Fanning the flames of asylum seeker fear

Articles from Sydney's <i>Daily Telegraph</i>.

Articles from Sydney's Daily Telegraph.

Are you scared, yet? According to some media coverage of asylum seekers who arrive by boat, you should be.

The Daily Telegraph's coverage regularly evokes the idea that we are overwhelmed by - drowning in - a deluge of asylum seekers, despite the fact we only receive about 2 to 3 per cent of the global applications.

Their latest offering is the depersonalising term “human tide”:

“Abbott shuts the door on human tide”*,


“The payments are rich on refugee gravy boat - HUMAN TIDE”** 

Oh, and we can’t forget the “Asylum seeker armada” meme they seem keen to create***.

This is despite a press council ruling earlier this year, which found their use of the terms "invade" "open the floodgates" and "deluge" - in an earlier example of their coverage of the issue - was inaccurate and unfair.

Gee, I guess they learnt their lesson on that one.

So what does it matter? Well, quite a lot actually. We in the mainstream media like to think of ourselves as being a completely unbiased conduit of facts, and if we include opinion or interpretation of those facts it simply reflects the opinions of the mainstream.

But the reality is our interpretation of those facts is just as likely to shape mainstream opinion, as be shaped by it.

It’s a complicated, murky process, so it’s not always easy to unpick. But it seems clear that the studies that have been done indicate this type of media coverage actually makes people more scared of, and more opposed to, refugees.

Research consistently shows that when it comes to outsiders, we are easily influenced by perceptions of real and symbolic threat, and we are more likely to exhibit physical fear responses to people not of our own race.

Refugees, particularly when they are described as a homogenous “human tide”, are clearly outsiders.

Articles that focus on the money given to asylum seekers don’t help. This study found people who perceived refugees as a resource threat were also more likely to have prejudicial attitudes.****

While this one found Australians were extremely reliant on media reporting when it comes to forming their views on asylum seekers. Only a quarter of people surveyed thought asylum seekers come to Australia to flee persecution, as opposed to for economic or other reasons.

People – educated or not – tend to be influenced by the media they consume, and when the media obsessively focuses on an issue such as immigration or refugees, political parties who take extreme positions on those issues tend to gain popularity.

So next time you wonder why boat arrivals are such as massive issue in Australia, or next time you feel anger or fear over asylum seekers, take another look at your local newspaper headline. It might not just be reflecting your fear, it could be shaping it. 

*The online version omits the word “human”

** This article informs us that “A single parent with four or more children could receive as much as $706” a fortnight. Wow! $700 for five people over two weeks … BEFORE rent. What a gravy boat! Where do I get myself some of those sweet federal $$$?! You could almost ( … oh, alright, probably not) eat THREE MEALS A DAY with that cash bonanza!

*** This term has been printed about eight times over the past few years. ar·ma·da  /är’mädə/: Noun. “A fleet of warships”.

****An interesting aside: almost every study I looked at on this issue found men had more negative beliefs about asylum seekers than women. I wonder why that is?