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Media influence growing in migration debates

9 November 20160 comments

The media is playing an increasingly influential and partisan role in how national debates about migration are framed across the western world, a new study suggests.

A study by Oxford University’s Migration Observatory examined the way the UK media has covered the issue of migration there. But the findings have relevance to Australia and other western nations where migration has become one of the most heated and divisive topics of civic debate.

The study found a tendency for journalists themselves to play the role of framing problems in the migration debate, rather than simply reporting on the analysis of others such as politicians, think-tanks or academics.

“This highlights the key role played by journalists and media organisations in shaping…migration debates,” said the report, titled A Decade of Immigration in the British Press.

The Oxford report found a tendency to blame politicians for the scale of EU migration, while in conversations about ‘illegal’ immigrants, migrants themselves are often blamed.

It said that economic arguments dominated the discussion of problems related to both EU migrants and asylum seekers.

There was a sharp increase in the volume of newspaper coverage relating to migration since the election of the UK Conservative Party-led coalition came to government in 2010, particularly after the introduction of measures to reduce net migration in 2011 and 2012, the report said.

It identified a change in the way migration was talked about with a decline in discussions about the legal status of migrants and an increase in the focus on the scale of migration.

The report also found a change in depictions of refugees between 2006 and 2015, with a sharp increase in references to Syrians coinciding with the escalating Syrian refugee crisis.

The report makes the point that over the past decade, policymakers and politicians have spent a lot of time on migration policies, often citing public demand for stronger action to reduce immigration levels or tackle related issues.

And across the west, media coverage of migration has ramped up and evolved over the past 10 years to confront a range of changes to the migration landscape; changing trends in the movement of people; changing governments; changing policies; changing geopolitics; and changing commentators in the debate.

The report concludes that media depictions of migrants have focused on concern about high levels of net migration which has superseded a focus on ‘illegal’ migration and become the main way migration debates are framed.

It says 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 said.

“Media coverage of migration issues divides opinion. To some, newspapers are barely-regulated juggernauts of opinion, pushing political agendas and shaping the policy landscape. Others see the UK press as champions of common sense, reflecting the voices of the people and dealing with complex subjects in a forthright manner,” it said.

“Regardless of one’s position on these issues, it is clear that there is an important relationship between the nature of media coverage, policymaking and the public debate.”

Director of the Migration Observatory Madeleine Sumption said the analysis showed the agenda set by the media in concentrating on overall levels of migration played a prominent role in the Brexit debate.

“This frame of discourse was established well before the EU referendum,” Ms Sumption said.

William Allen, author of the report and a researcher at the Migration Observatory said it was difficult to understand the extent to which the media influences rather than simply reflects public opinion.

“It is clear that the increased focus on the scale of net migration and on migration from the EU have been defining changes in media reporting of UK migration over the last decade. The deeper question this raises is: was media a catalyst for Brexit, or simply the messenger that notified us that it was coming?” Mr Allen said.

Laurie Nowell
AMES Australia Senior Journalist