Immigration is such a contentious issue that readers can often tell the position of a journalist or media outlet on the issue in the first few sentences of an article. From illegal alien to undocumented migrant, there are a variety of words used to describe immigration that portray media bias.
AllSides analyzed 100 articles from outlets across the AllSides Media Bias Chart™ on immigration. Their word choice and stylization on the issue of immigration demonstrated the opinions of the left and right on the topic.
Words News Outlets Use to Describe Immigration
News outlets used different terms to describe people crossing the southern border of the United States. Outlets on the right were far more likely to describe people as “illegal” — in fact all outlets from the right side used the term — while outlets on the left more commonly used the term “undocumented.” “Alien” was also a term used predominantly on the right, and “migrant” was used more often in articles from outlets on the left. “Refugee” was used more on the left.
AllSides analyzed outlets that used each respective word at least once across five stories about immigration to the United States from the southern border. All stories were from 2023.
AllSides analyzed 100 articles from outlets on the AllSides Media Bias Chart™. We selected five outlets from each of the Lean Left, Left, Lean Right, and Right categories. We looked at five articles from those outlets that mentioned immigration; three articles were about immigration in general, one was about immigrants being sent to blue states/cities, and one was about the end of Title 42.
The percentage of words used in each outlet in the analysis are as follows:
Notably, some outlets bucked the trends.
Slate (Left bias), which primarily publishes opinion pieces, used the terms immigrant and migrant as well as illegal and undocumented, but did use the term refugee the most of any outlet. The Daily Beast (Left bias) used the terms immigrant, migrant, and illegal, contrary to other outlets on the left, by describing unauthorized immigrants as “illegal crossers,” a term not seen used by other outlets analyzed. The Washington Post (Lean Left bias) also used the term illegal in its coverage, sometimes – though sparingly – describing immigrants as “illegal immigrants.”
A Look At How the Left and Right Cover Immigration
Across the political spectrum, media outlets used the issue of immigration to display bias in their headlines about the topic.
Here’s a snapshot of a few selected headlines from the left that were part of the analysis:
- Vox (Left bias): “Why immigration policy is so inhumane,” “A guide to Ron DeSantis’s most extreme policies in Florida,” and “Ron DeSantis’s immigration law is already leading to worker shortages.”
- Slate (Left bias): “Ron DeSantis’ New Target: 8-Year-Old Kids of Asian Descent,” and “Biden Will Never Get Us Out of the Trump Era Like This.”
- HuffPost (Left bias): “If Trump 'Finished’ His Wall Like He Claims, How Are So Many Migrants Still Crossing?”
The framing of headlines on the left make their bias clear by implying that Trump is making false claims, that we need to get out of the “Trump Era,” and that DeSantis is writing “extreme” policies and targeting children.
Left-rated outlets tended to use word choice to make a point of which politicians were “bad.” Some Lean Left-rated outlets did the same – see Washington Post’s (Lean Left bias) headline “How Gov. Ron DeSantis deploys state police to enforce political agenda” and TIME (Lean Left bias) “Biden's Rightward Shift on Immigration Draws Comparisons to Trump” – but more often, Lean Left outlets focused on the plight of immigrants:
- TIME (Lean Left bias): “Immigrants Deserve More from Biden,” “Migrant Aid Groups on the Border Are Stretched Thin as Title 42 Expires.”
- ABC News (Lean Left bias): “DACA recipients leaving US, disheartened by legal limbo” and “Migrants bused from Texas to Los Angeles in move mayor calls 'despicable stunt'.”
- CNN (Lean Left bias): “CNN trekked with migrants through the treacherous Darien Gap.”
While it is not wrong to cover the challenges and difficulties immigrants face, covering that much more often than cities being overwhelmed by immigrants during the same time period is an example of story choice bias.
Lean Right-rated outlets occasionally painted Biden as an enemy, with headlines like The Epoch Times’ (Lean Right bias) “Florida AG Scores Win in Court Battle With Biden Administration Over Border Crisis.” Lean Right outlets also emphasized the surge of illegal immigrants at the border far more than outlets on the left:
- The Post Millennial (Lean Right bias): “Texas buses illegal immigrants to Denver amid border surge,” “SAVANAH HERNANDEZ REPORTS: Tens of thousands of illegal immigrants flood into Texas ahead of Title 42 expiration.”
- The Epoch Times (Lean Right bias): “US to Send 1,500 Troops to Southern Border Ahead of Expected Surge of Illegal Immigrants,” “Title 42 Set to Expire as Thousands of Migrants Approach Southern Border.”
- The Washington Examiner (Lean Right bias): “Border Patrol mistakenly released terror watch list suspect amid illegal immigration surge,”
- The Washington Times (Lean Right bias): “Illegal immigration already surging even before end of Title 42.”
Emphasizing the legal status of unauthorized immigrants and the amount of them makes the issue seem more dire and justifies stricter policies.
Like Lean Right outlets, Right-rated outlets focused on the number of unauthorized immigrants entering the country: “Biden’s Countdown to End Title 42: Nearly 400K Migrants May Arrive at Southern Border Every Month,” “Border App Releases Almost 80,000 Foreign Nationals Into U.S. In Last Four Months,” “Nearly 300,000 illegal immigrants slipped past border agents in less than four months: sources,” and “2M Immigrants Released Into US 'Here Indefinitely.’”
But, like Left-rated outlets, some of the headlines had more overtly political wording:
- Newsmax (Right bias): “Judge Slams WH for Releasing Migrants After Title 42”
- National Review (Right bias): “Federal Court Finds Biden’s Immigration Parole Scam Illegal”
- Fox News (Right bias): “Biden admin's taxpayer-backed contracts to help illegal immigrants avoid deportation come under a microscope”
Right-rated outlets, in these headlines, invoked bias by implying Biden was the “bad guy” similarly to how Left-rated outlets addressed Trump and DeSantis.
Read more about immigration on AllSides.
Blog written by Andrew Weinzierl & Clare Ashcraft. Andrew is the Bias Research Manager & Data Journalist at AllSides. He has a Lean Left bias. Clare is the Bridging & Bias Specialist at AllSides and has a Center bias. Research in part conducted by AllSides’ Research & Content Intern, Mike Guo (Lean Left).