Migration in the News

8th August 2013

Portrayals of Immigrants, Migrants, Asylum Seekers and Refugees in National British Newspapers, 2010 to 2012

Executive summary

Britain’s national newspapers play a critical role in framing the country’s discourse on immigration. Developing a clearer understanding of the language that these newspapers use to discuss migrants and migration can therefore provide us with important insights into the nature of this debate and the role of newspapers in it.

This report capitalises on new methods for analysing what is commonly known as “big data” and provides a quantitative analysis of the language used by all 20 of Britain’s main national daily and Sunday newspapers. It covers all news stories, letters and other published content dealing with migrants and migration over the last three years – from the beginning of 2010 to the end of 2012. This analysis has involved computer-aided analysis of a ‘corpus’ of some 58,000 news stories and other newspaper items, made-up of more than 43 million words, from stories which include key terms such as MIGRANTS, IMMIGRANTS, REFUGEES, ASYLUM SEEKERS or variations of those words.

The study has endeavored to remove human bias from the analysis – as far as possible – by using modern computing techniques rather than human readers and coders to identify significant patterns. The analysis focuses on describing the findings rather than drawing conclusions about debates on immigration, politics or media practices.

The report is not designed to highlight good or bad practice by specific news outlets or journalists, and for this reason divides the newspapers into groups rather than identifying individual newspapers.

  • The broadsheet group covers The Times and The Sunday Times; The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph; The Independent and The Independent on Sunday; The Guardian and The Observer and the Financial Times.
  • The mid-market group covers the Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday and the Daily Express and the Sunday Express.
  • The tabloid group covers The Sun and The Sun on Sunday (the News of the World is not included for methodological reasons), the Daily Mirror and the Sunday Mirror, The People, the Daily Star and Daily Star Sunday.

The report looks at newspapers’ language of migration by examining the words that are particularly likely to appear in close proximity to the four key target words listed above: MIGRANTS, IMMIGRANTS, REFUGEES and ASYLUM SEEKERS. The study examines two types of relationships:

  • Descriptors or “L1 collocates” - the word located immediately to the left of the target word.
  • Consistent collocates or “C-collocates” – words that regularly appear within five words (to the left or right) of the target word, consistently over the three-year study period.

Some key results refer to the L1 collocates, or words used to describe different migrant groups. ILLEGAL was the most common modifier of “immigrants” throughout the 43 million word corpus, for example, while FAILED was the most common modifier of “asylum seekers.” These associations may not be surprising, but the methods used in this report document not only that these uses exist but how frequent they are.

Other results come from broader sets of associations. Coverage of migration and asylum includes the vocabulary of numbers (with words like THOUSANDS and even MILLION), discourses of security or legality (words like TERRORIST and SUSPECTED) and language of vulnerability (CHILD, DESTITUTE, VULERNABLE). Further details on these and other findings are presented below.

The results also show that newspapers use different, though overlapping, vocabularies in connection with each of the four groups of interest.  For example, migrants, rather than immigrants, are more frequently associated with economic words (JOBS, BENEFITS, ECONOMIC). Refugees seem to attract a separate, varied and heavily international set of terms (FLEEING, CAMP, BORDER); the language around asylum seekers has more in common with discussions of immigrants and migrants than with refugees.

Key findings:

  • The most common descriptor for the word IMMIGRANTS 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.
  • Other descriptors of immigrants refer to their place of origin, with EU and Eastern Europe featuring in all three types of newspapers.
  • Consistent collocates for IMMIGRANTS reveal a focus on numbers, with words like MILLION and THOUSANDS appearing across all newspaper types.
  • Other consistent collocates for IMMIGRANTS in tabloids include words referring to movement such as INTO, STAY and STOP and also include words which indicate concerns around security or legality such as TERRORIST, SUSPECTED and SHAM.
  • Consistent collocates for IMMIGRANTS in broadsheets include family words such as SON (also a mid-market c-collocate), CHILDREN and DAUGHTER and also religion with JEWISH and MUSLIM both featured.
  • Consistent collocates for MIGRANTS across all newspaper types include ECONOMIC. Other words that relate to the employment and unemployment such as JOBS and BENEFITS appeared in tabloids and midmarkets. JOBS also appears in the broadsheets, but less frequently. This contrasts with the collocates of IMMIGRANTS, which included very few words relating to economics and work.
  • Words suggesting water as a metaphor for migration, such as FLOOD, INFLUX and WAVE are c-collocates of both MIGRANTS and IMMIGRANTS. INFLUX was most widely used, but WAVE appeared as a c-collocate for IMMIGRANTS in both tabloids and broadsheets and tabloids also used FLOOD in conjunction with MIGRANTS.
  • 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. Other descriptors in broadsheets suggest vulnerability – such as CHILD, DESTITUTE and VULNERABLE.
  • Some c-collocates for 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.
  • Language around REFUGEES was strikingly different to other target words, even ASYLUM SEEKERS. Both descriptors and consistent collocates of REFUGEES focused on conflict and fleeing and on refugees’ nationalities. Broadsheets had considerably more descriptors and consistent collocates for REFUGEES than mid-market or tabloid newspapers.

This report is the first output from the Migration Observatory’s media analysis project and as such is not intended to deal with every question about how British national newspapers have covered the topic of migration. Further study of the corpus - and updated versions of it – should help to create a more detailed understanding of the nature of newspaper coverage of migration, which in turn, may shed more light on the complicated nexus of media, policy and public opinion.

The report is, however, intended to provide both useful insights into the language used and the ways that different types of newspaper approach the subject of immigration, and to provide a bed of evidence for further social science investigations into the subject of migration in the media.

Migration in the News

Press contact

If you would like to make a press enquiry, please contact:
Rob McNeil
+ 44 (0)1865 274568
+ 44 (0)7500 970081
robert.mcneil@compas.ox.ac.uk