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Election In The Streets
How The Broadcast Networks Promote Illegal Immigration

By Tim Graham, MRC Director of Media Analysis
August 28, 2006

Full Report | PDF Version

Executive Summary

Spurred by a passionate public outcry against the tide of illegal immigration, on December 16, 2005, the House of Representatives passed a bill to curb the flow of illegal aliens and give the federal government more responsibility for detaining and deporting them. On that night, ABC, CBS, and NBC didn’t cover the vote. But when left-wing advocacy groups for illegal aliens organized large protests against the House bill in the spring, as the Senate considered its own immigration bill, the networks suddenly, fervently discovered the issue and gave the advocacy groups not a mere soapbox in the park, but a three-network rollout of free air time. Protest coverage, often one-sided, stood in stark contrast to polling data showing that a stricter approach to illegal immigration was broadly popular in the country.

To determine the tone and balance of network coverage of illegal aliens, MRC analysts evaluated every ABC, CBS, and NBC morning, evening, and magazine show news segment on the immigration debate from the outbreak of protest coverage on March 24, 2006 through May 31, 2006. In 309 stories, analysts found the following trends emerged:

While they celebrated "massive" immigration protests with "huge" crowds, the broadcast networks largely avoided scientific polling data that showed the protesters were in an overwhelming minority. The USA Today-Gallup poll asked whether illegal immigration is "out of control" or "not out of control." Fully 81 percent said "out of control." Fox News asked how serious illegal immigration was as a problem: 60 percent said very serious, 30 percent said somewhat serious. That's 90 percent. These polls were never cited by ABC, CBS, or NBC. In contrast to hundreds of words emphasizing a huge "wave" of "pro-immigrant" activism, the networks aired only 16 mentions of nationwide polls on immigration that considered the opinion of non-protesters. Two of them were CBS polls emphasizing support for a "guest worker" program after a long list of conditions.

Advocates of opening a wider path to citizenship were almost twice as likely to speak in news stories as advocates of stricter immigration control. Advocates for amnesty and guest-worker programs drew 504 soundbites in the study period, compared to just 257 for tighter border control. (Sixty-nine soundbites were neutral). On the days of pro-illegal-alien rallies, their critics nearly disappeared from the screen. For instance, on the night of April 10, the soundbite count on the three evening newscasts and ABC’s Nightline was 43 to 2 in favor of the protesters. When the debate shifted to Capitol Hill in May, coverage grew more balanced.

While conservative labels were common, liberal labels were rarely or never used. In the study period, reporters referred to "conservatives" or "conservative" groups 89 times, most intensely during legislative debate in May, when President Bush was presented as having to "appease" his "conservative" base. NBC’s Matt Lauer even referred to Bush’s base as the "far right." By contrast, the "liberal" label was used only three times – all of them by ABC. CBS and NBC never used the word, even as hard-left protest organizers described the House bill on public radio as full of "horrendous and macabre clauses, fascist clauses."

While protests centered on underlining the vital role illegal aliens play in the American economy, the burdens of illegal immigration in added government costs or crime were barely covered. While the networks poured out their air time to the sympathetic stories of hard-working immigrant families, only six out of 309 stories mentioned studies that illegal aliens cost more to governments than they provide in tax dollars. Only six stories gave a mention to the problem of the cost or threat of criminal aliens.

The networks have not dropped the word "illegal" in favor of "undocumented" immigrants, although some reporters struggled to adopt clumsy liberal-preferred terminology. Groups like the National Association of Hispanic Journalists have urged their colleagues to never use the word "illegal," but the word was still more than five times more common than "undocumented." In 309 stories, there were 381 uses of the word "illegal," and 73 uses of "undocumented." But some reporters struggled to please: NBC’s Kevin Tibbles actually referred to protests by "those who critics call illegals."

The report concludes with recommendations for a more balanced picture in network news coverage of the immigration debate. Newscasters need to acknowledge that protests, even large ones, are often an incomplete measure of public opinion. Both sides of the debate deserve a chance to speak in news stories, not just voices "emerging from the shadows" that reporters sympathetically promote. On this issue, as well as many others, network newscasts ought to reflect the reality that the political debate is between conservatives and liberals, not conservatives and supposed nonpartisans painted in gauzy terms like "immigrant rights groups" – even as they decried "fascist" opponents.



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