As more migrants arrive at the U.S. southern border, the politically polarized issue of immigration was one of the most dominant topics in the coverage of President Joe Biden’s early days in the White House.

Biden’s early efforts around immigration got the most attention in news outlets with right-leaning audiences

Immigration was one of the five topics most covered by 25 major news outlets, according to a Pew Research Center study of news coverage of the first 60 days of the Biden administration, accounting for 11% of all stories. It was topped only by health care (17%) and the economy (22%). (References to COVID-19 were coded separately from topics.)

But the amount of attention paid to Biden’s handling of immigration issues varied significantly across media outlets – a finding borne out by the content analysis and a survey of 12,045 U.S. adults.  

This analysis of news coverage of immigration drew on Pew Research Center’s April 2021 report on news media coverage of the early days of the Biden administration and Americans’ perceptions of that coverage. The Center has analyzed news coverage of the beginning of each of the five presidential administrations since President Bill Clinton in 1993. The current study is comprised of two components, an analysis of media content and a survey analysis.

The analysis of media content is based on a selection of media coverage collected from Jan. 21 to March 21, 2021. Stories were collected from television, radio, digital and print outlets and coded by a team of nine coders trained specifically for this project. For more details, see the methodology.

For the survey analysis, we surveyed 12,045 U.S. adults from March 8 to 14, 2021. Everyone who completed the survey is a member of the Center’s American Trends Panel (ATP), an online survey panel that is recruited through national, random sampling of residential addresses. This way nearly all U.S. adults have a chance of selection. The survey is weighted to be representative of the U.S. adult population by gender, race, ethnicity, partisan affiliation, education and other categories. Read more about the ATP’s methodology.

See here to read more about the questions used for this report and the report’s methodology.

This is the latest report in Pew Research Center’s ongoing investigation of the state of news, information and journalism in the digital age, a research program funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts, with generous support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The topic of immigration (which included all references to immigration, including broader trends and changes in law, as well as stories about the border with Mexico) accounted for about twice as many stories from outlets with right-leaning audiences (20%) as from news outlets with left-leaning audiences (8% of stories) and those with ideologically mixed audiences (10%). (Details about how news outlets were grouped can be found here.) Indeed, among those outlets with right-leaning audiences, immigration was the No. 1 topic among stories related to the new administration, well ahead of both the economy (14%) and health care (13%).

Four years earlier, with Donald Trump pushing a crackdown on illegal immigration, the issue accounted for 14% of the stories about his first days in office, according to a similarly conducted study in 2017. The difference between then and now is that Trump’s immigration coverage was much more evenly distributed across outlets with left-leaning audiences (12%), mixed audiences (15%) and right-leaning audiences (also 15%).

Among top five topics covered, news stories about immigration policy under Biden were least likely to give positive assessments

The study also finds that the assessments of the Biden administration in stories about immigration during these first 60 days were more negative than the coverage overall. Across all stories studied, the tone of coverage of Biden’s new presidency was modestly more negative than positive – 32% of the stories carried a negative assessment, 23% carried a positive one and a plurality (45%) were neither positive nor negative.

But the assessments of the Biden administration’s handling of immigration were far more negative – about half of these stories (51%) had a negative assessment, compared with 15% that were positive and 34% that were neither. The only other topic among the top five to generate as much negative coverage was Biden’s political skills, at 53%. But there were also more positive stories on that topic (25%) and fewer that were neither (22%).

Americans who turn to outlets with right-leaning audiences most likely to have heard a lot about immigration and want to hear more

Americans who turn only to outlets with right-leaning audiences heard most about Biden immigration efforts

A companion survey of U.S. adults was conducted March 8-14 to add context to the content analysis, which had found that media outlets with right-leaning audiences were the most heavily focused on the immigration issue in Biden’s first days in office. 

About one-third of all Americans (30%) said they had heard a lot about the administration’s efforts around reforming immigration policy. That trailed far behind those who said they heard a lot about the passage of the economic stimulus bill (77%), the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine (74%) and Biden’s use of executive actions to overturn some of Trump’s policies (52%).

But 45% of those who only got political news in the past week from outlets with right-leaning audiences said they had heard a lot about Biden’s efforts to reform immigration policy. That is significantly higher than the 31% of Americans overall who had a more mixed news diet, and roughly double the 21% who got news only from outlets with left-leaning audiences. (Find details about the survey and media diet groupings here.)

Overall, 11% of all Americans say the topic their main news sources paid the most attention to was immigration. But that number roughly triples to 34% among those whose media diets are only on the right. In stark contrast, just 5% of those who use only outlets with left-leaning audiences say their main sources paid the most attention to immigration.

Majority of Americans whose media diets are only on the right say immigration has gotten too little attention in the news

In a separate question about which initiatives had received too much, too little or the right amount of attention in the news, a plurality of U.S. adults (43%) said immigration had received too little attention, compared with 18% who said too much and 37% who said the right amount.

But nearly six-in-ten (59%) who got political news only from outlets with right-leaning audiences said the subject of immigration warranted more coverage. That compares with 44% of those with a more mixed media diet and 37% of those who got political news only from outlets with left-leaning audiences.

Note: Here are the survey questions used for this report, as well as the content analysis and survey methodology.  

Amy Mitchell  is director of journalism research at Pew Research Center.
Mark Jurkowitz  is an American News Pathways writer and a former associate director of journalism research.