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Media coverage of immigration 'overwhelmingly negative'

A recent Oxford University study finds 'illegal' and 'failed' to be the words most linked with immigration in the British press
Ella Richards on Tuesday 13th August 2013
Photograph: Dr Aek Muldoon

A major study of newspapers by Oxford researchers has found coverage of immigration to be overwhelmingly negative

The study found the word ‘illegal’ was often linked to ‘immigrant’, while ‘asylum seeker’ was usually paired with ‘failed’.

The researchers, from the Migration Observatory at Oxford University, looked at 58,000 articles in every national newspaper in Britain.

They looked at the words most commonly used in the discussion of immigration, with ‘illegal’ the buzz word in both broadsheets and the tabloid press.

Many campaigners have voiced concern over the prejudicial language used across the press.

"The bias in much reporting on immigration isn't just bad journalism, its undermining Britain's prospects for economic recovery," said Atul Hatwal of the Migration Matters Trust, speaking to the Huffington Post.

Immigration is key in cutting Britain's deficit, he said: "But in a media climate where most of what's reported is negative, the real debate we need, about how to best harness migration to support economic recovery, is barely heard."

Similarly, Judith Dennis, of the Refugee Council, said she preferred the term 'refused' ahead of 'failed' in the case of an asylum seeker.

She also pointed out the problems surrounding the use of the work ‘illegal’, noting that people entering Britain from troubled areas such as Syria often could not gain a visa in advance meaning they arrive in the UK without legal documents. This presents a very different scenario from the general impression given by the phrase ‘illegal immigrant’.

"I think some of it is genuine misunderstanding," she said. "People do not realise when they are using the term, they might not have thought what the impact of that might be on someone who is described as illegal. It simplifies people's stories."

Taking a closer look at the results, the researchers produced a list of top words in tabloids for immigrants, including 'coming', 'stop', 'influx', 'wave', 'housing' and 'sham'.

Many of these also featured in the mid-market range, including the Daily Mail and the Express, while the broadsheets' list included 'Muslim', 'Jewish' and 'children'.

The researchers said the language of numbers (for example thousands, millions), and security (suspected terrorists) were common.

Tristan Mora, a student at Exeter College who comes from Michigan, argued that although the research focused on Britain, it reflects an imbalance of coverage found in much of the western world. “Immigration and the immigrant population in the US are negatively represented, with a similar usage of words like ‘illegal’ and ‘failed,’ and I find it ludicrous and insulting.

“While there would be problems with an overflowing ‘illegal’ immigrant population, I have seen no such apocalyptic influx and if anything immigrants should be welcomed with open arms to countries where they seek to improve their standard of living.”

Dr. Scott Blinder, Acting Director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford said: “Immigration is a very prominent issue in British national newspapers, and these media outlets play a major role in the nation’s political dialogue, so it is very important to have a comprehensive picture of this discussion.

"Our data show that illegality, the failure of asylum claims and the size of migrant inflows and populations are clear focal points for newspapers of all types.

“It is extremely difficult to untangle whether media drives public opinion about a subject, or whether it is politics or public opinion that drives media coverage, or some of each.

"But understanding the language newspapers use to describe migrants helps shine a light on how they are playing their role in the complicated relationship between media, politics and public opinion.”

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