STUDY: On Fox News, Immigrants Are Synonymous With Criminality

According to the most recent U.S. Census data, there are nearly 309 million people in the United States. Of those, the Pew Research Center estimates that 11.2 million are undocumented immigrants. Yet Fox News would have you believe that number to be much, much higher if the type of discussions about immigration and immigrants on the network is any indication.

A Media Matters analysis of the immigration issues Fox News asked its guests to talk about between April 13, 2010, when Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed S.B. 1070 into law, and June 9, 2011, when Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley in turn signed an anti-immigration bill critics have called a “sweeping attack on immigrants and people of color,” reveals that Fox News views immigration through the prism of illegality and crime, almost to the exclusion of everything else.

During that time period, according to our data, of the 1,697 guest appearances (most of whom took anti-immigrant positions or held anti-immigrant views) 69 percent were prompted to discuss border security or other immigration enforcement measures. Besides immigration enforcement, topics included S.B. 1070, state laws that were similar in scope to the Arizona immigration law, the workplace immigration verification tool E-Verify, birthright citizenship, and other general enforcement measures. However, when crime, including border violence and other stories dealing with criminality were factored in, all told, these constituted 78 percent of the total immigration discussions on Fox News.

What many consider the real issues of immigration were all but ignored by Fox News. A paltry 11 percent of appearances was spent discussing immigration policy, including comprehensive immigration reform. The rest comprised the DREAM Act legislation, education, particularly in-state tuition measures for undocumented students, breaking news, political stories, the economy, and labor issues.

On every single show, save The O'Reilly Factor, at least 71 percent of the guest appearances discussed border security, enforcement issues, or crime. On The Factor, 57 percent of the guest appearances discussed these issues, while on Your World with Neil Cavuto, it was an astonishing 90 percent. On the Record with Greta Van Susteren and Happening Now followed with 85 percent apiece, with Hannity next with 84 percent, and America's Newsroom with 82 percent.

And yet, studies have shown that immigrants are less likely to be incarcerated and that immigrants do not commit crimes at higher rates than others. Moreover, for all their focus on border security and border violence, Fox News hosts and guests either rarely mentioned or brushed aside the fact that not only are illegal border crossings trending downward, there has also been no increase of crime in border states. But to Fox, this rarely matters.

In a September 2008 study examining immigration coverage in major media dating back to 1980, the Brookings Institution wrote:

The U.S. media have hindered effective policy making on immigration for decades, and their impact has been increasing in recent years as a result of an ongoing evolution in the media industry. Deeply ingrained practices in American journalism have produced a narrative that conditions the public to associate immigration with illegality, crisis, controversy and government failure. Meanwhile, new voices of advocacy on the media landscape have succeeded in mobilizing segments of the public in opposition to policy initiatives, sometimes by exaggerating the narrative of immigration told by traditional news organizations. The combined effect is to promote stalemate on an issue that is inherently difficult to resolve.

Brookings went on to caution that coverage centered on “illegal immigration and government's efforts to control it” would “logically cause the public and policymakers to associate the influx of the foreign born with violations of the law, disruption of social norms and government failures.” It further stated:

Immigrants, in particular, but also policymakers and advocates, have dominated the journalistic narratives to the exclusion of other critical actors, especially employers and consumers. At the simplest level, this has deprived the coverage of essential context by underemphasizing the role of the U.S. labor market in determining the size and characteristics of immigrant flows and overemphasizing the role of government. When their attitudes toward immigration turn negative, audiences exposed to this kind of coverage can readily view immigrants as villains and themselves as victims. Distrust of government -- a seeming accomplice or an incompetent protector -- is a natural byproduct.

Brookings concluded: “When immigration is associated with crime, crisis or controversy, it makes news. ... The breathless, on-and-off coverage -- more opera than ooze -- has mischaracterized a massive demographic event that has developed over decades and mostly through legal channels. And at the same time, it has helped create contours in public opinion that have rendered the enactment of new immigration policies ever more elusive.”

Indeed, this has been true of Fox, which campaigned vociferously in support of both S.B. 1070 and the Alabama immigration law, while hosts and guests attacked measures such as the DREAM Act and others that seek to grant in-state tuition to undocumented students.