Study finds that 'illegal' is word most likely to be used by UK newspapers to describe immigrants

A new study found that when UK national newspapers write about immigrants they are most likely to frame coverage in terms of illegality, the failure of asylum claims and the size of migrant populations.

Analysis by the Oxford University Migration Observatory published today  looked at national newspaper content mentioning  “immigrants”, “migrants”, “asylum seekers” and “refugees” from the beginning of 2010 to the end of 2012. Data was collected from 58,000 articles featured in twentydaily and Sunday titles..

The Migrants in the Media study divided the newspapers surveyed into three groups: broadsheet, mid-market and tabloid.

The most common word used to describe“immigrants” found across all three groups was "illegal".  For mid-market publications, the word “illegal” was used in 10 per cent of its immigrant-related stories, compared to 5 per cent for broadsheets and 6.6 per cent for tabloids.

Dr Scott Blinder of the Migration Observatory told Press Gazette that “nothing else comes even close as a modifier” to the phrase “illegal immigrant”. The next most popular descriptive term was “Jewish”, which appeared in six thousand articles in the broadsheet group. Blinder attributed this to the diversity of uses of the word "immigrant" in broadsheets, which could range beyond current affairs pieces to historical features.

The study also revealed a focus on numbers, with words like “million” and “thousands”, references to movement like “stay” and “stop”, and words indicating concerns around security like “suspected”, “sham”, "failed" and “terrorist” all being prevalent.

Blinder said that the Migration Observatory “wouldn’t draw themselves into making direct implications from the data”, but that he hoped this new data would allow people to “evaluate by their own standards”.

He added: “It is extremely difficult to untangle whether media drives public opinion about a subject, or whether it is politics or public opinion that drives media coverage, or some of each. But understanding the language newspapers use to describe migrants helps shine a light on how they are playing their role in the complicated relationship between media, politics and public opinion.”

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