09/2004: Joel Budd


Joel Budd
The Economist (London)


The role of the media in the dissemination of evidence-based information on immigration and asylum affairs


Ü Eurasylum Ltd: The role of the media in reporting on national immigration and asylum developments, both as regards the collection of accurate data and qualitative evidence, and the fair processing of such information, is increasingly being seen as a vital determinant in the formation of public opinion on such issues. How significant an influence do you consider the media are exerting on shaping public perceptions of immigration/asylum issues, particularly since such issues have started to ascend the political agenda of most industrialised countries in the mid-1980s?

Ü Joel Budd: The media are very influential, but not in the way most NGOs or politicians think. It is often assumed that the media (especially the print media) have the power to make people believe things that they would not otherwise believe; in fact, examples of such influence are very rare. To take an extreme example, it was reported not long ago in the Daily Star, a British tabloid newspaper, that Somali asylum seekers had stolen donkeys from a park in London and eaten them. It is very unlikely, however, that any reader of the Daily Star would have believed this to be a trait common to asylum seekers: most, I suspect, did not really believe the story at all.

The real power of the media lies in the ability to set agendas and to determine the contexts in which events are understood. Let us say, to take a real-life example, that two thousand Portuguese immigrants move to a small town in order to pick vegetables. A group of journalists hear about this and decide to write about it. They have several options. They could write about how the Portuguese are being paid less than British workers. They could write about how local officials and doctors are trying to learn Portuguese, in order to address the needs of their new clients. Or they could write about how the immigrants are getting on with local people.

Each of these reports could be cast in a positive or a negative light, but this hardly matters. What is important is that an association is explored and reinforced. Depending on what the journalists decide to write, readers (or viewers, or listeners) will think about immigrants either in terms of the economy, or in terms of public services, or in social and cultural terms. The news stories will provide a context for ordinary people to think about immigration. This doesn’t sound like much of an influence, but it is profound. What has happened in many European countries is that immigrants have come to be seen in terms of public service provision, and not in terms of the requirements of the economy – hence fears about pressures on health care, public housing etc. That is partly the result of thousands of individual journalistic decisions.

Ü Eurasylum Ltd: As a general rule, do you consider that the generalist media have sufficient access to, or have a sufficient inclination to consult the range of qualified sources  public authorities, academia, the legal professions, NGOs, Members of Parliament, to provide balanced and in-depth coverage of unfolding immigration and asylum events? And has The Economist (or international professional bodies such as the IFJ) produced any specific code of conduct or guidelines to help journalists monitor and report on immigration affairs fairly and accurately?

Ü Joel Budd: Access should not be a problem for journalists writing about immigration. A more serious problem is the dismal quality of information available. Basic facts, particularly about numbers of immigrants, are often impossible to find out, usually because local and national governments do not collect the information in an organised manner (sometimes they do, and don’t want to reveal it, but that is less common). NGOs, lawyers and political parties can be relied upon for interpretations and case studies, but they suffer from the same lack of information that makes the journalist’s life so difficult. Consider how much information we have about house prices, or crime rates, and the paucity of facts about immigration is striking.

The lack of reliable information about immigrants means that journalists are able to get away with generalisations that would be inexcusable in other kinds of reporting. It would be perfectly acceptable, for example, for a journalist to write about a local doctor who is overwhelmed with foreign patients and conclude from this that immigrants are putting pressure on the health service everywhere. But no journalist would ever suggest that house prices are falling in value on the evidence that a single house has become cheaper: such a conclusion would be absurd, obviously.

So long as the drought of reliable information persists, wild generalisations will continue to thrive. There have been various attempts to police journalists language (in Britain, for example, we are not supposed to talk about bogus asylum seekers – such a description being both offensive and illogical). The Economist does not have codes of its own, although we are subject to the Press Complaints Commission. But it is important to realise that codes of conduct only address the symptoms of bad reporting, not the underlying causes.

Ü Eurasylum Ltd: In 2001-2002, the International Organization for Migration, jointly with the European Commission and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, organised a vast campaign throughout the European Union to help strengthen the means of the generalist media (press, radio, TV) to raise the awareness of the European public opinion towards people in need of international protection (refugees, asylum seekers and people with temporary protection status) and to combat racism, discrimination and prejudices against such populations. How far, and possibly through which innovative means, do you consider that the media should take responsibility for the development of an informed and evidence-based public debate on evolving immigration and asylum affairs?

Ü Joel Budd: I shall reveal my lack of experience in this field by confessing that I was not writing about immigration in 2001-2002. So I am not capable of judging whether these campaigns were helpful or not.

There is, however, a simple way of knowing whether a campaign to influence reporting on asylum and immigration is likely to succeed. Simply ask whether it provides new information. It is a very common mistake to assume that journalists need to be provided with clever ideas and analysis. We do need these things, but we do not need them nearly so much as new information. All journalists are perpetually in competition with all other journalists; the ones that succeed are the ones who can get hold of material that nobody else has, and (perhaps even more importantly) explain what this new material means.

The best kind of material, from a journalist’s point of view, is material that provides an unexpected link between two things that are already known about. A very good example is provided by the current crisis in Sudan. For some time, Sudanese nationals have been seeking asylum in European countries. There have doubtless been news reports about how they are overwhelming doctors, pushing to the head of the housing queue, working illegally and for very low wages, etc. etc. There have also been many articles about the terrible events in Sudan. But there have not, so far as I know, been any reports linking conditions in Sudan with Sudanese asylum seekers. If a journalist were to hear about an asylum seeker whose family had been recently killed in Sudan, there is little doubt he or she would write about the case. Doubtless, the asylum seeker would be progressing painfully slowly through a maze of European bureaucracy; perhaps he would already have been rejected by someone who didn’t believe his story. An article about this case, which would link two known phenomena in an unexpected way, would immediately demonstrate the incompetence and mean-spiritedness of European asylum systems. It would achieve vastly more than a barrage of briefings from well-meaning NGOs.

The alert reader will discern in many of these comments an attempt to shift the blame for poor reporting away from the media and towards other institutions (government officials, NGOs etc.). I make no apology for this. Although much of what is written and broadcast about immigrants and asylum seekers is frankly poisonous, I do not think that the media is to blame nearly as much as is commonly supposed. Nor have efforts to reform the media been well-informed. While very few journalists are zealots, they are as a rule unmoved by assertions that they are wrong. All journalists, though, are hungry for new information. Anybody wanting to change the tone of newspapers and broadcasts should provide it.