Media, Public Opinion, Migration Policy: Multi- and Inter-Disciplinary Notes

Published 12 November 2013 / By William Allen

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Corpus and computational linguists, political scientists, anthropologists, and sociologists gathered in Oxford last weekend to explore two key questions in migration studies:

(1) how do media outlets, public opinion, and policy interact in the context of international migration? (2) how can these individual concepts, as well as the interactions among them, be effectively measured?

workshop signOn 8-9 November, Scott Blinder and I convened a workshop on ‘Immigration Politics, Text Analysis, and Public Opinion’ as part of our project Migration in the Media and Public Opinion in Britain. Over the past year, we have been using corpus linguistics to quantitatively analyse Britain’s national newspapers. In August 2013, we launched a report showing how migrant groups were portrayed from 2010-2012. These results are forming the basis of controlled survey experiments that will measure whether different kinds of language used by media to talk about migration issues impacts public perceptions about immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers.

Our research is situated among wider concerns in the application of text analysis to social scientific—particularly political—questions. Quantitative textual analysis has advanced significantly in recent years, as has capacity ability for collection and aggregation of large amounts of such data. Scholars from diverse fields—including linguistics, computer science, and political studies—are beginning to shed new light on media coverage of political campaigns and issues, and on the ways in which media, policy, and public opinion interact. By enabling social scientists to analyse large textual datasets that may span genres, modes, time periods, or geographic contexts, these methods offer the possibility of increased depth and breadth in understanding representations of social phenomena (i.e., media portrayals). In turn, better understanding of media environments may improve the prospects of explaining shifts in public opinion and policy agendas. However, considerable work remains on developing these methods, connecting them to work on public opinion and public policy, and applying them to contexts such as issues relating to international migration.

This workshop aimed to begin filling these gaps. It brought experts who had substantive interests in migration, politics, and public opinion in contact with methodological leaders in textual and quantitative analysis. In a series of three panels and several discussion groups, we asked participants to consider the opportunities and challenges associated with studying media, policy, and public opinion as separate entities—as well as the links among them. Participants included:

Panel 1: Identifying Properties of Media and Political Texts—Narratives and Ideologies

  • Twitter / Search - #migrationtexts13Jonathan Bright and Tom Nicholls, University of Oxford, Oxford Internet Institute, “Automatic Identification of "Stories" in Online News Outlets”
  • Paul Nulty, London School of Economics, “Classification Methods for Scaling Latent Political Traits”

Panel 2: Corpus Methods, Extensions, Applications

  • Federica Barbieri, Swansea University, "Corpus-Based Approaches to Investigating Age-Based Linguistic Variation"
  • Frauke Zeller, Ryerson University, “Mixed-Methods Approaches to Analysing Text and Pictures”; “Text Analysis and User Perspectives”
  • Costas Gabrielatos, Edge Hill University, “Using Corpus Methods to Examine the Presentation of Islam and Muslims in the UK Press”
  • Martin Wynne, University of Oxford, “Corpus Linguistics By and For Non-Linguists: Opportunities and Dangers”

Panel 3: Media, Public Opinion, and the Politics of Migration in the US and UK

  • David Leal, University of Texas-Austin, “Latino and Anglo Views of Immigration: Policy vs. Politics”
  • Will Allen, University of Oxford and Anne-Marie Jeannet, University of Oxford, “Migration in the UK Media: Portrayals of Migrants and Impact on Public Opinion”
  • Will Jennings, University of Southampton, “The Dynamics of Public Opinion and Policy Agendas on Migration”

Discussant: John Skretny. University of California—San Diego, Co-Director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies

Although the workshop was designed as an opportunity to explore the frontiers of participants’ own disciplines, it also aimed to cross-fertilise ‘best practices’ or ‘lessons learned’ among each field and apply those insights to migration studies. One area of discussion included finding commonalities around the task of identifying ‘narratives’ in political talk and texts. Participants thought that there was scope for linking established techniques in corpus linguistics with conceptual advances in political studies. Another area focused on the challenges with comparative research investigating the interactions among media, policy, and public opinion—comparative in this case including not only cross-national comparison, but also among modes of media (newsprint, broadcast, social network) that increasingly bear upon public debates about immigration.

Reflecting on my time with the initial project (having joined COMPAS nearly two years ago), I thought this workshop was a valuable experience in seeing how experts in diverse fields—each coming with their own ‘languages’ and way of viewing social reality—can explore a substantive and complex set of migration issues. Keep watching this space as further linguistic work and survey experiment results are published!

The workshop ‘Immigration Politics, Text Analysis, and Public Opinion’ was held at St Hugh’s College, Oxford on 8-9 November 2013, and live-tweeted under #migrationtexts13. You can follow Will’s work on Twitter.