Attitudes and Emotions are Affected by How the Media Describes Migration

News that describes migration in a positive context makes us become more positive about immigration and vice versa. This is stated by Nora Theorin in her recent dissertation on media and migration at the University of Gothenburg.

Media are often said to play a central role when it comes to shaping the perceptions people have of migration, but our knowledge is limited about how and when they influence people, and why.

As part of the research project “Role of European Mobility and its Impacts in Narratives, Debates and EU Reforms” Nora Theorin has investigated what it looks like in six European countries to see if there are any common patterns and mechanisms. The six countries – Poland, Spain, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Germany, and Hungary – differ greatly in their attitudes toward migration.

Differences between traditional and alternative media

The survey in Sweden showed that traditional news media did not seem to have influenced users’ attitudes toward migration to any great extent, despite the fact that it was carried out during 2014–2016, when an exceptionally large number of refugees (160,000) came to Sweden.

On the other hand, it emerged that the use of certain media – those with a pronounced political orientation – had a greater influence. Those who followed the alternative right-wing site Avpixlat (now Samhällsnytt) became more negative about immigration from countries outside the EU, while those who read the left-wing ETC became more positive.

“You need to be aware of this difference when talking about public opinion – and the influence of the media – in migration issues, especially since media with a clear political, especially immigration-critical, profile have increasingly established themselves as sources of information in many Western democracies”, says Nora Theorin.

Emotions matter

To find out if it matters how the media portrays immigrants and immigration, she conducted an experiment in which 5,510 participants in the different countries read both positive and negative articles about immigrants – something that aroused different kinds of feelings.

The different angles (or frames) led to different reactions – those where immigrants appeared in a positive context reduced the readers’ negative emotions, which in turn also led to more positive attitudes. At the same time, the positive emotions of those who read negative articles decreased, and they also had more negative attitudes toward immigration.

“Emotions seem to be an important mechanism and can function as so-called mediating variables or factors that explain why people are influenced by the media’s representations of immigration”, explains Theorin.

Media use and threats

Internationally, it also turned out that the media in different ways seem to trigger people’s perceptions of immigration as a threat to the economy, security, and culture, depending on where in the world the migrants come from.

Immigration from outside Europe was mainly associated with cultural threats, while the only perceived negative effect of European migration was on the economy.

“But the results differ so much between the countries that it is not possible to talk about any universal influence or common patterns”, Theorin states.

In general, the effect of the media was more limited than she expected, both in Sweden and internationally. Theorin believes this may be due to the fact that many people, long before the study, had already established such strong views on migration that they are difficult to change.

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About the dissertation

Theorin’s dissertation has been part of the research project “Role of European Mobility and its Impacts in Narratives, Debates and EU Reforms”, a collaboration between several European universities which, among other things, analyses and compares how people in different countries are influenced when they receive the same media content. One of the goals has been to investigate the importance of the national context for media’s influence on attitudes toward migration.

The dissertation includes a panel survey (2,254 respondents) in Sweden and another including six European countries (7,367 respondents) as well as an international experiment (with 5,510 participants).

Download the dissertation Us Versus Them and the Role of the Media here arrow_forward
About the dissertation

This article was first produced by the University of Gothenburg and published at, and later adapted for NordMedia Network.

Illustration by Gerd Altmann via Pixabay.