STUDY: Mainstream Media Use Anti-Immigrant Slur In Discussions Of Undocumented Immigrants

Media Matters study counted the number of instances in which cable and broadcast news programs used, without pushback, the anti-immigrant slur “illegal immigrant” or variations of the term to describe undocumented immigrants, a practice that has been increasingly rejected by journalistic organizations, style critics, and other institutions. Starting from then-presidential candidate Donald Trump's September 2016 speech on immigration that used the slur through his election and into the transition, Media Matters found variations of “illegal immigrant” used on both evening and Sunday cable and broadcast news shows: ABC was the only network to avoid using such terminology entirely, while Fox News was by far the worst offender.

Journalist Organizations And The Library Of Congress Have Deemed The Practice Of Describing A Person As “Illegal” “Dehumanizing” And “Grammatically Incorrect”

AP Stylebook Guidelines Declare That “‘Illegal’ Should Describe Only An Action, Not A Person." In April 2013, The Associated Press announced that it was changing its guidelines, suggesting that one should “use ‘illegal’ only to refer to an action, not a person.” From the AP Stylebook Online (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]

National Association Of Hispanic Journalists Issued A Reminder To Journalists Not To Use Anti-Immigrant Slurs In Immigration Coverage. The National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) issued a statement on June 23 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, 5/24/16]

Library Of Congress Announces It Will Revise The Heading “Illegal Aliens,” Noting That The Term Is “Problematic” And “Pejorative.” On March 22, the Library of Congress responded to a grass-roots effort focused on removing the degrading term “illegal alien” from the library, saying, “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, 10/22/16]

But Anti-Immigrant Slurs Are Still Used During Weekday Evening Shows On Cable News Networks

CNN Hosts And Contributors Have Used Anti-Immigrant Slurs 39 Times Since September. CNN hosts and contributors used anti-immigrant slurs during CNN’s evening news programs 39 times between September 1, 2016, the day of then-Republican nominee Donald Trump’s immigration speech in Arizona, and January 10, 2017. In 23 additional instances, a CNN guest used an anti-immigrant slur and the host of the segment did not correct the degrading language.

MSNBC Hosts And Contributors Used Anti-Immigrant Slurs 28 Times. MSNBC hosts and contributors described undocumented immigrants as “illegal” 28 times. The total count includes seven times in which the term “illegal immigrant” was used to describe Trump’s false claim that President Obama was an “illegal immigrant.” In addition, MSNBC guests used some variation of the slur a total of 17 times. On two separate occasions, there was discussion of how describing a person as “illegal” is inaccurate and pejorative; those instances were not counted.

Fox News Hosts And Contributors Used Anti-Immigrants Slurs 333 Times. Fox News used derogatory terms such as “illegal immigrant,” “illegal alien,” and “illegals” almost exclusively to describe undocumented immigrants, employing anti-immigrant slurs 335 times. Fox guests accounted for an additional 71 instances in which degrading slurs were used to talk about undocumented immigrants. There was one occasion in which a guest on The O’Reilly Factor, Tufts Daily News editor Liam Knox, pushed back on Fox host Bill O’Reilly for referring to undocumented immigrants as “illegals.” O’Reilly rejected his correction.

CBS Evening News Was The Only Broadcast Nightly News Show To Use Anti-Immigrant Slurs

CBS Hosts And Contributors Used Slurs Five Times On CBS Evening News. On five occasions, hosts or contributors used anti-immigrant slurs while reporting on immigration issues on CBS Evening News; there were no instances within the given time frame in which guests used any anti-immigrant slurs.

ABC’s Evening News Show World News Tonight Did Not Use Any Anti-Immigrant Slurs. ABC’s nightly news show World News Tonight did not use any anti-immigrant slurs between September 1, 2016, and January 10, 2017.

NBC Nightly News Did Not Use Any Anti-Immigrant Slurs. NBC Nightly News did not use any anti-immigrant slurs between September 1, 2016, and January 10, 2017.

Most Major Sunday News Programs Allowed Guests To Use Anti-Immigrant Slurs Without Pushback

ABC’s This Week Was The Only Sunday Show That Did Not Use Any Anti-Immigrant Slurs. Neither ABC contributors nor guests used anti-immigrant slurs.

One CNN State Of The Union Guest Used Anti-Immigrant Slurs Repeatedly Without Pushback. CNN host Jake Tapper allowed guest Rudy Giuliani to incorrectly describe immigrants as “illegal” four times without correcting him. Tapper did not use any anti-immigrant slurs himself.

One Fox News Sunday Guest Used An Anti-Immigrant Slur Without Pushback. On one occasion, host Chris Wallace allowed a guest to use an anti-immigrant slur without pushback.

On CBS’ Face The Nation, Four Guests Used Anti-Immigrant Slurs Without Being Corrected. In four instances, CBS guests used degrading terms to describe undocumented immigrants and were not met with pushback from host John Dickerson.

NBC’s Meet The Press Host Allowed Trump To Use Anti-Immigrant Slurs Without Pushback. Anti-immigrant slurs appeared on NBC’s Sunday show twice, in both instances by Trump during an interview with Meet The Press host Chuck Todd. Todd did not correct the president-elect’s use of the derogatory terminology.


Media Matters reviewed Nexis transcripts of CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News’ weekday programming between 5 and 11 p.m. from the day following President-elect Donald Trump’s Phoenix, AZ, speech on immigration to the second week of January (September 1, 2016, through January 10, 2017), not including the 6 to 7 p.m. hour of MSNBC, for which transcripts are not available.

Media Matters reviewed every transcript of the qualifying shows for the terms or variations of the terms “illegal immigrants,” “illegal aliens,” and “illegals” and counted every instance in which any term that described a person as “illegal” was used. The search did not count terms such as “illegal immigration” in which an action, and not a person, is described as illegal.

Media Matters also used the same search parameters to review transcripts from the following shows during the same time frame (September 1, 2016, through January 10, 2017): ABC’s This Week and ABC World News Tonight, CBS’ Face the Nation and CBS Evening News, and NBC’s Meet the Press and NBC Nightly News, CNN’s State of the Union, and Fox Broadcasting Co.’s Fox News Sunday.

Sarah Wasko, Julie Alderman, and Cristina López contributed to this report.