Cable news outlets continue to use slur to describe undocumented immigrants

Fox News used “illegal immigrant” or its variations over 10 times more than other cable networks

A Media Matters study of the use of the term “illegal immigrant” or any of its variations on cable evening programming found that in the first seven months of 2017, CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News described undocumented immigrants using that derogatory terminology 1,296 times, despite calls to end the practice from journalistic guidelines and linguists for its dehumanizing effects and its grammatical inaccuracy. Fox News was by far the worst offender, using the disparaging terms 1,107 times from January 1 to July 31, 2017. CNN and MSNBC used the denigrating terms 102 and 87 times, respectively, in the same time period.

Evening cable shows continue to describe undocumented immigrants in denigrating terms

CNN's evening programming used disparaging terminology to describe undocumented immigrants 102 times from January 1 to July 31, 2017. On CNN, speakers described undocumented immigrants as illegal 102 times from January 1 to July 31, 2017.

Fox News’ evening programming used anti-immigrant language to describe undocumented immigrants 1,107 times from January 1 to July 31, 2017. Fox News vastly surpassed CNN and MSNBC in its usage of the disparaging terms to describe undocumented immigrants. In the first seven months of 2017, Fox News used “illegal immigrant” or its variations almost 11 times more than CNN and almost 13 times more than MSNBC.

MSNBC’s evening programming used denigrating language to refer to undocumented immigrants 87 times in the first seven months of 2017. On MSNBC, speakers used denigrating language while referring to undocumented immigrants 87 different times during weekday evening shows. Hardball host Chris Matthews accounted for 31 of the 81, repeatedly using some variation of the disparaging term “illegal immigrant” to frequently refer to President Donald Trump’s birther smear that former President Barack Obama is an undocumented immigrant from Kenya, Africa.

Media organizations, linguists, and the Library of Congress call the practice of describing a person as “illegal” “dehumanizing,” “pejorative,” and “grammatically incorrect”

AP Stylebook guidelines state that “‘illegal’ should describe only an action, not a person." In April 2013, as a result of the “Drop the I-Word” (DTIW) campaign launched by the national racial justice organization Race Forward, The Associated Press (AP) announced that it had changed its style guidelines, writing that one should use the term illegal “only to refer to an action, not a person.” From the AP blog post (emphasis original):

illegal immigration Entering or residing in a country in violation of civil or criminal law. Except in direct quotes essential to the story, use illegal only to refer to an action, not a person: illegal immigration, but not illegal immigrant. Acceptable variations include living in or entering a country illegally or without legal permission. [The Associated Press, 4/2/13; Colorlines, 4/2/17Media Matters, 1/23/17]

For more information about Race Forward's “Drop the I-Word” campaign, click here.

DTIW’s journalist guide exhorts writers to avoid using the word “illegal” in immigration reporting. In its newly updated style guide for journalists, the Drop the I-Word campaign says writers should avoid using “illegal” to describe people in their immigration reporting. The guide instead says to “use terms that are legally accurate and avoid racially and politically charged labels.” [ Drop the I-Word, “Journalist Style Guide for Covering Immigration,” accessed 9/13/17]

Library of Congress announced it will cancel the heading “illegal aliens,” noting that the term is “problematic” and “pejorative.” On March 22, 2016, the Library of Congress responded to a grass-roots effort focused on removing the term “illegal alien” from the library’s subject headings, writing in a statement (emphasis original), “The heading Illegal aliens will … be cancelled and replaced by two headings, Noncitizens and Unauthorized immigration.” The statement further noted, “The phrase illegal aliens has taken on a pejorative tone in recent years, and in response, some institutions have determined that they will cease to use it.” [Library of Congress, 3/22/16; Media Matters, 1/23/17]

UCLA linguist professor explained that “the phrase ‘illegal immigrants’ is neither ‘accurate nor neutral.’” Otto Santa Ana, a linguist and professor in UCLA’s Department of Chicana/o Studies, told The Guardian in 2015 that “other law-breakers are not referred to as illegal, making immigrants an outlier in the naming system,” the paper reported. Ana further said that many other linguists also agree that “the phrase ‘illegal immigrants’ is neither ‘accurate nor neutral.’”

Asian American Journalists Association has called on newsrooms to stop using “illegal” to describe undocumented immigrants, noting that the slur “carries racial overtones.” In a call to newsrooms to “reclaim their duty of neutrality,” the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) published a statement urging newsrooms to abandon the use of the terminology “illegal immigrant,” which the AAJA called “an offensive descriptor that should no longer be used — much as outdated labels should never be used to describe people of color.” [Asian American Journalists Association, accessed 9/10/17]

National Association of Hispanic Journalists issued a reminder to journalists not to use “pejorative terms” in their immigration coverage. The National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) issued a statement on June 23, 2016, reminding journalists not to use “pejorative terms like ‘illegals' -- which is shorthand for ‘illegal aliens,’ another term NAHJ objects to using -- to describe the estimated 12 million undocumented people living in the United States.” NAHJ explained that “using ‘illegals’ in this way is grammatically incorrect and crosses the line by dehumanizing and criminalizing the person, not the action they are purported to have committed.” The NAHJ added, “By incessantly using metaphors like ‘illegals,’ the news media is not only appropriating the rhetoric used by people on a particular side of the issue, but also the implication of something criminal or worthy of suspicion.” [Media Matters, 1/23/17, 6/24/16]


Media Matters analyzed Nexis transcripts of CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC’s weekday programming between 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. from January 1, 2017, through July 31, 2017, searching for uses of the terms “illegal immigrants,” “illegal aliens,” and “illegals” and counting every time the denigrating terminology was used in the context of unlawful immigration. We counted any instance in which a speaker described a person as “illegal” but did not include the use of such terms as “illegal immigration” in which an action, and not a person, was described as illegal. Only original uses of the disparaging term were counted, meaning that the use of the denigrating terminology in a previously aired video clip (e.g. from a public event and not from an exclusive interview with the network) or in a direct quote did not qualify. Instances in which a person used the terminology to explain why it should not be used were also not counted. Special programming such as town hall events were not included in the analysis. Throughout the study, the derogatory phrase “illegal immigrant” frequently appeared in the context of Donald Trump’s false claim that Barack Obama was born in Africa. Those situations were included in the final count.