only Comment Stirs Controversy,” July 10, 2008; Rush Limbaugh, “Lord Obama: Ashamed of the U.S., Thinks Americans Are Backwards,” July 9, 2008; Rush Limbaugh, “Mrs. Clinton Targets Hispanic Vote,” January 28, 2008.

39. CNN, “NALEO Conference,” June 28, 2008; CNN, “Obama, McCain Address Latino Groups,” July 8, 2008.

40. CNN, “Interview with John McCain; Q & A with Barack Obama,” July 27, 2008.

41. Rush Limbaugh, “McCain Pushes for Amnesty for ‘God’s Children,’” May 23, 2008.

42. Glenn Beck, “America’s Toughest Sheriff,” June 12, 2008; CNN, “Broken Borders with New Tactics,” June 20, 2008; NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, “South Koreans Protest U.S. Beef Imports Policy,” June 11,  2008.

43. CNN, “San Francisco Mayor Switches Stance on Illegal Immigration,” July 7, 2008.

44. Fox News, “America’s Election Headquarters,” July 21, 2008.

45. NPR (Morning Edition), “San Francisco Under Fire for Immigrant ‘Sanctuary,’” July 31,  2008.

46. Fox News (The O’Reilly Factor), “Unresolved Problem: Immigration Raids,” August 1,   2008.

47. Fox News (The O’Reilly Factor), “Immigration Reform,” June 20, 2008.

48. Fox News (The Big Story with John Gibson), “Just In,” July 2,   2008.

49. WFLD, “Latino Community Protests Immigration Raids,” August 22, 2008.

50. ABC News, “Seeking Sanctuary; Safe Haven for Illegals,” July 20, 2008.

51. WMAQ, “Undocumented Immigrant Teen Receives Kidney Transplant,” August 7, 2008.

52. WFLD, “Immigration Speaker Sparks Controversy at DePaul University,” May 17, 2008.

53. NPR (Morning Edition), “San Francisco Admits to Shielding Immigrant Felons,” July 4, 2008; Fox News, “San Francisco Under Fire for Flying Illegal Drug Criminal Home,” July 1, 2008.

54. CNN, “San Francisco Mayor Switches Stance on Illegal Immigration,” July 7, 2008.

55. Glenn Beck, “San Francisco’s Illegal Crime Policy Questioned,” July 1, 2008.

56. ABC News, “Seeking Sanctuary; Safe Haven for Illegals,” July 20, 2008.

57. WFLD, “Few Takers in Self-Deport Program,” August 18, 2008; WLS, “Chicago Prepares for Immigration March,” April 28, 2008.

58. WBBM, “2nd Illegal Immigrant Seeks Refuge in Church,” January 27, 2008.

59. NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, “South Koreans Protest U.S. Beef Imports Policy,” June 11, 2008.

60. WFAA, “Lawyers Aim to End Immigrant Raids,” June 21, 2008.

61. Another example of a study showing the positive impact of immigrants was released by the Fiscal Policy Institute in November 2007. According to an article in The New York Times, the study, called “Working for a Better Life,” showed that immigrants contribute nearly one-fourth of the economic output of New York State, and outside New York City they are overrepresented in some critical occupations, including higher education and health care. The study received great media coverage, although it is not included in our sample since our methodology called for focusing on the last three months.

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