The Media Coverage of the Current Refugee Crisis in the UK

Posted on Posted in Analyses, Migration

By Olga Aristeidou, International Relations Expert

The media plays a central role in modern societies, helping formulate public opinion and having a significant effect on policy formation. Since the early 20th century, academics and analysts started having a vivid interest in mass media and their influence on society, culture and politics. The first who proposed to systematically study the press coverage of social and political issues together with the changes in public opinion was Max Weber in 1910. However, his proposal did not flourish, as a survey like this would be very expensive at that time and because neither survey nor content analysis had been developed. But later on, many prominent sociologists started using content analysis to explore several issues.
It is commonly agreed by scholars that the press plays an important role in shaping the European— and not only— political discourse surrounding refugees and immigrant-related issues. In general, policymakers receive a constant supply of information by various sources, including researchers, think tanks, interest groups, political parties and of course the media, about issues that require political action. This information supply affects policy making; and especially when there is an abundance of available information, it is easier for policymakers to identify, monitor and prioritize problems. The reliability of the information provided, as well as the frequency— for example how often the media report and/or analyze a particular topic— are among the most significant factors that influence policymaking.
Over the past decades, immigration and refugee-related issues have been among the most controversial political issues in Europe and not only. It is therefore necessary to investigate every aspect of this topic and understand it thoroughly. The examination of the media coverage constitutes an appropriate and useful way, given that the media not only reflect the society, but as it has been already emphasized they influence policy making. The present study took as case study the United Kingdom in 2015, and more particularly two well-respected newspapers: The Guardian and The Telegraph.
The first English newspaper that was analysed with the methodological approach of content analysis was The Guardian with 404 articles in total. As it can be observed in the following graph (chart 1), the majority of the articles is neutral as they represent 51.5% (208 articles) of all articles during the period tested. Positive articles follow with a small difference, representing 46.5% (188 articles) of all articles. The most striking percentage is that of negative articles—only 2% (eight articles). Even articles that covered problems provoked by or related to refugees (such as fights among them, fires in refugee camps, traffic and train delays) were not presented in a negative way. In most of them, poor organization and authorities’ reluctance were accused (apart of these eight negative articles, in which there was no attempt to explain the causes or the responsibilities of the authorities).
The seven of the eight articles that had a negative connotation, concerned the refugee camp of Calais in France and the Eurotunnel that connects France with the United Kingdom. Even though in general the Guardian has published a lot of articles concerning Calais, describing and explaining the situation there, these articles put emphasis only on the problems created by refugees in this area. Among these problems were the traffic in the Eurotunnel and the drivers who were intimidated by refugees who were trying to take advantage of the strike, get on to the back of lorries and get into the UK. Words like ‘chaos’, ‘violence’, ‘disturbance’, ‘disruption’, ‘illegal’ and ’illicit’ were dominant. What is more, the word ‘immigrant’ was generally preferred than the word ‘refugee’. The 8th article concerned Germany and how the ‘euphoria’ of welcoming refugees was replaced by daily reports of clashes in asylum seekers’ homes and deep divisions among citizens as well as politicians about what has to be done. The article underlined in a negative way that Germany started to realize that “the newcomers are here to stay”.


Chart 1: The tone of Refugees-related Articles in The Guardian.
One of the main characteristics of the Guardian is that many of its articles refer to the protection of human rights and to statements of several international organizations, NGOs and charities. The International Organisation for Migration, the Doctors of the World, the Human Rights Council, the Migrants’ Rights Network, the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society of the University of Oxford, the Refugee and Migrant Forum of Essex and London (Ramfel) and the Children’s society are some of these organizations but the list is not exhaustive.
A second characteristic of Guardian’s articles on refugee-related issues is the refugees’ personal stories. It has already been highlighted throughout this study that refugees and immigrants are rarely presented as individuals; on the contrary, they are usually portrayed as large groups. This is not the case with the Guardian. Almost all positive articles contained personal stories (some articles were exclusively dedicated to this, while others had some statements), but also some of the neutral articles contained refugees’ personal experiences. Apart from refugees’ stories, the experiences of people helping or working with refugees were reported. At the end of several articles, there was a form with questions for readers to share their experience and get published (this initiative had the title “Guardian Witness”).
As far as The Telegraph is concerned, 359 articles in total were examined. Among them, 25.1% were positive (90 articles), 70.2% were neutral (252 articles) and 4.7% were negative (17 articles). The high percentage of neutrality constitutes the most prominent feature of this newspaper. There were actually many articles beginning in a negative way and then turning into positive and vice versa. Therefore, it was preferred to be labeled as neutral, given that both sides were covered.
The Telegraph also covered various refugee-related topics as the other newspapers, but there was one subject that was unique in the Telegraph: the impact of the refugee flows in tourism. The Telegraph published more than seven articles throughout 2015 relating to tourism. These articles concerned tourists’ worries on whether their holidays in places such as Greece will be impacted by the refugee flows and/or whether they must cancel them. In general, these articles were neutral or positive, not indicating major worries.


Chart 2: The tone of Refugees-related Articles in The Telegraph.
Regarding the number of articles published per month in the two British newspapers, a similar pattern can be observed especially for the January-August period. During the first semester, both newspapers published relatively few articles. The Telegraph started in January with 8 articles and the Guardian with 7. The Telegraph had a slight decline, publishing 2 articles in February and 2 in March, while The Guardian published more (10 and 16 accordingly). April was the peak month of the first semester for both newspapers, with 17 articles for The Telegraph and 33 for The Guardian. During May, June and July there was a fluctuation: 6, 11 and 4 articles accordingly for The Telegraph and 18, 39, 26 for The Guardian. In August, a large increase took place (32 for The Telegraph and 91 for The Guardian). Interestingly, in September the pattern for the two newspapers changed remarkably as there was there was a 403% increase in the number of The Telegraph’s published articles (161 articles), whereas articles published by The Guardian decreased by roughly 25%. From October onwards, the figures in both newspapers dropped substantially until the end of the year, reaching 25 articles for The Telegraph and 28 for the Guardian.


Chart 3: Refugees-related Articles Published per month in 2015.
An issue that was repeatedly underlined in the British press was that the UK was not doing as much as it should in order to help the refugees. A sharp criticism towards the British government was present in both newspapers (especially in The Guardian) throughout 2015. There were articles comparing the UK policy with that of other strong EU countries (such as Germany) which accepted thousands of refugees, and also with other EU countries (such as Greece) which ‘shouldered the weight’ of the refugee crisis, without having a strong economic capacity. The frequency and strength of this criticism seems to have affected the British government, which after September promised to accept 20,000 refugees and to provide additional funding. Moreover, during several press conferences and official visits the PM David Cameron accentuated what Britain had offered in an attempt to answer to the criticism.
Another issue that was extensively and repeatedly discussed by both journalists and politicians was what citizens can do to help the refugees. The Telegraph and mainly the Guardian published numerous articles describing what citizens can do to help, and suggesting ways for further support. The government adopted a similar stance and in September it also published all the ways that citizens can help and support refugees.
Both British newspapers focused on human rights. Not only did they describe the unhealthy and squalid living conditions of refugees in the refugee camps and all the problems that they met on their way to Europe, but there was great emphasis on human rights abuses. Both British newspapers covered such issues in depth and collaborated with UN officials, NGOs and charities to report any problems and discriminations.
In conclusion, after having examined the refugees-related articles of two newspapers in the United Kingdom throughout 2015, it is clear that not all political decisions were influenced by the media coverage. That could be because this process usually takes more time; media coverage can immediately influence policy making, but it sometimes has more long-term results, after influencing the public opinion and/or institutionalizing beliefs. However, there have been several important issues that were influenced by the media coverage, such as the linkage with terrorism, the lack of infrastructure and funding, the prevention of more shipwrecks, what more should be done, the resettlement of refugees etc.

*The present analysis is part (with several modifications) of the author’s dissertation entitled “How does media coverage of the current refugee crisis affect policy-making? A comparison between Greece and the United Kingdom.”

-Aristeidou, Olga: “How does media coverage of the current refugee crisis affect policy-making? A comparison between Greece and the United Kingdom.”, University of Reading, MA Diplomacy, September 2016.
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