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Bridging the GapsLinking Research to Public Debates and Policy Making on Migration and Integration$

Martin Ruhs, Kristof Tamas, and Joakim Palme

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780198834557

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: April 2019

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198834557.001.0001

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Informing Realities

Informing Realities

Research, Public Opinion, and Media Reports on Migration and Integration

Chapter:
(p.50) 4 Informing Realities
Source:
Bridging the Gaps
Author(s):

William Allen

Scott Blinder

Robert McNeil

Publisher:
Oxford University Press
DOI:10.1093/oso/9780198834557.003.0004

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter addresses how research and public debate about migration interact with and inform each other, focusing on public perceptions and media coverage as important aspects. Factors including generalized public innumeracy about migration levels, effects of emotions on perceptions, and variation in the perceived credibility of different messengers make communicating information—of which research evidence is an important type—a complex process with multiple points of potential resistance. Meanwhile, the demands and expectations of public users and policy-makers can influence how research happens and the types of questions that are seen to be more meaningful. These interrelationships exist within wider social, political, and economic contexts that, in certain circumstances, are likely to favour some outcomes over others. In total, the chapter argues that the pathway from generating research evidence to impacting public debates is not only uncertain, it is also more complex than is often presumed.

Keywords:   evidence, impact, intermediary, knowledge exchange, media, migration, public opinion

Research on migration often aims to influence not only relatively specialized research communities, but also broader society including political institutions, policy processes, and media and public debates. Whether motivated by the intrinsic value of relating their work to the wider world, or prodded by shifting financial and professional incentives, academic researchers increasingly find themselves being asked to demonstrate how their work has impact beyond universities—especially when that research is publicly funded. Yet, defining and generating that impact is often elusive. Public debate and major policy decisions often seem to fly in the face of the evidence base accumulated by researchers in the academy, civil society, and even in government agencies themselves. Despite escalating pressure to produce impactful research, evidence-based public debate seems as far off as ever—particularly on the issue of immigration, where public discussion is often polarized, emotive, and based on perceptions rather than reality (Duffy 2014).

In this chapter, we explore the relationships between research and public debate, two aspects of the tripartite model proposed in the Introduction to this volume.1 We argue that the idea of ‘research impact’ is often based on a naive model of one-way effects that does not reflect the multifaceted relationships between research and elements of public debate. The pathway from research evidence to public debate is not only uncertain, it is also inevitably bi-directional: media and public discussions affect research as well as being affected by it. As academics aim to have impact on public debate, they should acknowledge even further how their research—comprising the questions they ask, the methods they employ, and the modes and venues in which they present their (p.51) findings—relates to the contours of public debate. Therefore, despite growing expectations that research can and should influence public debate, the implicit model of impact underlying such expectations is misleading and simplistic.

Public Debate about Migration: Media Coverage Informing Public Perceptions

For the purposes of this chapter, we view ‘public debate’ as referring to discussions among members of the general public that both reflect and shape attitudes toward migration and perceptions of migrants.2 Media coverage also constitutes an aspect of these debates. This includes not only opinion pieces that directly and literally debate policy options, but also news articles that help set the terms for policy debates by shaping the way members of the public and even policy-makers think about migrants and migration.

Across many immigrant-receiving countries, members of the public tend to view migrants in negative terms, and/or express preferences for increased restrictions on immigration. For example, global surveys find that pluralities—if not outright majorities—in a variety of traditionally migrant-receiving countries favour reducing immigration, or at least keeping levels the same, although this varies along lines of age and education levels (IOM 2015). Sometimes, this preference is associated with a perception that there are simply too many migrants in the country (Transatlantic Trends 2014), or that immigrants cause problems for the economy and society (Hainmueller and Hopkins 2014). Although direct experiences with social and economic changes linked to immigration may play a role in shaping these perceptions, information gained through second-hand sources also contributes to what people think about migration (Sides and Citrin 2007). Media, notably news media and social media, are particularly visible sources of information about migration and migrants for many people. Stories, images, narratives: media coverage, whether explicitly focusing on migration or tangentially relating to the issue, provides a variety of raw materials from which people generate their own ideas and thoughts about who immigrants are and what they do (Blinder and Allen 2016).

What is the nature of these raw materials? The picture of how media cover migration is mixed. To be sure, in higher-income and traditionally ‘destination’ countries, media coverage of immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees tends to be negative and focused on the threats—economic, socio-cultural, security—these groups pose towards ‘host’ publics (McAuliffe et al. 2015). Examples include the ‘Latino Threat narrative’ in the United States (Chavez 2013), casting Romanian migrants to the UK as criminals in British newspapers (Vicol and Allen 2014) and discussions about the fiscal impacts of migrant workers in European press sources (Caviedes 2015). But these kinds (p.52) of portrayals are neither universally observed nor completely negative. Newspapers in New Zealand, for example, became more sympathetic towards migrants after 2000 (Spoonley and Butcher 2009), while Canadian newspapers have tended to display more positive sentiment, especially since 2004 (Lawlor 2015). One type of sympathetic coverage depicts refugees, asylum seekers, or other types of migrants as victims in need of humanitarian assistance (Thorbjørnsrud 2015), as shown in studies of media in France (Benson 2013), the Netherlands (Lecheler et al. 2015), and South Korea (Park 2014). Media in migrant-sending countries, including Vietnam, have recently produced more positive content about migrants—although, overall, coverage remains mostly negative (McAuliffe et al. 2015). Also, thanks to social media, migrants can create and promote their own content, highlighting positive and personalized aspects of their migration experiences (The Observers 2017).

Media coverage contributes to public opinion and perceptions in several ways. First, negative coverage is associated with negative attitudes toward migration. At the level of individual choice, people who read a newspaper that takes a negative line towards immigration are more likely to share that negative view. Of course, this correlation may stem, at least in part, from selection: people choose media sources that confirm their prior opinions. However, research using controlled experiments or advanced statistical techniques supports the claim that media coverage plays a part in causing these negative views as well (Abrajano and Singh 2009; Boomgaarden and Vliegenthart 2009; van Klingeren et al. 2015). Second, coverage that emphasizes particular aspects of immigration can shape public understandings of what immigration is and who immigrants are. For example, by highlighting the scale of migration in numerical terms, media may raise levels of concern by feeding into a tendency the public has to overestimate the actual sizes of minority groups and base their perceptions on this information (Herda 2010). Indeed, several studies in Europe and the United States show that members of the public become more opposed to immigration when they believe there are large numbers of migrants in their country (Strabac 2011; Hooghe and de Vroome 2015). These effects are in keeping with a well-established set of research findings on the ability of media to influence ‘what people think about’, known as ‘agenda-setting’ and ‘priming’ effects in the empirical literature (Iyengar and Kinder 1987; McCombs 2014).

Research, Media, and Public Perceptions: The Naïve ‘Impact’ Model

As set out in the Introduction, ‘research’ refers to a broad set of knowledge including theories, concepts, data and datasets, and empirical findings. (p.53) Research may influence public opinion and public debate in several ways. Researchers often presume or wish for a model of influence in which researchers conduct inquiries, report on their results and inject research-based evidence into public debate. We characterize this desired model of research impact as involving a simple, one-directional flow: information originating with researchers influences the public (or a specified subset, such as a targeted audience). A slightly more nuanced version acknowledges how much of the public does not consume research directly but, rather, relies on mass media for information, as discussed in the previous section. In this case, evidence-based research needs to attract media coverage in order subsequently to inform public perceptions. We represent these two pathways in Figure 4.1.

Informing RealitiesResearch, Public Opinion, and Media Reports on Migration and Integration

Figure 4.1 Naïve model of research impact on public debates

At first glance, this model resonates with some findings from studies that considered how information influences what people think. Presenting ‘facts’ or definitive statistics can sometimes correct prior biases or misperceptions to move them closer to reality. For example, majorities of residents in immigrant-receiving countries overestimate the number of immigrants in their country. Providing people with correct information about the foreign-born proportion of their country’s population has been shown, at times, to change attitudes, generating a shift towards more favourable opinions of migration (Transatlantic Trends 2014). Further experiments in the United States indicate that this positive effect can last up to one month after encountering (p.54) the statistical information (Grigorieff et al. 2016). This phenomenon may extend beyond numerical statements to include qualitative claims about who migrants are: in one study, British people presented with a media headline about highly-skilled migrants became less likely to think of asylum seekers and ‘illegal’ immigrants when thinking about who immigrates to Britain (Blinder and Jeannet 2018).

Shifts in available information—a type of ‘head’-oriented intervention that prioritizes facts, numbers, and rational thinking—are not the only channel through which information is connected to public perceptions. Rather, ‘heart’-oriented approaches that account for emotions and story-based techniques also matter, and, in light of motivated reasoning accounts, these may be more effective. Negative feelings, particularly anxiety, mediate the impact of media content on perceptions (Brader et al. 2008). Anxiety can create self-reinforcing feedback as well: anxious people seek out information that reinforces their pre-existing beliefs that migrants constitute a threat, adding further to their anxiety (Albertson and Gadarian 2015).

While ‘head’- or ‘heart’-based appeals may play a role in the effectiveness of research-based interventions in public debate, these effects are conditional on trust in the messenger. Generally, information has greater impact when coming from a source or messenger that is seen as credible (Druckman 2001). Credibility, whether curated and implicitly signalled over time as part of reputation, or explicitly claimed in a particular moment of communication, is an important heuristic by which individuals evaluate messengers (Mackiewicz 2010).

Therefore, research-based evidence will vary in its impact on public debate, depending on public views of universities (and other sources of research). For example, university researchers enjoy a relatively high degree of public trust in Britain: 81 per cent of the British public place either a fair amount or great deal of trust in academics, compared to 45 per cent who trust the UK government and 25 per cent who trust politicians (ComRes and Research Councils UK 2017). But this is not the case across all country contexts. In the United States, recent public opinion research shows a wide partisan divide in views of universities, with Republican partisans rating professors more coldly and increasingly seeing universities as a negative influence on American society (Fingerhut 2017).

Therefore, by highlighting their generally credible status, researchers may gain some traction in impacting public perceptions, especially among less ideologically motivated citizens. However, this credibility varies across countries, as well as across different segments of the public within a country. Of course, relatively high levels of credibility may not matter anyway if researchers are not prominent in migration media coverage, compared to politicians and other ‘official’ government representatives (Allen 2016).

Research can also contribute to public debate more subtly by delimiting the terms available for discussion. For example, public opinion surveys implicitly (p.55) shape the nature of public debate by choosing which questions to ask and which topics to ignore (Lewis 2001). As a result, pollsters and survey researchers provide informative, yet inevitably selective, portraits of what ‘the public’ thinks about immigration, which, in turn, feeds back into public and policy debates. In the case of Britain, pollsters’ and academics’ survey questions have been consistently framed around quantities of migration (i.e. whether there are ‘too many’ migrants, or whether the number of arrivals should be reduced). This frame, in turn, soared to prominence in media coverage: recent policy debate has often focused on quantitative goals for immigration (Allen and Blinder 2018).

Furthermore, this quantitative frame for debate and policy draws on another essential form of research-based evidence: government-collected data on migration stocks and flows. Government-collected data often forms the raw material for the construction of research evidence on the economic and social impacts of migration, which, in turn, can be referenced in media stories. For example, US and UK estimates of unauthorized migrant populations are based on data on foreign-born populations from government-conducted censuses (Woodbridge 2005; Warren and Warren 2013). It is easy to miss these subtler forms of influence by focusing on the narrower—although more enticing—question of whether research influences public attitudes and media coverage. However, these forms of research and data, such as polling results, are often the basis of media reports on migration trends.

Thus, research may shape public perceptions by generating new knowledge for practitioners about audience receptivity to different approaches to the presentation of data and evidence. Provision of new information may be more effective for some audiences when packaged in narratives that appeal to emotions, or in visual ways that enable both exploration of the data and explanation of key trends or outliers (Kennedy et al. 2016; Kirk 2016). But misperceptions may also exist for mundane reasons: people may lack the time, interest, or resources to seek out relevant information independently, or to question the information they are presented with by the sources they use. Regardless of their provenance, misperceptions place public debate on shaky foundations. Therefore, providing and publicizing correct statistical information—using empirically evaluated approaches to presenting data—remains a useful pathway through which evidence can reshape public debate.

Moving Beyond a Naïve Model of Impact

However, a working model of impact that only focuses on the ways that information flows into public debates—whether through direct engagement between researchers and publics, or through mediated channels—greatly (p.56) oversimplifies the realities that confront researchers. Two critiques are especially relevant here: first, the public should not be conceived as passive recipients of information, whether from researchers or media; and second, public opinion and media environments—as well as developments in the wider ‘real world’—also influence the practice and communication of research.

Addressing Mutual Influence between Media and Perceptions

Media influence is not a one-way street. Public perceptions and popular opinion can also influence what kinds of media content are produced. In market-driven media systems typical of Anglo-American democracies, media organizations create ‘products’ that they try to sell to audiences (Croteau and Hoynes 2006). This requires a keen sense of who their audiences are, what they think and what kinds of stories will motivate customers to access whatever product is being offered—a physical newspaper, digital subscription, or other kinds of content—and, nowadays, also share it with their networks via word of mouth or social media. Content that matches audiences’ pre-existing beliefs and worldviews is more likely to be seen as interesting and, as a result, purchased or shared (Winter et al. 2016). Moreover, media exist within contexts that vary widely in terms of their institutional freedom, or links with states and political parties (Hallin and Mancini 2011; Freedom House, 2017). This can be seen in media ties to political parties in the ‘polarized pluralist’ model typical of Southern Europe, or in media connections with major elements of civil society in the Northern European ‘democratic corporatist’ model (Hallin and Mancini 2004). These media systems are less market-based than the Anglo-American model, but retain feedback loops in which elements of the public can also shape media content.

Besides shaping media outputs through demand, members of the public also push back against media by resisting new information that conflicts with pre-existing political beliefs or values. Public opinion scholars call this tendency ‘motivated reasoning’ (Kunda 1990) or ‘motivated scepticism’ (Taber and Lodge 2006), and see it as one of the biggest obstacles for creating a better-informed public on migration or any other issue (Druckman 2012). The difficulty, then, is not with the existence or even the dissemination of accurate evidence; rather, it is in the lack of effect on members of the public. Someone with strongly held negative views about immigration might be unlikely to accept or trust research showing, for example, that migrants have a positive impact on the economy. Instead, the motivation to defend one’s own political convictions and personal values takes priority over alternative motivations (such as a desire to hold accurate beliefs), resulting in a dismissal of counter-attitudinal evidence. As a result, in politically polarized times, (p.57) people may trust research only when it confirms their political orientations—or trust in research itself may become politicized as seen in the recent March for Science in the United States (Financial Times 2017). Therefore, in contexts where migration is a salient issue and firmly held opinions are common, motivated reasoning would be expected to dampen the impact of evidence on public opinion and public discussion, regardless of the quality or relevance of the evidence.

How Public Debates Influence Research Outputs and Practice

Meanwhile, the relationship between the worlds of research and public debate is not unidirectional, either. For example, engagement with users can shape the kinds of questions researchers ask in the first place. On the one hand, some migration scholars express concern about the extent to which policy-makers, or any user for that matter, exert influence over the definitions, categories, and topics that researchers pursue (Bakewell 2008). In a polarized political environment around migration, and where a variety of organizations (called ‘intermediaries’) connect university researchers with media and other public users, there are many opportunities for evidence-generating and reporting processes to be led by popular and institutional politics. When a campaigning organization is facing a fast-moving issue of high strategic importance, it may commission research for which it already knows the conclusions (Allen 2017b). In this case, the research serves a legitimizing function that confers political benefit, rather than scientific understanding, to the body that commissioned it (see also Chapter 2 in this book). On a more routine level, existing data and research can become relevant for media when real world conditions change, as was the case with quarterly migration figures produced by the UK’s Office for National Statistics. As levels of ‘net migration’ (the difference between the number of immigrants entering the country and those who were leaving) continued rising to record heights during 2013–2015, the British press began demanding and using these statistical packages to report on the government’s performance (Allen and Blinder 2018).

On the other hand, engaging with public users may actually generate more refined understandings of problems without imposing pre-determined solutions (Spencer 2017). Researchers and users can learn from each other in processes of ‘knowledge exchange’ (Kitagawa and Lightowler 2013), possibly improving both the quality of the academic outputs as well as fostering trust with key stakeholder groups. These kinds of personal relationships and feelings of goodwill, notwithstanding research quality and credibility, also facilitate the successful use of evidence (Contandriopoulos et al. 2010; Ward et al. 2012).

(p.58) A Multidirectional Model of Impact

Our brief survey of media coverage, public perceptions, and research on migration aimed to highlight how these elements relate to each other. Sometimes, this is exemplified through specific mechanisms such as agenda-setting, information effects, or motivated reasoning. At other times, these relationships are either more diffuse, as in assumptions which drive survey development, or event-specific. A clear implication arising from this synthesis is that ‘effectively’ communicating research for public impact involves much more than presenting facts and figures. Instead, it involves being aware of both the conditions and the contexts in which researchers supply information, as well as the ways that media and members of the public generate demand for certain kinds of research or data.

Critically, researchers and users of research should no longer think in terms of the simple model depicted in Figure 4.1, in which research findings simply flow downstream to the public through media or other intermediaries. This model omits reciprocal relationships and points of resistance to new information, possibly leading to misdirected effort and missed entry points where evidence may inform public debate in less direct ways. Rather than the unidirectional model, we suggest that the relationships between public debate (itself comprising links among media and public perceptions) and research look more like a complex web with potential influence between participants running in both directions, as seen in Figure 4.2. Moreover, these interrelations sit within wider social, political, and economic contexts that may favour some possibilities over others.

Informing RealitiesResearch, Public Opinion, and Media Reports on Migration and Integration

Figure 4.2 A multidirectional model of research impact

Research-based evidence can enter into public debate but, equally, public perceptions and the media environment create demand for certain types of evidence that shape researchers’ activities. This includes which topics to investigate, and also how to design, execute, and disseminate research in order to have an ‘impact’ on these elements of public debate. Migration research may help set the agenda for public debate, but the public, media, and policy environments have their own agendas which exert their own force on researchers’ activities. What is more, the goal of public ‘impact’ actually magnifies the reciprocal impact of public, media, and policy communities on research activity itself. When impact is an explicit or implicit goal, researchers must focus on topics or questions that are meaningful to broader audiences instead of, or in addition to, research communities. Data and methods must be legible to non-specialists, or at least able to be translated into more accessible forms.

Thus, successfully impacting public debate through research—whether by changing what people think about migration directly or through media coverage—involves navigating a complex world of reciprocal relationships. (p.59) That complex world leaves open the very real possibility that, even when information can find its way into media coverage, it will encounter citizens who are inclined to seek media coverage that confirms their prior beliefs, and dismiss or discount information that challenges those beliefs.

Conclusions and Extensions

What our synthesis does not explicitly deal with are the normative questions surrounding media, public perceptions, and research. How should media cover migration issues? To what extent, and through what means, should academics seek to introduce ‘correct’ viewpoints about migration, its impacts, or determinants? Instead, what we have aimed to do is paint a picture of complex interrelationships—a feature that becomes more apparent when we include policy-making, as discussed in Chapter 2 in this book. Debates and concepts originating in policy, for example, can stimulate media to focus on particular aspects of migration, which, in turn, generates further public discussions. The natures and compositions of these interactions are changing, as well as the conditions in which they are occurring.

One way this is happening is evidenced by the rise of ‘fake news’ in popular discussion, even if the phenomenon itself is not new: producing false, or at least questionable, information to achieve political ends is a standard propaganda technique (Bernays 1947). Moreover, fraudulent assertions about migrants and minorities have been part of policy and press narratives (p.60) throughout history, often as justifications for the control of human mobility (Anderson 2013). Examples range from the grotesque pictorial representation of Jews in thirteenth-century England (Menache 1985), to The Sun’s 2003 article ‘Swan Bake’, which told a fabricated story of Eastern European asylum seekers killing and eating the Queen’s swans in British parks (Medic 2004). More recently, in the United States, senior Republican Party officials produced fraudulent stories in the early stages of the Trump administration, including a terrorist incident allegedly undertaken by migrants—the ‘Bowling Green massacre’. This event was used both to argue that mainstream media were not properly reporting on immigration threats to the United States and to justify severe restrictions on migration to the United States from a number of Muslim majority countries (Kendzior 2017).

In this context, research potentially plays two critical roles. First, it can enable informed public debates about migration by providing a solid foundation of evidence on which both media and policy narratives can be built. ‘Fake news’ is actually not a single object but, rather, many objects with many purposes: from information that may unintentionally mislead, to material deliberately constructed to deceive, to ideas with which we strongly disagree (Beckett 2017). As a result, the phenomenon may be forcing people to reassess their use of media, and move back towards ‘respected’ and trusted media, or to fact-checking organizations and other sources of research evidence (Graves and Cherubini 2016). Second, in the digital age, research is providing new routes for wider public scrutiny of those narratives. Large-scale analysis of large amounts of text and digital content, ranging from news to tweets to forums, can reveal connections, patterns, or relationships that previously were not possible to identify (Hardaker 2010; Allen 2017a).

But, we also see that research outputs, and researchers themselves, are often under-exploited in debates about migration. Also, merely making research available does not guarantee its successful use, access, or understanding (Easton-Calabria and Allen 2015). The challenges facing those wanting to promote evidence uptake in global migration debates, such as those exemplified in this volume, are manifold. Addressing those challenges in responsible, thoughtful, and effective ways is the task ahead.

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Notes:

(1.) ‘Perceptions’ and ‘opinions’ are different: opinions refer to specific evaluations of attitude objects, while perceptions refer to more general awareness of an object and, possibly, its characteristics. In this chapter, we use both terms as indicative of ‘what people think’ about migration, though see Fiske and Taylor (2016) for more information.

(p.61) (2.) Public debate can, of course, also refer explicitly to policy debate, which can take place within governmental institutions or between government officials and organizations seeking to influence policy decisions. This form of public debate is addressed in detail in Chapter 2 of this book.