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Home Opinion Breaking the media logic on immigration

Breaking the media logic on immigration

Hajo G. Boomgaarden - 13 December 2010

Playing into the news-making mechanisms through human-interest frames can help rebalance media sensation-seeking

A ghost is haunting Europe. As Cas Mudde has put it, the “populist zeitgeist” has arrived on the continent. Far-right parties are flourishing in a still increasing number of countries, at times even entering government coalitions. By and large these parties thrive on explicit anti-immigration rhetoric and on positioning themselves vis-à-vis the supposedly immigration-friendly, ‘naïve’ political mainstream.

Such parties and their leaders fit well with an increasingly popularised and sensation-seeking media environment. The mass media continue to be the most important source of political information for the public, and may at times affect dynamics in public opinion. We are confronted with a situation in which the immigration issue is increasingly politicised and problematised by far-right politics, such problematisation is readily picked up by the mass media, and the public – maybe as a consequence of elite communication – is more and more sceptical of immigration.

Mainstream politics is in need of appropriate responses to this challenging situation. It needs to understand the logics behind news production in order to respond appropriately and effectively. Why do the media tend to problematise immigration? How does publicised immigration hostility fit with the current media logic, in which publics are seen as consumers and news coverage becomes ever more sensation-seeking?

First, the mass media like taboo-breakers. In the past, mainstream politicians tended to avoid addressing the immigration topic and debates on immigration were strongly linked to specific events. Critical remarks on immigration were considered inappropriate and were equated with racism. Thus, openly opposing immigration appeared to be a political taboo. In such a context, addressing immigration issues and pointing towards problems caused by immigration gives the status of a taboo-breaker to politicians of the far right (and sometimes the far left). Breaking the consensus is newsworthy.

Second, in a commercialised and fragmenting media environment, the mass media need to respond to public interests. The immigration issue touches the very core of what people are and how they define themselves. National identity, increasingly defined in terms of culture, values and traditions, and the integrity of the nation state are of fundamental importance to many. Accordingly, the ethnic divide into in-groups and out-groups guides the definition of people’s social identity. Therefore, citizens tend to be interested in immigration issues and immigration coverage attracts audiences, in particular if it is framed in terms of threats to national interests and the interests of the national majority.

Third, the mass media like simple messages. Space restrictions, and a need to cater to the masses, favour simplicity over complexity. Immigration is a complex topic but lends itself to simplification and emotionalisation and the use of catchy metaphors. An immigration story can be embedded in a complex narrative on the reasons behind migration movements, on the importance of migration for sending and receiving countries, but it can also be framed as an unstoppable flood of others taking away jobs and houses, threatening welfare and security. The latter is just more likely to make it onto the front page.

Fourth, news values guide how mass media cover the world. Real-world events carry inherent factors that make them more or less newsworthy. Some of the most dominant news values are negativity (bad news is better than good news) and conflict (a dispute is better than an agreement). This may be one of the main reasons why we tend to read more about the threats than the benefits of immigration. And why immigration tends to be juxtaposed with national interests.

Considering the above, it is hardly surprising that immigration coverage is predominantly hostile. Just as news coverage in general tends to emphasise the negative, we also find that immigration topics are predominantly framed in terms of potentially problematic consequences, in terms of threats immigration may pose to the interests of native citizens and the integrity and prosperity of the nation state. Here the interests of populist far-right politics fit well with the media logic.

How, then, can mainstream politicians (re)act to build public trust in immigration policies? How can they break open the spiral of negativity and problematisation? Should they jump on the bandwagon, abandon the issue as they used to, or is there a way to oppose the link between populist far-right rhetoric and the media logic, to reframe the public discourse?

To hush up the issue is not a viable option, since voices from the extreme ends of the political spectrum will continue to be heard, and even more so if no opposing voices are audible. Jumping on the bandwagon may help to some degree, but should only be part of a broader approach. Public fears of immigration need to be taken seriously, and mainstream politics would do well to admit and address the problems (as it tends to do after far-right parties enter the political scene).

An opposing discourse, however, needs to accompany and ideally trump the negative elements. The hostile discourse on immigration needs to be reframed, focussing on the benefits from and need for immigration. So mainstream politics should not fall into the trap of imitating tough talk on immigration, but it should take tough talk seriously and work on reframing it into a more nuanced discourse.

To do so, politicians and interest groups need to understand and play into the news-making mechanisms. Simplicity and emotionalisation should be at the core of communication strategies. For instance, in a sensationalising media environment, stories that are built on personal experiences or that give a human face to an issue are attractive for news makers. Such human-interest frames may serve to raise empathy and give a different, more humane interpretation of the immigration issue. Immigration is not just numbers and statistics, but in essence is people crossing borders, for various reasons and with various aims.

A final qualifying note is warranted. Not all media are the same, and certainly among broadsheet newspapers and public broadcasting news programmes we find examples of nuances and balance in immigration coverage. But market pressures will persist and grow stronger, which potentially strengthens the force of the media logic. Can we count on a socially responsible press in light of this development? Considering the still growing commercialisation of the mass media market, not least triggered by the rise of the Internet, press responsibility confronts clear external pressure. Political elites and civil society organisations need to act as constant reminders of the media’s special role in the public arena. In any case, it will remain hard to break the media logic.

Hajo G. Boomgaarden is assistant professor of political communication at the Amsterdam School of Communication Research, Department of Communication, University of Amsterdam. www.hajoboomgaarden.com

This article is a contribution to Policy Network's seminar on "Performance politics: Building public confidence in immigration policy"

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Understanding Populism .

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