Migration, one of the most controversial issues in Britain in recent years, has dominated discussions during David Cameron’s renegotiation.
He is about to for his plan to restrict benefit payments to EU migrants.
This initiative is the result of a pledge made during the 2015 general election campaign in which the debate over migration was a key theme.
And that debate was, of course, played out in the national press in the months leading up to election day. But how did the newspapers cover migration? How did they portray migrants?
A study of media coverage, released today, looked at how migrant voices and experiences were framed in the run-up to last year’s election and came up with findings that, even if not entirely new, cast yet more light on a subject of continuing public interest.
As its title implies, Victims and Villains* reinforces previous research about the way in which migrants and refugees are represented in the editorial pages of national papers. And the authors are as troubled about the portraits of victimhood as they are those of villainy.
Their overarching concern is about the lack of migrant voices in stories. Though the report doesn’t put it like this, it is clear from the research that they are, too often, “the disappeared.”
The researchers found that migrants were referenced in only 15% of newspaper articles on migration and that 85% of articles did not have a migrant perspective.
They also found evidence that migrant voices were more likely to be included in stories which tended to be more positive and sympathetic towards migrants. Most of these presented the migrant as a victim in need of sympathy and support.
By contrast, migrant voices were less likely to be present in stories that were negative about migration and migrants.
The authors argue that presenting migrants as victims was doubly problematic: it failed to reflect the varied lives of most migrants; and victimhood tended to reinforce stereotypes “that are not helpful in the longer term.”
The report drew on 648 migration-related stories in both tabloid and broadsheet newspapers** as well as interviews with representatives from organisations working with migrants in Glasgow, Birmingham and London plus talks with 60 migrants.
Among the major findings was the fact that 46% of all the articles framed migration as a threat and migrants as actual or potential “villains.” A further 38% of the articles were rooted in the victim frame.
Only 10% of articles framed migration and migrants as a benefit, principally to the economy. The report states:
“The absence of migrant voices as sources in the media can deprive the audience of a complex or nuanced understanding of migration issues.
It can also have negative consequences for migrant integration and for the personal well-being and security of migrants and their sense of belonging.
This, in turn, can undermine the extent to which migrants feel that they belong in British society, even when they have been living in the UK for a long time.”
Only 15% of the articles contained a migrant voice or perspective, although there was considerable variation between papers.
Some 27% of the articles from the Independent referenced a migrant perspective, rising to 33% in the case of the . By contrast, 97% of the articles from the Sun didn’t provide a migrant perspective.
According to the report, it is usually the negative stories that stick in peoples’ minds more than the positive ones and can have a damaging impact on migrants’ sense of belonging in Britain.
While accepting that victimhood can be beneficial, particularly during the campaign to end the indefinite detention of migrants and asylum seekers, the authors found that it could be traumatic for migrants to recall emotional experiences. It states:
“Others expressed concern that giving voice to migrants as victims relies too heavily on emotional reactions which do not necessarily contribute to a balanced and well-informed public and political debate on migration, nor to good policy making.”
Most importantly the concentration of migrant voices in victim frames does not reflect the varied lives of migrants who live in the UK.
The report’s findings will be presented by one of the authors, Heaven Crawley, this afternoon (Monday 2 February) at the House of Commons.
The event is being hosted by Sheffield Labour MP Paul Blomfield, and other speakers include British Somali journalist Abdi Saeed and me. .
*Victims and Villains: Migrant voices in the British media by Heaven Crawley, Simon McMahon and Katharine Jones (Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations/Coventry University)
**Guardian, Independent, Times, , Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, The Sun, Metro