Unpacking Media Narratives: The Case of Title 42
Author: Katherine McCann, MPH
November 9, 2023
Part 1: Building a Timeline
Media narratives play a key role in shaping public perception and political will around immigration policy. Media tells the public what to pay attention to and why it matters, and it is critical in framing the conversation. Portrayals of migrants and asylum seekers can vary dramatically between and within news publishers, amplifying narratives that can either promote empathy and understanding or stoke fear and division. This series looks at the role that media narratives have in US immigration discourse by zeroing in on one specific policy that has had a substantial impact – and received significant coverage – over the course of the last few years: Title 42.
Title 42 is a previously obscure public health statute (Title 42, US Code Section 265) passed in 1944 that states if “by reason of the existence of any communicable disease in a foreign country there is a serious danger of the introduction of such disease into the United States… the [government] shall have the power to prohibit, in whole or in part, the introduction of persons and property from such countries.”
In March of 2020, the Trump administration invoked this statute in response to the COVID-19 pandemic to block and quickly expel people seeking asylum at the US southern border. This goes against US national laws and international treaties affirming the right to seek asylum. Over the more than three years the order was in place, it was revised and renewed multiple times by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) under both the Trump and Biden administrations. When the CDC determined the order was “no longer necessary” on April 1, 2022, pushback from more than 20 Republican-led states led to a legal fight that kept Title 42 active until the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) allowed the broader federal public health emergency responding to COVID-19 to expire on May 11, 2023.
While the Title 42 order was purportedly put in place in response to the pandemic, the use of the order to categorically expel asylum seekers was criticized as scientifically baseless from its inception. Public health and medical experts stated that there was “no public health evidence that singling out asylum seekers or other migrants for exclusion is effective in stemming the spread of COVID-19.” The New York Times reported that Stephen Miller, Trump’s chief advisor on immigration, had pushed for the administration to invoke the order multiple times in the years leading up to the pandemic. This was further substantiated when a top CDC official, Dr. Martin Cetron, stated in testimony to a House select subcommittee that the order “came from outside the CDC subject matter experts.”
After the CDC determined that the order was unnecessary and attempted to end Title 42 in the spring of 2022, the argument that the order was in place for public health reasons largely fell by the wayside. Instead, keeping the order in place was presented by various Republican actors and right-wing media as a necessity for managing immigration control. This was, quite notably, far outside the purview of a law designed to serve as a public health emergency measure.
This series will explore the prominent narratives, key concerns, and overarching tone of mainstream news media coverage of Title 42. It aims to answer the question, “How do we talk when we talk about immigration?” Using sample articles from four major news networks across the political spectrum (AP News, CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC News), it will start with an exploratory analysis of the overall tone of Title 42 coverage and present a timeline exploring what events related to the order did – and did not – receive coverage. Those findings are below.
In subsequent installments, the series will look specifically at the topics covered, differences in coverage across time and publisher, and language used in the articles to interrogate and explore how we, as consumers of media, can better understand and respond to the news we read.
Methods: This work explores written publications from four US mainstream news networks – AP News, CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC News. These networks were chosen to reflect publications catering to audiences from across the political spectrum. It is important to note from the offset that this work is not intended to represent the full range of mainstream media coverage, but instead aims to provide examples for analysis and consideration.
Articles were pulled from each publisher’s website using the search term “Title 42.” The top 100 articles, sorted by “relevance,” were examined. Due to technical difficulties in CNN’s site-based search engine, CNN articles were sourced using Google News via the prompts “Title 42” and “CNN.” Articles were included if they had been intended for a written format (i.e., not a transcript), and the majority of the article’s content related directly to Title 42 as a policy and/or the migration situation at the US/Mexico border as a result of Title 42.
While the research intended to include coverage during the full time Title 42 was in place (March 20, 2020 – May 11, 2023), only two articles were found from prior to June 2021. With the data at hand, it is unfortunately not feasible to assess the extent to which this is due to limited media coverage during that time or whether it is simply an artifact of the search engines utilized.
A total of 285 articles were included in the analysis [AP News (100); CNN (60); Fox News(97); MSNBC News (28)]. These articles were then cleaned of extraneous content (i.e., ads, image captions). A sentiment analysis was then conducted on the articles using the Google Natural Language API. Sentiment analysis is a machine-learning tool that assesses the prevailing emotional content, or tone, of text. It is aimed at determining how positive or negative an author’s attitude is. Sentiment scores can range from +1 (very positive) to -1 (very negative), with 0 being neutral. Notably, this type of sentiment analysis cannot determine why the attitude is positive or negative, and articles proposing opposite viewpoints may score equally for different reasons. In future installments of this series, we will explore how content and language relate to an article’s score in more depth.
In addition, the total number of Title 42 expulsions by US Border Patrol, per month, at the southern land border was collected from official statistics published on the US Customs and Border Protection website. This data was used to assess the potential correlation between the number of expulsions and article frequency and sentiment score. The number of expulsions was used (instead of, for example, the total number of Title 42 exceptions) because it could be seen both as an indicator of the “necessity” of the order by publishers favoring stricter immigration controls and, conversely, as a gauge for the cruelty of the order by publishers describing the human impact of indefinitely denying asylum seekers protection.
Sentiment scores provide an opportunity to understand and quantify the tone of the language used in news coverage. The average sentiment score across all articles was -0.32, with a standard deviation of 0.11 (see Table 1). The range of sentiments (0.0, -0.6) indicated articles ranged from neutral to moderate-to-strongly negative (see Figure 1). This is a notably tighter range than previous work that utilized this technique among European news coverage of migration. While sentiment scores did differ by publisher, when considered in correlation to the full scale of score possibilities, these scores were notably clustered around the -0.3 mark, a mild-to-moderately negative score. MSNBC News appeared to be the greatest outlier, with the most negative mean; articles from MSNBC News also did not fall along a normal distribution curve, indicating the need for additional analysis, which will be included in upcoming installments.
Table 1. Descriptive Statistics of the Sentiment Score Data
Figure 1: Sentiment Scores by Publisher
Publication Frequency and Count:
In looking at the number of articles written by each publisher per month, there are three notable clusters of coverage – one in the late Spring of 2022, one in December of 2022, and one as the order came to a close in May 2023. These three points of convergence are each times when Title 42 was expected to end. In April of 2022, the CDC determined the order was “no longer necessary” and set it to terminate on May 23, 2022. This was met with more than 20 states suing to keep the order in place, which was granted by US District Judge Robert Summerhays in May.
The second cluster of coverage was around the November 2022 ruling by US District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan that Title 42 is “arbitrary and capricious” in a case brought by the ACLU. The Biden administration requested, and was subsequently granted, a 5-week delay to prepare for the ruling to go into effect. In response, 19 states appealed the case to the Supreme Court, which ruled that Title 42 must remain in place while the appeal played out in court.
The final cluster occurred when Title 42 ultimately ended on May 11, 2023. Across the board, this drew over 25% of the total number of articles across the two years, with Fox News publishing almost 38% (37 articles) of the Title 42 coverage assessed in the sample in that single month alone.
Perhaps the most notable finding in the first in this series of installments is the clear preference of publishers, regardless of political perspective, to cover Title 42 when it was expected to end. Other relevant news – including renewals of Title 42, documented violence against Haitian asylum seekers, and the expansion of the order to begin expelling Venezuelans – was met with little coverage. It is possible and even quite likely that some of these events, particularly related to the experiences of Haitian asylum seekers in September 2021, were covered in articles that did not appear in the search. However, if that is the case, it suggests that those articles might not have been found in the search engines because of a limited use of the search term, “Title 42,” in the articles. On one hand, that is quite reasonable; the focus of the articles is likely on the experiences of the asylum seekers themselves. However, it does raise a potential concern that the harmful experiences migrants and asylum seekers face as a result of policies such as Title 42 might not be linked back to those policies.
Across the board, articles scored moderately negatively. This may reflect a negative tone in general news coverage, or it may be due to the specific topic at hand. The sentiment of news coverage did differ between publishers, but that difference appears comparatively small. AP News, CNN, and Fox News all clustered in similar ways and with relatively similar scores, with Fox News scoring more negatively than CNN and AP. Notably, Fox News is a member of the AP News distribution network, and conclusions regarding the relationship between the two must be tempered by the likelihood that they are not truly independent of one another. MSNBC News was much more variable, and both the timing and sentiment of MSNBC articles frequently differed from the other three publishers. Additional analysis in future installments of this series will explore these relationships in more detail, including how and why MSNBC has differed from the other publishers in their clustering and sentiment patterns, and whether this could offer insight into how migration news is covered.
Media coverage and sentiment surrounding immigration issues can have a profound influence on public opinion and, in turn, shape the policies that govern these spaces. Understanding and engaging productively with the media is critical to ensuring the rights of migrants and asylum seekers are upheld and respected. The next installment in this series will be a deep dive into the language choices used by publishers to ask what messages, both explicit and implicit, are promoted by mainstream publishers. Additional installments will explore the timing and tone of coverage, and the relationship between publishers, to dig deeper into the role and impact of media in framing discussions around immigration.
Author Disclosure: The author of this piece has spoken openly about Title 42. Her work, and the work of her colleagues, relating to Title 42 has been cited by mainstream news media. All articles used in this work were chosen and analyzed systematically and independently of this potential association.
Download the accompanying slideshow below or view it on our website here.
Glossary of Terms
Arbitrary and capricious: As a legal term, arbitrary and capricious is a standard for judicial review and appeal defined in the Boothe v. Roofing Supply, Inc. of Monroe as “willful and unreasonable actions without consideration or regard for the facts and circumstances.”
Asylum Seeker: An asylum seeker is someone who is seeking protection because they have suffered persecution or fear that they will suffer persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. In this piece, the term asylum seeker refers both to individuals who intend to seek asylum but have not yet started the legal process and to individuals who have begun the legal asylum seeking process but have not yet had a final determination of status.
Communicable disease: A communicable disease is an infection or illness that can be spread from person to person.
Correlation: As a statistical term, correlation describes the extent to which two variables are related.
Expel: When removed from the U.S. under Title 42, migrants and asylum seekers are expelled rather than deported. The terms “expel” and “expulsion” are used because the individual is removed without completing the full deportation process, which includes having the opportunity to be seen by a judge.
Migrant: Migrant is an umbrella term used to describe someone who moves away from their usual place of residence. This term encompasses a variety of motivations for migration (i.e., for labor, protection, etc.) and types of migration (i.e., temporary or permanent movement, internal or international movement, etc.).
 These articles are included in the statistical analysis but are not included in the timeline graph.  It is possible that MSNBC’s low total could be indicative of less overall coverage of Title 42. However, it is necessary to note that many of the search hits for MSNBC were videos and were therefore excluded. Efforts to find additional written content from MSNBC were not successful, but search engine limitations may be a potential cause of this. It is therefore beyond the scope of this work to determine whether MSNBC’s written coverage was indeed substantially lower than other sources.  A one-way ANOVA was performed to compare the effect of publisher on sentiment score. It revealed a significant difference in sentiment score between at least two groups [F(3,281) = 8.45, p <.001]. More detailed tests exploring this relationship are coming in a later installment of this series.
 Michelle Hackman & Tarini Parti, Wall Street Journal. Biden Plans Border Overhaul, Starting With Lifting Covid-19 Order. 2021.
 Adam Isacson, WOLA. 10 Things to Know About the End of Title 42. 2023.
 Al Jazeera, Timeline: Title 42 expulsions at the US-Mexico border. 2023.
 Jihan Abdalla, Al Jazeera, Rights groups decry ‘flawed’ US asylum exemptions process. 2021.
 Al Jazeera, US judge gives Biden administration five weeks to end Title 42. 2022.
 Women’s Refugee Commission, As CDC Renews “Title 42” Order, Women’s Refugee Commission Calls for Biden Administration to End the Policy and Restore Access to Asylum. 2021.