What Kinds of Immigrants Come or Stay? Illegality and UK Tabloid Portrayal of Immigrants

William Allen

The UK press, particularly its tabloid and broadsheet newspapers, plays an important role in the political dynamics of life in Britain. By generating and transmitting perspectives on a range of issues like migration, newspapers have the potential to link with public policies as well as influence public opinion via readers—although causal evidence on both of these relationships is scarce (Threadgold, 2009). The Migration Observatory at COMPAS is in the process of conducting a study examining how UK newspapers portray migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers. In this blog post, I would like to share some emergent findings that I hope will raise discussion about migration in the media. Specifically, I will use several corpus linguistic techniques to show how tabloids selectively use the adjective ILLEGAL to describe immigrants who come and stay in Britain.

Collocations: words that go together
A core question in the research revolves around showing how certain groups of migrants are linguistically constructed. One way of doing this is by looking at collocates of a target word. ‘Collocate’ is a term from corpus linguistics that broadly refers to any word that tends to appear alongside a target word more than would be expected. Stubbs (1995: 2) calls it a “relationship of habitual co-occurrence”. Collocations can also signify related meanings or ‘semantic prosodies’ (Sinclair, 1991). For instance, Sinclair (1991: 70 and forward) documents how the English verb phrases SET IN and BREAK OUT are often associated with unpleasant states such as disease or decay. We can think of anecdotal examples such as ‘bad weather setting in’, or ‘an infection breaking out’. But, to avoid possible bias, collocational analysis from corpus linguistics attempts to quantify and examine these relationships over a large set of texts to uncover patterns that were too infrequent (though still relevant) to be found in a small sample.

Our initial study into migrant portrayals begins with a collection of texts drawn from 19 national daily and Sunday UK titles over the 2010-2012 period.[1] Searching the NexusUK database resulted for articles mentioning one of the following words or phrases in the headline or body: refugee(s), asylum, asylum seeker(s), deport, immigration, immigrate, immigrant(s), emigration, emigrate, emigrant(s), migrants, illegal alien(s), illegal entry, and leave to remain. This resulted in a total of over 36,000 articles and about 44 million words.

Then, we used a widely-available piece of lexical software called WordSmith Tools (Smith, 2012) to see what words were collocated with the target words MIGRANTS, IMMIGRANTS, ASYLUM SEEKERS, and REFUGEES. (Throughout the text, those words appearing in ALL CAPS are being referenced as a search term, not as an actual group). However, we also know that associations could be sensitive to individual, high-profile events that generated a great deal of coverage. Since we were interested in sustained portrayals of these groups, we limited our list of collocates to those that were statistically significant (by log likelihood and Mutual Information scores) in every annual subset of the collection. Gabrielatos and Baker (2008) call these ‘consistent collocates’ (henceforth c-collocates), arguing that they are especially important for understanding the central themes of coverage over time. I conducted a separate c-collocate analysis on each of the four target words within the tabloid and broadsheet collections. This was to see if any differences existed between the two publication types. Table 1 lists these c-collocates in alphabetical order; those words in bold indicate that they only appear as c-collocates in that publication type.

Table 1. C-Collocates of IMMIGRANTS in Tabloids and Broadsheets, 2010-2012

immigrants african, allow, amnesty, apply, arrived, arriving, asian, benefits, britain, coming, deport, deporting, eastern, enter, entering, eu, europe, flood, handouts, houses, illegal, increase, indian, influx, jewish, jobs, learn, many, marriages, million, number, numbers, polish, romania, romanian, seekers, seeking, sham, sneak, son, speak, stay, stop, suspected, terrorists, thousands, wave african, allow, allowing, america’s, amnesty, arizona, arrival, arrived, arriving, asia, asian, benefits, born, britain, caribbean, children, citizenship, criminals, daughter, deport, eastern, enter, entering, estimated, european, flow, foreigners, generation, grandson, greek, hispanic, hostility, hundreds, illegal, illegally, indian, influx, integrate, integration, irish, italian, jamaican, jewish, jobs, legal, lithuanian, locals, mainly, mexican, million, millions, mostly, muslim, non, number, numbers, pakistani, parents, path, poland, polish, poor, prevent, recent, russian, seekers, settled, skilled, son, suspected, tens, terrorists, turkish, undocumented, wave, waves, welfare

Additionally, an advantage of corpus linguistic methods is their ability to couple quantitative and qualitative approaches to “explain and interpret patterns rather than just count them” (Pollach, 2011: 4). It is not enough to simply measure the frequency or statistical significance of words: seeing how they operate in practice is also vital. In addition to the collocation technique already used, I also used concordances to see how these collocations actually functioned in the texts. Concordances display all instances of a word under analysis with the surrounding context. This revealed some interesting findings about how COMING and STAY were used.

COMING and STAY in tabloid coverage
For this blog post, I want to focus on two c-collocates of IMMIGRANTS that emerged from the analysis: COMING and STAY. Being c-collocates, but only in the tabloid subset, they were strongly collocated with IMMIGRANTS in each separate year of tabloid coverage. If these verbs are strongly associated with IMMIGRANTS, what kinds of immigrants do tabloids present as coming and staying in the UK?

In terms of frequency, Table 1 displays the number of times these two words are collocated with IMMIGRANTS in the tabloid subset. Most of the time, COMING and STAY appear to the right of IMMIGRANTS. This is a result of grammatical constructions like ‘immigrants coming to’ and ‘immigrants who stay’.

Table 2. Frequency of COMING and STAY When Collocated with IMMIGRANTS













Yet, to answer the question about what kinds of immigrants are coming and staying, it is necessary to dig into the texts. When STAY was collocated with IMMIGRANTS, in 100 instances or 84% of the time, the adjective ILLEGAL modified IMMIGRANTS. Table 2 provides five randomly selected instances of this phenomenon.

Table 3. Selected Concordance Lines of IMMIGRANTS When Collocated With STAY in Tabloids

Source Example
Daily Mail,11 May 2010 The UK Borders Agency said only the most seriously ill illegal immigrants could stay on compassionate grounds.
The Sun,21 April 2010 The Lib Dems are also in favour of mass immigration and want many illegal immigrants to be allowed to stay in Britain.
The Express,4 July 2011 A key part of human rights law that has let illegal immigrants and foreign criminals stay in Britain on the grounds of their “right to a family life” is to be reviewed.
Daily Mail,11 June 2010 An Anglican vicar conducted hundreds of sham marriages between Eastern Europeans and African illegal immigrants desperate to stay in the UK, a court heard yesterday.
Daily Mail,19 May 2011 David Cameron vowed yesterday to rewrite amnesty laws for illegal immigrants that let them stay in Britain if they have been here for 14 years.

I did a similar analysis on the adjectives modifying IMMIGRANTS when in the presence of COMING. Interestingly, ILLEGAL only modified IMMIGRANTS in four of the instances where COMING was collocated with IMMIGRANTS, representing 4% of the total. Instead, many times there were no clear adjectives indicating what kind or quality immigrants were being referenced (51 instances). In those cases where a descriptor did exist, words relating to quantities—such as NUMBER or NUMBERS (19 instances), or a numerical quantity—were used more often. Table 3 provides five randomly selected instances of both:

Table 4. Selected Concordance Lines of IMMIGRANTS When Collocated With COMING in Tabloids

Source Example
The Sun,20 April 2010 Do you think there would ever be a chance of David Cameron perhaps looking at coming out of Europe to stop hundreds of thousands of immigrants coming in again?
Daily Mail,3 August 2010 Despite her defence of the burka, Lady Warsi yesterday said she backed other Government moves to ‘give everyone an equal opportunity to improve their lives’ including new rules which require immigrants coming to Britain to join their spouses to learn English before they arrive.
The Express,20 February 2010 Nearly a quarter of ethnic minorities thought the number of immigrants coming to Britain should be cut.
Daily Star,14 July 2010 The report by the Royal Society Of Arts also points to a “loosening of social ties” caused by huge numbers of immigrants coming to Britain.
The Sun,14 November 2012 I am disgusted to think that Home Secretary Theresa May is helpless to stop the flood of immigrants coming into this country.

Also, in the collocations of COMING, there were references to other kinds of immigrants, including OVERSEAS (2 instances), NON-EU (2 instances), and POLISH (2 instances).

The above analysis reveals that ILLEGAL is used in tabloids to describe IMMIGRANTS more often in the presence of STAY compared to COMING. Also, there is more variety in the adjectives used to describe immigrants who are ostensibly coming to the UK. To be clear, this analysis is formative. However, I believe this initial exploration raises some interesting questions about how illegality is constructed in tabloid press that merits deeper linguistic analysis.

Why, for instance, does ILLEGAL accompany IMMIGRANTS more in the presence of STAY? Is there something about the relative permanence connoted with ‘staying’ in Britain that prompts greater reference to illegality? Yet, the presence of quantity-related terms in relation to immigrants ‘coming’ to the UK could indicate concern on the part of tabloids over the amount of people intending to, or actually arriving in Britain. Another possibility lies in the spatial dimensions of STAY and COMING: references to people coming to Britain may focus on a more abstract, continuing process, whereas those immigrants who stay in Britain are already here. Is it possible that the notion of illegality as expressed in tabloids partially hinges on assumptions of proximity?

Finally, linguists and social scientists using critical discourse analysis might use concordances to show how STAY is sometimes accompanied by ALLOW or LET, as in the general phrase ‘person, policy, or organisation X ALLOWS ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS to STAY’. This could indicate a quality of permission—or oversight—that tabloids especially highlight by using ILLEGAL to heighten a perception of failure (see, for instance, the second concordance line about the Liberal Democrats in Table 1). Such multi-method analysis, combining the computational elements of corpus linguistics with qualitative and critical examination of discourse ‘in the wild’, has great potential because it allows for a more systematic approach to understanding texts while also welcoming critical insight from other disciplines that also speak to issues in migration.[2]

Follow Will on Twitter at twitter.com/williamlallen, and the Migration Observatory at twitter.com/MigObs. Email: william.allen@compas.ox.ac.uk

Works Cited
Gabrielatos, C. and Baker, P. (2008). “Fleeing, Sneaking, Flooding: A Corpus Analysis of Discursive Constructions of Refugees and Asylum Seekers in the UK Press, 1996-2005.” Journal of English Linguistics, March 2008 Vol. 36 No. 1, 5-38.

Pollach, I. (2012). “Taming Textual Data: The Contribution of Corpus Linguistics to Computer-Aided Text Analysis.” Organizational Research Methods, Vol. 15 No. 2, 263-287.

Sinclair, J. M. (1991). Corpus, Concordance, Collocation. Oxford: OUP.

Smith, M. (2012). WordSmith Tools. Liverpool: Lexical Analysis Software.

Stubbs, M. (1995). “Collocations and Semantic Profiles: On the Cause of the Trouble with Quantitative Studies.” Functions of language, 2(1), 23-55.

Threadgold, T. (2009). “The Media and Migration in the United Kingdom, 1999 to 2009. Public Opinion, Media Coverage, and Migration.” Bellagio, Italy, Migration Policy Institute.

[1] These are: The Sun, Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror, The Express, Sunday Express, Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, Daily Star, Daily Star Sunday, The People, The Times, Sunday Times, The Guardian, The Observer, The Independent, Independent on Sunday, Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph, and Financial Times.

[2] For another example of Observatory work on textual analysis, see: Allen, William and Scott Blinder. “Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah and Identity Language in the British Press: A Case Study in Monitoring and Analysing Print Media.” Migration Observatory report, COMPAS, University of Oxford, December 2012.