The unofficial psychology blog from Paul Hutchings

Sometimes you SHOULD shoot the messenger

Immigration is always a hot topic, and its links to prejudice are profound. Because of this, it is important that issues about immigration are considered carefully when being reported. So when I was listening to the radio this morning and heard that the government had calculated figures for the number of non-UK born people claiming benefits from the UK system I pretty much knew what was coming. Sure enough, the Daily Mail certainly didn’t let me down.

Around 370,000 foreign-born people are claiming benefits. That is 6% of the approx 5.2 million people claiming benefits. And it is about 9% of the number of foreign-born people in the UK, a figure which is pretty similar to the percentage of UK-born people who are also unemployed in the UK.

So, a possible headline might be ‘UK-born and foreign-born people equally likely to be out of work in the UK’. Instead, the Daily Mail goes with ‘The foreigners being paid £2billion in benefits a year including 371,000 on the dole’. Both essentially true from the statistics – but the DM version is much more emotive and attention-grabbing. And also far more likely to shape people’s attitudes and perceptions of ‘foreigners’. Let’s ignore the fact that many of those ‘foreigners’ may have paid money into the system through prior taxes, or may be claiming in the same way as many UK-born people who have never paid into the system through taxes etc. The stats also show that 2% are claiming illegally (a prominent part of the headline) so let’s damn the other 98% of them with that statistic – and let’s not compare that number of 7,000 with the amount of UK-born claimants who are cheating the system.

However, this post isn’t about having a go at the Daily Mail, or even the specifics of this story – it is about how the media frames stories such as this by reporting the statistics in the way they do, particularly in the use of headlines. Framing effects can be extremely influential in how we form attitudes about issues, particularly when we do not have a great deal of personal references to rely on. Tversky and Kahneman’s classic  study of presenting the same information framed as either gains or losses shows the power of word manipulation which can influence our judgements.

It is here that the media have a responsibility;  it is very easy to say ‘we are reporting the facts’, but the way in which these facts are reported – the framing of the story, particularly the headline, can have a huge influence upon people’s attitudes and perceptions. Therefore the messenger (the media) must not simply see themselves as merely passive reporters of facts. Let’s face it, they know full well what they are doing – they are fast enough to claim the plaudits and claim to be setting the agenda when the outcome would be positive for them. But this also means that the same agenda-setting must be recognised when the outcomes could be negative.


Edited 21/01/2012 to add: Good(??) to see the Daily Mail comments pages backing up what I have said (although, to be fair, you only need to wave a picture of a woman in a muslim headscarf looking out of the doorway of a nice-looking house to send them into an apoplectic rage at the best of times).

Post of the day, though, must go to the writer who claimed that 6% of immigrants are out of work, and 6% of the UK population is made up of immigrants – don’t you see, this means that ALL immigrants are claiming benefits!


Remember people, even when your mathematical skills aren’t functioning correctly you still have those back-up systems like eyes, common-sense, etc.


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