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Election in The Streets:

How The Broadcast Networks Promote Illegal Immigration

5. The networks have not dropped the word "illegal" in favor of "undocumented" immigrants, although some reporters struggled to adopt clumsy liberal-preferred terminology.

Chart5Groups like the National Association of Hispanic Journalists have urged their colleagues to avoid the word "illegal" (see text box), 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 utterances of "undocumented." The words often appeared in the same story together as interchangeable terms.

In March, CBS seemed to be the most enamored of "undocumented," using "illegal" 20 times and "undocumented" 17 times. But in the next two months, it shifted toward the typical pattern found in the study period, with 75 uses of "illegal" and 10 of "undocumented." CBS’s ratio of 95 to 27 was the closest to equal. NBC’s ratio was 137 to 23. ABC’s was 149 to 23.

Most of the time, the networks did not follow the NAHJ demands. But some reporters struggled to please: on Today, NBC’s Kevin Tibbles actually referred to protests by "those who critics call illegals." The word "alien," especially disliked by advocacy groups like the NAHJ, was rare. It was only used on seven occasions (three on ABC, three on NBC, one on CBS).

Other Immigration Terms. Analysts studied a few other terms to investigate the pattern and frequency of their use. "Immigration reform" was fairly common, used on 115 occasions in the study period. NBC employed it on 46 occasions, ABC had 35 uses of the word, and CBS had 34. While in most stories, "reform" was used to describe the more liberal Senate bill, there were a few mentions of "reform" as describing the House bill.

The notion of illegal-immigrant "rights" was popular in protester lingo, and surfaced on 31 occasions, usually to describe "immigrant rights groups" or to explain the cause of protesters. CBS used it most frequently, on 14 occasions. NBC had 11, and ABC had 6. CBS reporter Sandra Hughes explained on the March 24 Evening News that while the Senate worked up its "immigration reform" bill, "others are calling for more restrictive reform. Immigrant rights groups say they won’t back down."

TextBox6Only one news report attempted to ponder briefly the concept of illegal-alien rights. On May 1, NBC’s Lester Holt noted: "But the question over whether illegal immigrants should have rights is one many American workers remain unsure of." A man on the street insisted the concept upset him, "because there’s a lot of people who want to be American citizens, but they’ve got to go through the right channels."

The word "amnesty" is seen as a word conservatives favor, and was only used on 30 occasions, usually to describe what conservatives believe guest-worker programs represent. NBC used the word on 13 occasions, ABC 10, and CBS 7. Newspaper accounts of protests could be absolutely allergic to the word "amnesty" — in all of the Washington Post’s April 11 coverage of protests, it never used the word.

As passage of the more liberal Senate bill drew near in late May, all three networks used the complimentary adjective "landmark" to describe it, with NBC using the word four times, CBS twice and ABC twice. Once again, it was described prematurely as a "landmark" before the vote. How are the networks so sure what will be seen as "history" or a "landmark" by future generations? To viewers, it often sounds like spin for a bill journalists seem to favor.

While reporters on a few occasions divided the fight over illegal immigration with the simplistic and inaccurate terms "pro-immigration" and "anti-immigration," the concept that border-control advocates were obvious or closeted racists was rare. In a profile of conservative Rep. Tom Tancredo on the April 5 Nightline, Terry Moran noted Katrina Vanden Heuvel of The Nation magazine thought he was a racist. She claimed "some of the white supremacist thinking that used to be represented by David Duke has been absorbed by people like Tancredo...the draconian legislation in the House is un-American."

In May it erupted — from a soundbite in a story — when Sen. Harry Reid proclaimed on several networks that an amendment was "racist" because it insisted no person has the right to claim the United States had to provide services or materials in any other language than English.

ABC may have used the strangest hyperbole in the debate by using the theme "Immigration Wars" to frame their immigration stories on 29 occasions.