What we talk about when we talk about immigration

Published 4 December 2013 / By Mikal Mast

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In 2003, the Press Complaints Commission determined that the term 'illegal asylum seeker' was legally inaccurate and should no longer be used. It is impossible for an asylum seeker to be illegal because under human rights legislation everyone has the right to seek asylum. The ruling has not been entirely effective, and the term continues to slip into use - recently the conservative Australian immigration minister Scott Morrison told his staff to call asylum seekers who arrive by boat 'illegal maritime arrivals'.

Situations like this make you wonder how the language the press, and we ourselves, use to talk about immigration affects how we think about immigration.

airplane over LondonHere at COMPAS we quite naturally tend to keep up with news on immigration. Following press coverage of immigration has taught me a lot about how the media works. I've become frustratingly aware of how the media is 'news' focussed, leading to media frenzies over things like the Lampedusa boat tragedy or the stowaway who fell from a plane over London. News like this is exciting, but it doesn't really tell you much about immigration in general. Most immigrants are not illegal, and most come through traditional transportation routes.

It is encouraging to see civil society organisations working to try to eliminate the use of innacurate language in the press (albeit not entirely successfully), but we can't really do anything about the 'news' focus. The press likes to tell stories about extreme situations because we like to read those stories. But we need to remember that most news is news because it is new and, more importantly, unusual.

Analysing the news
COMPAS researchers Will Allen and Scott Blinder recently finished a project on migration in the news, focussing on the language British newspapers use to describe immigration. They used big data techniques to process large amounts of data (58,000 newspaper items containing about 43 million words pieces appearing in 20 national UK publications from 2010 to 2012) and to minimise human bias.

The results were probably as one would expect - the language most commonly used to describe migrants did not reflect the normal state of migration. Among other findings, they were able to demonstrate that "illegal" was the most common modifier of immigrants (even though most immigrants are not illegal) and "EU" and "Eastern Europe" were the primary geographic reference point (even though non-EU migrants are more numerous that EU migrants). This language may reflect the concerns of the public, but overall it presents a biased picture of migration in the UK.

To fight the news bias I find it helps to develop a sense of context. Context is a general sense of the world built by applying memory and critical thinking to the news and analysis we consume. Context tells us that not all Muslims are terrorists, even though the ones in the news mostly are. Context tells us that not all people on benefits are undeserving scroungers, even though the Daily Mail says they are. And context should tell us that not all immigrants are illegal, even though the news coverage gives that impression.

Search for newsBut sometimes we also have to fight against context - sometimes we have to check to make sure our perceptions, developed from a consistent diet of faulty news coverage, are actually real. Academic research is good for that.

You can read about academic research in the press, but you are not guaranteed   accuracy or a comprehensive report. As a way to get around press bias and cut out the media middlemen, academics are increasingly presenting their research in blogs like this one. Blogs are a great way to present research in a more informal way to a broader non-academic audience, but they are also a good way for researchers to network and share ideas with other academics.

If you are looking for other academic blogs to follow, COMPAS researchers have contributed to blogs such as:

We can't just blame the press. The information is out there, we need to look for it.