Immigration Narratives & the British Press (2016), COMPAS, Uni. of Oxford

Research project at the Centre of Migration Policy and Society at the University of Oxford, which looks at trends in the language used in newspaper reporting in the UK and considers how this relates to the UK political context.


PIs/authors: Allen, W. and Blinder, S.

Research assistance (manual, qualitative coding of data set): Walton, S and Escoffier, S.

‘Immigration, and specifically EU immigration, has clearly emerged as a key factor in the decisions of many people to vote for the UK to leave the European Union. But the significant increase in the profile of EU migration within recent UK media coverage—which has been dominated by a focus on high levels of net migration, and challenges in controlling migration flows – predates the EU referendum debate (the analysis runs until May 2015) and shows that the media was already playing an important role in discussions of the EU and migration in the years leading up to 2016.

The role of media in shaping public opinion is not clear-cut. It has often been observed that the press is good at setting the agenda – telling readers what to think about – although there is an ongoing debate about the extent to which media coverage either causes or simply reflects the views of its audiences on the topics it discusses.’

The report identifies six key trends:

  • A tendency for journalists themselves to play the role of framing problems in the migration debate, rather than simply reporting on others’ (such as politicians,’ think-tanks,’ or academics’) analysis. This highlights the key role played by journalists and media organisations in shaping the UK migration debate.
  • A tendency to blame politicians for the scale of EU migration, while in discourse about ‘illegal’ immigrants, migrants themselves are often blamed. Economic arguments dominated the discussion of problems related to both EU and illegality.
  • A sharp increase in the volume of newspaper coverage relating to migration since the election of the Conservative-led coalition government in 2010, particularly after the introduction of measures to reduce net migration in 2011 and 2012.
  • An apparent change in how immigration is discussed, with a significant decline in discussion of the legal status of migrants and an increase in the focus on the scale of migration from 2009 onwards. This was accompanied by a rise in the relative importance of discussion relating to ‘limiting’ or ‘controlling’ migration since 2010.
  • A sharp increase in the frequency of discussion of migrants from the EU/Europe after 2013, with a particular spike in 2014 when migrants from Romania and Bulgaria achieved full access to the UK labour market.
  • A notable change in depictions of refugees between 2006 and 2015, with a sharp increase in references to Syrians coinciding with the escalating Syrian refugee crisis.

Read the full report here

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