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What Is Behind the Media’s Skewed Portrayal of Migrants?

The UK print media has a chequered history of callous and unbalanced reporting. Yet even by these standards, the vitriolic portrayal of migrants plumbs new depths. It is a deeply-engrained antipathy that is not mirrored by other nations - a comparative study of five European countries found the British press to be most aggressive in its coverage of migration.

Focusing in on the inflammatory language used by journalists is crucial, as it provides insight into how migrants are negatively framed. But the problem will ultimately remain until its origins are identified. To do this, we need to look critically at both the processes of news production and the culture of the newspaper industry.   

In the build-up to the EU Referendum, the frequency of anti-migrant stories reached unprecedented levels. With Leave-supporting newspapers occupying 80 per cent of the market when weighted by circulation - and ‘anti-immigrant sentiment’ a major factor behind the Leave vote- the link between media coverage and public opinion cannot be ignored.

Coverage of immigration has been less ubiquitous since the referendum took place, with public concern over the issue experiencing a corresponding decline. Yet the print media’s hostility is still just as present, as evidenced by this Sun headline from August 2019:

‘PADDLE OF HASTINGS: Eight suspected illegal immigrants land on Hastings beach and run towards town centre’

Given the life-threatening situations that migrants face in pursuit of safety, it is incredibly callous to make light of events with a pun. Further to this, the journalist is deliberately drawing attention to both the number of migrants and their ‘illegal status’, creating not only the idea that we are being overwhelmed by migration, but that migrants are criminal and dangerous.

These themes are repeatedly observed across all newspaper types. Research from the Migration Observatory found ‘illegal’ to be the most common descriptor for ‘immigrants’, indicating a calculated attempt to frame migrants as villains. In addition, words pertaining to number consistently collocate with ‘immigrants’, revealing a focus on numbers.

With the headline above encapsulating both of these themes, it is important to question why there is such uniformity in the way migrants are portrayed. Part of the answer lies in how stories are shaped by journalists, specifically who is given the opportunity to speak. At present, the thoughts and feelings of migrants are given very little consideration, despite the events being discussed revolving around their experiences.

It is impossible for events to be portrayed both accurately and sensitively when those with any real understanding are excluded from the narrative. The migration story is rarely told from the perspective of either those arriving or the resident communities. This idea is substantiated in a study by Statewatch, which found that the migrant voice was included in only 15 per cent of the 648 news articles surveyed.

To remedy the situation, it is vital that migrants are given a route into the media industry. The skewed coverage of migration is underlined by the lack of diversity in the newsroom - journalism has experienced a greater shift towards social exclusivity than any other profession. Democratising the industry and facilitating migrant participation will go a long way towards creating fairer, more accurate coverage.

The IOM has pinpointed equality and diversity training as a key way of improving levels of migrant involvement in journalism. A more diverse workforce will not only aid fairer coverage of migration, but have a positive impact on industry culture. Currently, working environments are described as outdated and somewhat aggressive, with one journalist remarking that ‘management approach is, basically, the editor says what gets done, and they (management) do it’.

When newsrooms are populated by staff from a wide range of backgrounds, outdated norms are more easily challenged. Other journalists have referred to the existence of cliques of ‘laddy, white men’ who pass around big jobs between them. In order for migrants to succeed in the industry, such nepotism needs to be called out and made a thing of the past.

It is only when migrants play an active role in shaping news stories that events will be represented with decency and balance. As it stands, alternative perspectives are unable to feature due to the overall editorial perspective taking precedence. The problem of skewed migration coverage will persist until migrants themselves can be heard.