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“Control” and the EU: British national newspapers and the framing of migration since 2006

07 Nov 2016

British national newspapers moved away from focussing on illegal immigration and instead focussed on the scale of legal immigration, EU migration and the need for “control” over the past decade, a new report from the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford has shown.

A Decade of Immigration in the British Press, which is published today (Monday November 7th 2016), also highlights the role that journalists and media organisations played since 2006 in framing narratives about migration. Nearly half of all stories analysed in detail relied on statements or arguments made by the journalist, rather than reporting of the views of external sources such as policy-makers, NGOs, community organisations or academia.

Key findings from the report include:

  • A sharp increase in newspaper migration coverage over the course of the Conservative-led coalition government from 2010.
  • 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.
  • 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 tendency for journalists themselves to play the role of framing problems in the migration debate, rather than simply reporting on others’ (such as politicians’ or think-tanks’) analysis.
  • A tendency to hold politicians responsible for problems relating to EU migration, while migrants themselves are more likely to be held responsible for problems relating to illegal migration.

Madeleine Sumption, Director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford said: “This analysis shows a decline in the prominence of illegal immigration in British newspapers over the decade and a marked increase in stories dealing with overall levels of migration, EU migration and ‘controlling’ or ‘limiting’ migration. The themes of numbers and control played a prominent role in the Brexit debate, and this frame of discourse was established well before the EU referendum.”

The report used computer-aided “corpus linguistic” analysis to look at all content of 19 major UK national newspapers that included the terms “immigrant” “migrants” “asylum seeker” or “refugee”, or versions of these words. This included more than 170,000 articles – made up of tens of millions of words – and allowed a picture of the changing overall content of stories related to migration and immigration over the decade to be examined.

A detailed close-reading of a smaller selection of articles then allowed researchers to develop a quantitative analysis on two key themes that emerged from the corpus analysis: EU migration and illegal immigration.

William Allen, author of the report and a researcher at the Migration Observatory said: “Unpicking the extent to which the media influences rather than simply reflects public opinion is notoriously difficult. 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?”


For further information contact:
Rob McNeil, Head of Media and Communications, The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford.
e: robert.mcneil@compas.ox.ac.uk; Tel: 01865 274568; Mob: 07500 970081

Notes for editors:
The report will be available on our website after 00.01am on Monday November 7th.

Newspapers included in the analysis were: Daily Mirror and Sunday Mirror; Daily Star and Daily Star Sunday; The People; The Sun; Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday; The Express and Sunday Express; The Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph; the Financial Times; The Guardian and The Observer; The Independent and the Independent on Sunday; The Times and Sunday Times.

The News of the World and The I newspaper were not included in the analysis because they were not published continuously throughout the study period, leading to problems with data collection.

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