Written by:
Cameron Boyle

Has the COVID-19 pandemic changed media discourse on immigration?

Read time:
5 minutes

In the UK, media coverage of immigration is characterised by hostility and xenophobia. Column inches are awash with negative stereotypes and unfounded associations, with migrants depicted in the most harmful of ways, from criminals to benefit scroungers.

But over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, structural inequalities have heaped disproportionate suffering on the migrant population, who already struggle to access healthcare, and whose economic vulnerabilities are heightened. But simultaneously, migrants’ immense contributions on the pandemic’s frontline have prompted an uptick in public support and recognition from many.

With both of these things in mind, I decided to examine the media’s portrayal of migrant communities during the pandemic, with a view to investigating whether editorial attacks on migrants have decreased, or if divisive rhetoric is still abound. To achieve this, I focused on the UK's middle-market newspapers- the Daily Express and the Daily Mail- and conducted thorough linguistic analysis of 60 articles, 30 of which were published prior to the pandemic, and 30 of which were published during the pandemic.


Before COVID-19

 Prior to the pandemic, media coverage of immigration was defined by aggression and lack of empathy. Harmful clichés adorned front pages. From the baseless link between immigration and disorder, to the falsehood that the country is overwhelmed by vast numbers of migrants, British newspapers broadly reported on the issue in a derisory and dishonest manner.

The following strapline, published by the Daily Express on 31 August 2019, is typical of the media’s pre-pandemic approach:

"British Border Force has intercepted an army of more than 50 migrants that this morning stormed a beach in Kent in a flotilla of boats"

By highlighting that "more than 50 migrants" were intercepted, the strapline deliberately pushes a narrative that vast numbers of migrants are entering the UK, the corollary of which being that public services are overwhelmed.

A fixation on numbers is a common theme within press coverage of immigration. A 2013 Migration Observatory report found words pertaining to numbers such as "million" and "thousands" to frequently appear beside "migrants" across all newspaper types, evidencing a calculated attempt to inflate perceptions regarding the size of the UK’s migrant population.

Such attempts have proved successful. A 2018 Ipsos MORI survey found the average guess at the size of the UK’s migrant population to be 24 percent, despite the actual figure standing at 14 percent, pointing to the inextricable relationship between media discourse and public opinion.

The strapline also presents migrants as a threat to national security, with its use of the verb "stormed" carrying connotations of military invasion. Known as the "public order" frame- itself a subcategory of the "villain" frame- the depiction of migrants in this way is a hugely common theme within media discourse. A CTPSR study observed the "villain" frame within 47 percent of the 648 articles that were analysed.

The ubiquity of these tropes is a defining feature of pre-pandemic coverage, with migrants portrayed in a variety of damaging ways. But given the seismic events of the last 12 months, it is relevant to assess whether the discourse has shifted.


After COVID-19

 The pandemic has had a disproportionate and harrowing impact on the UK’s migrant population. With NHS Hostile Environment measures – such as upfront charging and data sharing with the Home Office – acting as major barriers to healthcare, migrants have gone without medical assistance at the most pressing of times. Further to this, migrants have made enormous contributions and sacrifices in the national fight against COVID-19; the first eight doctors in the UK to die from COVID-19 were all overseas nationals, a staggering statistic that prompted international media attention.

But have such developments prompted a change in the British media’s approach? Based on the available evidence, there are some grounds to suggest that they have. The following headline, published in the Daily Mail on 26 January 2021, displays an uncharacteristic level of concern over the horrific conditions facing asylum seekers in the UK:


"Asylum seekers at ex-Army barracks hit by Covid outbreak are evacuated to hotels for quarantine “at 15 minutes notice” amid claims people without the virus are being forced to share rooms with others who tested positive"


Unlike in the previously-discussed example, the "villain" frame is not present, and no calculated attempt is made to stoke fears regarding the number of migrants entering the UK. Instead, asylum seekers are accurately presented as victims of a cruel and unjust system, with due consideration given to the link between overcrowded housing and poor COVID-19 outcomes.

Given that the pandemic has greatly intensified the struggles faced by asylum seekers, it is surprising to see a newspaper notorious for anti-migrant sentiment draw attention to the distressing situations that are faced.

Having said this, the vast majority of the 60 articles I analysed as part of my research suggest that divisive rhetoric has failed to subside. This example – published in the Mail Online on 30 January 2021 – pertains to the same story as the previous, but is bereft of empathy and instead deploys the "villain" frame:


"Five arrested over riot at ex-army barracks ‘torched by angry asylum seekers’ after they were told they would not be transferred to a hotel because of Covid outbreak"


The prevalence of pre-pandemic tropes suggests that, in spite of the suffering that migrants have endured over the last 12 months, coverage is still characterised by a deep-rooted hostility.

Inaccurate labelling is a further technique used in the headline. Although it is asylum seekers that are housed in the barracks, the headline describes the events as a "migrant riot". This conflates migrants and asylum seekers and in doing so, obfuscates the significant differences between the two.

While there are some notable instances of uncharacteristically considerate coverage, there is a long way to go before events are represented with true decency and tolerance. Just last week, for example, the press commented on the Home Secretary's unveiling of a new approach to asylum in a typically inflammatory manner, with the Daily Mail proclaiming that "All migrants who cross through Europe will be refused asylum because they 'could and should' have stayed there". The pandemic does appear to have prompted greater awareness of migrants’ plight, but the long-standing hostility is still very much present.

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