The Language of Immigration Reporting: Normalizing vs. Watchdogging in a Nativist Age

Emily B. Ndulue, Fernando Bermejo, Kristian Ramos, Sarah E. Lowe, Nathaniel Hoffman, & Ethan Zuckerman
Date of Publication: 
May, 2019
Source Organization: 

Terms such as “illegal immigrant” and “alien” are both dehumanizing and misleading, yet such phrases are increasingly used in media coverage of immigration. “Normalizing vs. Watchdogging in a Nativist Age” is a collaboration between researchers from Define American, the MIT Media Lab, and Harvard University that seeks to understand how news media have portrayed immigration during the years of the Trump administration. The authors found that, since 2014, there has been a “significant jump” in the use of derogatory language in major newspapers such as The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and USA Today. Not only was there an increase in the use of such language in reporting on the statements of politicians or commentators, the newspapers also used these terms in their original text at a higher rate. Furthermore, data showed that major newspapers increased their references to extreme anti-immigrant groups during that time frame. Over 90 percent of the time, for example, these newspapers treated the extremist Center for Immigration Studies as a neutral and legitimate source of information. The researchers cautioned that use of derogatory terms in media could reinforce anti-immigrant sentiment, and recommended that news agencies change their style guidelines to require more neutral terminology. According to the authors, “mirroring the corrosive language of this administration and of extremist groups is dehumanizing vulnerable populations and legitimizing hate speech.”

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Ndulue, E. B., Bermejo, F., Ramos, K., Lowe, S., Hoffman, N., & Zuckerman, E. (2019). The language of immigration reporting: Normalizing vs. watchdogging in a nativist age. Retrieved from