Migrants and asylum seekers in the British newspapers


An inclusive and Shared Society is in everyone’s interest and benefits everyone, as the Shared Societies Project has shown in its Economics of Shared Societies.  Why then do people often not recognise this?  There may be various factors but one recurring concern is the role played by the media.  A recent study by the Migration Observatory in Oxford, United Kingdon, has shed some light on the contribution that the media may make to how groups perceive each other.

The study, entitled “Portrayals of Immigrants, Migrants, Asylum Seekers and Refugees in National British Newspapers, 2010 to 2012” argues that Britain’s national newspapers play a critical role in framing the country’s discourse on immigration.  They undertook a quantitative analysis of the language used by all 20 of Britain’s main national daily and Sunday newspapers.  They considered tabloid or popular papers, those catering for the more affluent and educated or broadsheets papers and those in the middle of the market.

They looked at what words were most often associated with the words immigrants, migrants, asylum seekers and refugees.

They found that the most common descriptor for the word “inmigrants” across all newspaper types is “illegal“, which was used in 10% of mid market stories, 6.6% of tabloid stories and 5% of broadsheet stories.

Failed” is the most common descriptor for “asylum seekers” across all newspaper types. “Illegal” is also a descriptor in both mid-market and broadsheet newspapers.

Words suggesting water as a metaphor for migration, such as “flood“, “influx” and “wave” are connected to both “migrants” and “inmigrants“. “Influx” was most widely used, but “wave” appeared as in conjunction with “inmigrants” in both tabloids and broadsheets and tabloids also used “flood” in conjunction with “migrants”.

Some words linked to “asylum seekers” in midmarket newspapers focused on illegality and permanence, including “illegal“, “criminals” and “stay“. Broadsheets also consistently used “illegal” and “criminals”, albeit at a lower frequency and among a larger set of c-collocates.

It was also noticeable that more positive words such as “skilled” were less often used and then often in the context of argued that skilled migrants should be attracted.

The authors of the study do not claim that they can show a relation between the words used in relation to migrants, immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees.  However they note that “Portrayals of migrants and refugees are plentiful in today’s media-rich environment, whether encountered accidentally or deliberately. Either way, these portrayals may well have a powerful role in shaping how members of the British public understand migration and asylum.”  They go on to say that “Britain’s national newspapers

in particular often set the agenda for the country’s political discourse, both informing their readers about issues of the day and at times guiding them toward certain ways of thinking about these issues.”

We would argue that the media has a responsibility to consider its impact on shaping attitudes and behaviors and it is a worrying trend if they associate migrants and asylum seekers with negative words and seldom associate them with positive words.   It is not surprising if the host population then treat newcomers with suspicion and hostility when in fact they may be contributing to the common good.  Some provide skills that are not available in the host community and others carry out essential, though menial, tasks that others are unwilling to perform.

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