The Language of Immigration

“Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.”

E B White

Immigration was unquestionably one of the most salient issues in 2016 across both the EU referendum and US election. Since the beginning of the most recent refugee crisis, which began in early 2015, their has been a hawk-like focus on the movement of people into Western nations.

In polls, immigration was shown to be the single most important issue in the month of the EU referendum. Over the pond, immigration was contextualised with other top ranking issues such as terrorism and foreign policy. This has been most clearly visible in Donald Trump’s simple-to-grasp, populist rhetoric.

But just how has immigration become such a divisive issue, carrying significant political weight? This quickly becomes a discussion about the availability of information, and how we form our opinions.

At best they form via personal, lived experiences and an access to unedited information. More commonly, we are compelled by the arguments of our friends, family and colleagues. But beyond these scenarios, who do we commonly trust for information and guidance on the issues that affect our everyday lives?

Looking For The Truth.

One crucial source of information and context for many of us is the media.

Newspapers, TV stations and online outlets all carry a huge responsibility. Their role is to be our principle mirror to and commentators on what is happening in and to our country, placing it within the context of the wider world.

We have given them this power through our attention. They have the power to give legitimacy to particular points of view and deny it from others. They show us where to look and how we should interpret what we see. They become conduits of belief; drivers in our decision-making at all levels of our daily lives.

But just how are journalists and media bosses choosing to carry this responsibility, particularly around today’s hot topic of immigration?

Language’s Migration Away From Truth.

This is about more than facts, although their careful selection, or fabrication (see the current ‘fake news’ trends), clearly influences our understanding. But what may be often overlooked is the way those facts are framed, and so in what light we then see them.

Descriptive language links a cold fact to our personal, lived experience. It allows numbers and statistics to elicit emotional responses. This can profoundly impact our perspective on and attitude towards a fact.

Consequently an event, group of people or trend can be shown in a skewed light, serving ends that may not be the actual truth of a situation. One only need look at the extensive use of propaganda use for proof of this power to distort or reframe a truth.

Given the rising importance of immigration in UK politics, let us look at how media outlets are choosing to wield their reposnisbility. Is there a pattern that may steer our general prejudices one way or the other, and is this a fair reflection the truth?

The Truth In Numbers.

Using the most recent, comprehensive Migration in the News study (2013) from the Migration Observatory as a principal source, let’s focus on the descriptors that British newspapers use around the different terms relating to immigration:

  • The most common descriptor of immigrants was ‘illegal’.
  • The most common descriptor of asylum seekers was ‘failed’.
  • The most common descriptors of migrants was ‘illegal’ in mid-market papers and tabloids, and ‘economic’ in broadsheets.
  • The top five collocations for immigrants in tabloid papers were: ‘illegal’, ‘into’, ‘million’, ‘number’ and ‘stay’. Mid-market papers also regularly used ‘Britain’, ‘many’ and ‘EU’.
  • The terms were often related to numbers (e.g. ‘thousands’), security or legality (e.g. ‘terrorists’, ‘suspected’). Refugees were normally depicted as vulnerable in broadsheets (‘child’, ‘destitute’)
  • Commonly, all the search terms were used in conjunction with images related to water such as ‘influx’, ‘wave’ and ‘flood’.

A question: Does consistently placing immigration within the context of illegality, failure and seemingly unstoppable direction of movement impact how we form our opinions about it?

What are the words you implicitly associate with immigration? Are they similar to those listed above, and do they reflect the newspapers you read?

A Common Topic.

Another study noted that the number of articles mentioning immigration or migration each month more than doubled between 2012 and 2015. Over the same period, the percentage of voters who named race relations or immigration as the main political issue in the UK rose from 20% to 45%, moving it ahead of the economy, the NHS and unemployment.

The highest number of articles on immigration were found in The Guardian, The Times and The Daily Mail (January-May 2015). This reporting was during the early days of the refugee crisis, something which as often been referred to in UK media as a migrant crisis. 46% of these articles used ‘villain frames’ (making immigrants out as villains or threats) and 38% used ‘victim frames’.

But take a look yourself. Browse the prominent headlines in our newspapers, online outlets and news bulletins over a given week. Note the headlines, the words used and the number of articles on immigration. Where is the truth of the situation, and what have we simply been told to believe?

Trusting the Media.

While we cannot necessarily conclude that media coverage caused the correlating increase in public concern around, and resistance to, immigration, it does seem clear that there is a clear relationship between media coverage and public opinion.

This is a relationship we would all be wise to keep in mind. We must ask ourselves constantly whether the frames being used a fair to the truth. And it is an active asking, not a private pondering, that we should nurture.

As Richard Flanagan* suggests: “the necessity of witnessing and questioning [is] the greatest guarantee we can have of freedom…anything, like mass conformity, that threatens the truth has to be challenged”.

So let us read with due caution and skepticism and demand high expectations on the quality and integrity of the writing. Let us ask whether the journalists of today are carrying their role and its responsibilities with the respect they deserve.

I’ll let E.B. White conclude this point:

“A writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lovely, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down.”



* Richard Flanagan cited from his essay “The Australian Disease: On the decline of love and the rise of non-freedom”, published by Short Black.

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