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Publicly Available Published by De Gruyter Mouton June 10, 2022

Looking over the channel: The balance of media coverage about the “refugee crisis” in Germany and the UK

  • Marcus Maurer , Jörg Haßler EMAIL logo , Simon Kruschinski and Pablo Jost
From the journal Communications


This study compares the balance of newspaper and television news coverage about migration in two countries that were differently affected by the so-called “refugee crisis” in 2015 in terms of the geopolitical involvement and numbers of migrants being admitted. Based on a broad consensus among political elites, Germany left its borders open and received about one million migrants mainly from Syria during 2015. In contrast, the conservative British government was heavily attacked by oppositional parties for closing Britain’s borders and, thus, restricting immigration. These different initial situations led to remarkable differences between the news coverage in both countries. In line with news value theory, German media outlets reported much more on migration than did their British counterparts. In line with indexing theory, German news coverage consonantly reflected the consensual view of German political elites, while British news media reported along their general editorial lines.

1 Introduction

Few political issues have attracted European public attention in recent years in the same manner as the so-called “refugee crisis”, which started in 2015. In that year, it became clear that increasing numbers of people, mainly from Syria, were trying to reach Central Europe via the Mediterranean and land routes, which caused disagreement among politicians across Europe on how to handle the expected increase in immigration. While high economic status made countries such as Sweden, Germany, France, and the UK attractive to refugees, it was in fact mainly their geographical locations that influenced political decision-making and the actual amount of immigration into various countries. Located in the center of Europe, Germany decided not to close its borders and received about one million immigrants in 2015. Although the governing German conservative party (CDU/CSU) traditionally favored restricting immigration, it gave up this position, which led to a broad consensus among German political elites that immigrants were welcome and should be accommodated (“Willkommenskultur”). Moreover, many German citizens perceived that the news media had imposed this consensus and sympathized with refugees. In November 2015, only one third of the German population believed that media coverage about migrants was balanced (Köcher, 2015). One year later, almost half of Germans stated that the news media reported too positively about migrants (Arlt and Wolling, 2018). In contrast, the UK controlled immigration via air traffic, ship traffic, and the Channel Tunnel and received comparably few refugees. The governing British conservative party stuck to its restrictive position on immigration, while most oppositional parties called for the accommodation of more immigrants. Consequently, in British politics and society, there was no consensus about immigration, and the role of the news media was debated on the basis of specific media reports (Suffee, 2015).

These different initial situations make both countries particularly suitable for a comparative analysis of newspaper and television news coverage for at least two reasons. First, the different degrees to which the two countries were affected by refugees may have influenced the amount and focus of news coverage. Second, the different degrees of consensus among political elites might have influenced how balanced the portrayal of migrants and migration was among news outlets. Therefore, in this study, we present data on the amount and balance of newspaper and television news coverage of the refugee crisis in Germany and the UK, highlighting the supporting or contradicting role of media coverage in the dependence of elites’ consensual opinion. To that end, we first discuss the concept of media balance from theoretical and methodological perspectives. We then present data from a comparative content analysis of two leading daily newspapers and television news programs in Germany and the UK from May 2015 to January 2016, covering the ‘hot phase’ of the refugee crisis.

Conceptualizing balance of media coverage

“Balance” generally refers to the extent to which different actors, topics and viewpoints are represented approximately equally or “unbiased” in media coverage (Starkey, 2007). In Germany, the Federal Constitutional Court expects balanced reporting from public broadcasters (BVerfG, 1961). At the same time, the demand for balance is contained in many state media laws in the German Federal States. Additionally, in the UK, the royal charter for the continuance of the British Broadcasting Corporation states: “The BBC should provide high-quality news coverage to international audiences, firmly based on British values of accuracy, impartiality, and fairness” (Department of Culture, Media and Sport, 2016).

However, in legal contexts, the term “balance” often remains largely undefined. The empirical research on the balance of media coverage is correspondingly heterogeneous. First, different studies use different measures of balance (e. g., D’Alessio and Allen, 2000; Eberl, Boomgaarden, and Wagner, 2017). The most commonly used measures are (1) visibility and (2) the tone of coverage concerning actors or viewpoints. Visibility deals with the question of whether different or competing actors are equally represented in the news. The demand for balanced media coverage in this sense can be explained by the fact that visibility is, per se, beneficial for political actors (e. g., Geiß and Schäfer, 2017). The tone of coverage concerns whether arguments for and against an actor or a position are equally present in the news. This seems to be important because arguments and evaluations presented in the news may affect public opinion (e. g., Eberl et al., 2018).

Second, studies on the balance of news reporting are based on different normative concepts of balance (e. g., Hopmann, van Aelst, and Legnante, 2011), with media coverage being considered balanced if certain conditions are met. On the one hand, media coverage can be described as balanced if actors and positions are approximately equally represented. News coverage is considered balanced, for example, when different political candidates are presented at a similar frequency during election campaigns or when the opposing viewpoints in a political conflict are similarly evaluated (e. g., Wahl-Jorgensen, Berry, Garcia-Blanco, Bennett, and Cable, 2017). On the other hand, balanced reporting is also understood as the proportional or adjusted representation of different actors or opinion camps, so different positions should not be represented equally but according to their distribution in real life (e. g., Boykoff and Boykoff, 2004).

Finally, the balance of news reporting can be measured at different levels of analysis (e. g., McQuail, 2010). First, it can be analyzed based on whether each single news report is balanced, for instance, whether it contains arguments for and against a specific position. Second, it can be analyzed based on whether the coverage of a given medium is balanced, for example, whether a given newspaper has published a similar number of arguments for and against a specific position during a political conflict. Third, it can be analyzed based on how balanced the overall reporting is in a given media system, whether the mass media collectively support a certain conflict party or provide different positions during a conflict.

Balance of news coverage about migrants

Studies on the balance of news coverage of migrants and migration deal mainly with one or more of the following three indicators (for a more detailed overview, see Eberl et al., 2018). First, many studies deal with the visibility of migrants and the issue of migration in the news. They show that migrants are usually underrepresented in comparison to the actual distribution of ethnicities in Western countries (Monk-Turner, Heiserman, Johnson, Cotton, and Jackson, 2010; Trebbe, Paasch-Colberg, Greyer, and Fehr, 2017). Moreover, media coverage about migrants is, at best, loosely connected to official statistics about the number of people applying for asylum (van Klingeren, Boomgaarden, Vliegenthart, and de Vreese, 2015; Vliegenthart and Boomgaarden, 2007; Authors, 2019). Media coverage about migration is often forced by spectacular events, especially events connected to terrorism and crime (e. g., Ahmed and Matthes, 2016; Moore, Mason, and Lewis, 2008). Finally, several studies show that news coverage about migration is dominated by political actors, while migrants are seldom quoted. This held true even during the European refugee crisis of 2015/16 (Chouliaraki and Zaborowski, 2017; Fengler and Kreutler, 2020; Haller, 2017).

Second, many studies deal with the tone of media coverage about migrants and migration. For Germany as well as the UK, they show that news reports usually portray migrants in a one-sided, negative manner. Thus, the degree of negative representation depends on the migrants’ country of origin, with migrants from Muslim countries falling victim to particularly negative characterizations (e. g., Bleich, Bloemraad, and Graauw, 2015; Goedeke Tort, Guenther, and Ruhrmann, 2016; Jaspal and Cinnirella, 2010). Some studies also show that the issue of migration is often negatively evaluated in the news (Esser, Engesser, Matthes, and Berganza, 2017; Schlueter and Davidov, 2013). In a study on media coverage in eight European countries, including Germany and the UK, Chouliaraki and Zaborowski (2017) found that the news media frequently mentioned the negative consequences of migration while the positive consequences were rarely mentioned. However, a recent study on media coverage of the refugee crisis in Germany (Haller, 2017) suggests that, especially in the summer and autumn of 2015, German news media reports were extremely positive about migration and expressed almost no reservations about expanding the admission of migrants to Germany.

Finally, many studies deal with the framing of migrants and migration in the news. In this context, the term used to label migrants can serve as a frame (de Coninck, 2019), although this may have negative consequences in many respects (Crawley and Skleparis, 2018). The term ‘refugee’ has been defined by the United Nations as

“any person who […] owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or […] unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country” (UNHCR, 1951).

The term thus implies the need for protection. In contrast, ‘migrant’ is a more general term describing people who are outside the territory of which they are citizens. Thus, the use of the term ‘migrant’ does not imply that the person needs protection. A study on media coverage in five European countries immediately before the start of the refugee crisis in 2015 shows that German media clearly preferred the term ‘refugee’, while British media preferred the term ‘migrant’ (Berry, Garcia-Blanco, and Moore, 2015).

Moreover, several studies deal with the question of whether migration is framed from an economic, security, or humanitarian perspective (issue-specific framing, e. g., Balch and Balabanova, 2016; Meeusen and Jacobs, 2017). These perspectives are usually connected to (implicit) evaluations, as the security frame implies a danger for the receiving countries, while the humanitarian frame focuses on migrants’ need to be protected. Several quantitative framing analyses show that, during the refugee crisis, German news media framed migration mainly as a problem—or even danger—for the receiving countries, especially after the German government’s decision to keep the borders open (Conrad and Aðalsteinsdóttir, 2017; Heidenreich, Eberl, Lind, and Boomgaarden, 2019). In the UK, the dominant frame was the ‘refugee camp’ frame that referred to the refugees’ dangerous situation in, for instance, Idomeni or Calais (Heidenreich et al., 2019), but did not focus on migration as a problem for the UK as a receiving country.

Finally, the terms used to describe migrants and their issue-specific framing are connected. While ‘migrants’ or ‘immigrants’ are framed mainly from an economic perspective, in the case of ‘refugees’, security and humanitarian frames are dominant (Blinder and Allen, 2016; Lawlor and Tolley, 2017).

The refugee crisis of 2015/16: Comparing Germany and the UK

During the summer of 2015, Germany and the UK showed at least two commonalities in terms of immigration. First, due to their high levels of freedom and democracy as well as their high economic and social welfare statuses, both countries were equally attractive to immigrants (Neumayer, 2004). Second, both countries were governed by conservative parties known for favoring the position of restricting immigration (Bale, 2013; Hix and Noury, 2007). While the German Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) had been the leading party in a coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD) since the National Election in 2013, the British Conservative Party won the outright majority in the National Election in May 2015.

However, there were even greater differences between the two countries. Because of their nation’s geographical location in the middle of Europe, German politicians took a leading position in the lengthy discussion about how to deal with the large number of migrants on their way to Europe. While the leftist parties in the German parliament (i. e., SPD, Green Party, The Left Party) have traditionally taken a supportive stance toward immigration (Givens and Luedtke, 2005), the Christian Democrats adopted this position in the summer of 2015, forming an immigration-friendly consensus among most of the political elites (McKeever, 2020). Drawing on McKeever’s (2020) contextual factors to explain conservative parties’ policy changes toward immigration, one can say that the Christian Democrat’s decision was driven mainly by a Europhile stance, perceiving the public’s identity concerns about the European Union and immigration to a minor degree and underestimating party competition on the right. Thus, the only German party that did not support this elite consensus was the right-wing populist Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD), which was not a member of the parliament at this time. Deriving from this wide consensus is the German political elite opinion—shared by the majority of the German population—that migrants should be accommodated for humanitarian reasons (“Willkommenskultur” [welcome culture]; Conrad and Aðalsteinsdóttir, 2017). Finally, on September 4, German Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) declared her decision to leave the German borders open for migrants with the famous phrase “Wir schaffen das!” (“We will manage it!”), leading to almost one million people crossing the German border in 2015. From May 2015 to January 2016, a total of 418,000 migrants, coming mainly from Syria (41 %) but also from quite different countries such as Albania (11 %) or Kosovo (8 %), applied for asylum in Germany (EUROSTAT, 2017).

In contrast to the German conservatives, the conservative British government stuck to its traditional position and tried to restrict immigration as much as possible (Bale, 2013). This decision was driven mainly by a more Eurosceptic stance in the face of Brexit, perceiving the public’s identity concerns toward the European Union and immigration to a high degree and taking for granted party competition on the right (McKeever, 2020). Thus, in particular, the success of the right-wing populist UKIP, which received the third-highest number of votes in the National Election of 2015, put pressure on Conservatives to reduce immigration (Evans and Mellon, 2019). The (leftist/liberal) oppositional parties, which traditionally support immigration, frequently attacked the government for its restrictive position (e. g., Bale, 2018; Hampshire and Bale, 2015). In contrast to Germany, there was no political elite consensus regarding how to deal with migrants: While the (leftist/liberal) oppositional parties favored open borders, the conservative government and the right-wing UKIP wanted to keep them closed (Evans and Mellon, 2019; McKeever, 2020). Finally, the UK closed its borders by expanding security mechanisms around the Channel Tunnel and received much fewer migrants than did Germany. Between May 2015 and January 2016, only 34,000 of these migrants applied for asylum in the UK. Most of them, as in former years, came from countries like Iran and Pakistan, which were not connected to the actual refugee crisis (EUROSTAT, 2017).

Based on this initial situation, we assume that German and British news media differed in terms of 1) the amount and 2) the balance of news coverage about the refugee crisis. First, the amount of coverage is supposed to be influenced by the different ways in which the refugee crisis affected both countries. News value theory assumes that the occurrence of so-called news factors determines whether the news media cover an event (Eilders, 2006; Galtung and Ruge, 1965). One of the most decisive news factors is geographical closeness or proximity, describing the geographical distance between the location of a given news outlet and the location where an event happened (Johnson-Cartee, 2005, p. 128). In this case, it is assumed that events that take place close to the location of a given news outlet are more newsworthy than events happening farther away, as the audience will be more concerned about events happening nearby. Consequently, we can assume that the refugee crisis was, overall, more newsworthy for German journalists (and audiences) than it was for their British colleagues and, therefore, that it received more media attention in Germany. Moreover, as Germany was highly involved geopolitically and received large numbers of migrants, German media might have treated the refugee crisis as a domestic issue by focusing on events in Germany. In contrast, British media may have treated the crisis as an issue of foreign politics by focusing on events outside the UK. Consequently, we formulate the following hypotheses:

H1: German news media reported more frequently on the refugee crisis as compared to British news media.

H2: German news media focused, in particular, on migrants and migration in Germany, while British news media focused in particular on migrants and migration outside the UK.

Second, the balance of news media coverage is supposed to be influenced by the different levels of political elite consensus regarding how to deal with the refugee crisis. Indexing theory (Bennett, 1990; 2016) assumes that media coverage in a given country largely reflects the government’s position on an issue in the event that there is an overarching consensus in the opinion of political elites toward that issue. According to Bennett (2016), indexing theory rests on an element of democratic common sense: the idea that spheres of consensus among elites somehow reflect the public interest. In such cases, journalists do not seem to question that consensus but, rather, rely on official statements, thus leading to largely consonant and biased media coverage supporting the government’s position and neglecting the news media’s presumed editorial lines. Indexing theory, therefore, concerns the overall balance in a given media system rather than the balance of single news reports or news outlets.

Thus far, indexing theory has typically been tested in the context of news media coverage about military interventions. In these extreme cases, indexing is usually found (Bloch-Elkon and Nacos, 2014; Eilders, 2005; Mermin, 1999; Zaller and Chiu, 1996). However, recent studies also show that news media in the presence of an elite consensus try to ensure balance in their coverage by including credible foreign voices that oppose the dominant view of domestic elites (Hayes and Guardino, 2010; Murray, 2014).

As there was a clear consensus among the positions of the established German political parties to leave the borders open to migrants, it can be assumed that German media coverage was dominated by sources supporting migration and, therefore, reflected the German government’s view on migrants and migration. In contrast, the UK conservative and leftist/liberal parties clearly had different positions on immigration. Thus, there was no consensus amongst political elites in the UK. According to indexing theory, media coverage may not have reflected the government’s position on migration (see also Allen and Blinder, 2018). Instead, it can be assumed that the British media largely differed in the way they covered the crisis, as they may have covered the issue based on their general editorial lines. According to this, in terms of migrants and migration, conservative media tend to report negatively, while liberal media tend to report positively (Bleich, Nisar, and Abdelhamid, 2016). We can therefore assume that

H3: German news media focused on domestic political actors supporting the government’s position on migration, while British news media presented a wider range of actors.

H4: German news media reported consonantly about migrants and migration, while British news media reported according to their editorial lines.

2 Method

To compare the news media coverage of the European refugee crisis in Germany and the UK, we conducted a quantitative content analysis of leading daily newspapers and far-reaching public TV newscasts with different editorial lines. For Germany, we selected the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ; moderately conservative), the Sueddeutsche Zeitung (SZ; moderately liberal), and the main TV newscast ARD Tagesschau. For the UK, we selected The Times (moderately conservative), The Guardian (moderately liberal), and BBC Television’s flagship evening newscast, News at Ten. We analyzed all newspaper articles that addressed the refugee crisis[1] between May 1, 2015 and January 31, 2016. Before May 2015, there was virtually no media coverage of the refugee crisis. January 2016 marked a possible turning point in German news reporting due to the incidents on New Year’s Eve in Cologne, where several women became victims of sexual harassment committed by migrants. Newspaper coverage was analyzed every day. TV news was analyzed every second day due to the rather complex analysis of audiovisual news content.

The codebook contained around 50 categories coded at the level of news items (newspaper articles and TV newscast reports). In this paper, we examine the balance of news coverage using five indicators based on former research. To measure visibility, we coded the three main actors of each news item. To measure the tone of the media coverage about migrants[2] and migration, we used two different indicators. First, we coded the tone of coverage for each main actor including migrants on a five-point scale (“clearly positive” to “clearly negative”). Second, we coded how different measures designed to solve the refugee crisis are evaluated in each news item. Here, we distinguished between measures excluding (e. g., prevention of immigration) or including (e. g., integration) migrants. To measure the framing of migrants and migration, we again used two indicators. First, we coded the labels used to describe migrants in each news item. We distinguished 17 terms in German and their exact equivalents in English (e. g., ‘refugees’/‘Flüchtlinge’, ‘asylum seekers’/‘Asylbewerber’, ‘migrants’/‘Migranten’). Second, we coded whether immigration is, all in all, framed as an opportunity (e. g., economic or cultural benefit) or a danger (e. g., financial risks or increase in crime) to the receiving country (five-point scale from “clear opportunity” to “clear danger”).

An extensive training and a pre-testing phase ensured sufficient reliability of the codebook. Coding 15 identical articles and newscasts by all seven coders revealed satisfactory inter-coder reliability between 0.70 (tone of coverage about migrants) and 0.91 (terms used to describe migrants) based on percent agreement.

3 Findings

In total, the six analyzed news media published 4,354 news articles on the refugee crisis between May 2015 and January 2016. The German newspapers FAZ (1,733) and Sueddeutsche Zeitung (1,147) featured the largest number of articles dealing with migration. The British Times (461) and The Guardian (379) covered the topic to a much lesser extent. Among the television news broadcasts, Tagesschau (454) reported more frequently than did BBC News at Ten (180). For the sake of comparability, we extrapolated the sample of both news broadcasts. Taken together, the German news media outlets analyzed reported far more frequently on the refugee crisis than did the British news media outlets analyzed (3,334 versus 1,187 news items), supporting H1. These differences cannot be attributed to the different lengths and volumes of the news outlets, as all three German outlets are clearly shorter than their British counterparts. In both countries, news coverage about migration increased during the summer of 2015 and rapidly decreased in September after the German government’s decision to leave the German border open. In Germany, this trend was more or less in line with the number of asylum seekers (EUROSTAT, 2017). In the UK, immigration remained largely constant at a low level throughout 2015 (Figure 1).

As expected in H2, most of the news items in the German news media analyzed (69 %) dealt with the situation of migrants in Germany. In contrast, their British counterparts treated the issue as foreign politics: Only a minority of news items (24 %) dealt with the situation of migrants in the UK. Even the situation in other receiving countries (32 %)—including Germany (12 %)—was more often discussed. Accordingly, in our sample of British news media, mainly political actors from outside the UK (46 %) were visible, while German news media focused largely on German politicians (37 %). As expected in H3, German media almost exclusively presented domestic political actors supporting the German government’s positive stance toward migration. Of course, this can largely be explained by the fact that all German parties except for the right-wing populist AfD were in line with the government’s position. Despite the lack of consensus about migration in the UK, the British news media analyzed covered government sources far more often than they did British opposition sources. However, as domestic political actors appeared in only about ten percent of the news items, this fact did not carry much weight. As found in previous studies, migrants were seldom visible in both countries’ news media outlets (Table 1).

Figure 1: Media coverage about migration and number of asylum applications over time.
Figure 1:

Media coverage about migration and number of asylum applications over time.

Table 1:

Visibility of different actors in German and British news media.

German media



British media



Domestic political actors from parties



Supporting migration1)



Opposing migration2)



Foreign/international political actors



Organizations and interest groups, of this



Supporting migration3)



Opposing migration4)












  1. Germany: CDU/CSU, SPD, Green Party, FDP, The Left Party; UK: Labour Party, SNP, Liberal Democrats

  2. Germany: AfD; UK: Conservative Party, UKIP

  3. including NGOs like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International as well as people taking part in pro-migration protest marches

  4. including right-wing organizations as well as people taking part in anti-migration protest marches

For all news items mentioning single migrants or migrants altogether as one of the three main actors, the positive or negative tone of the coverage about migrants was coded.[3] Calculation of the balance of news items with a positive versus negative tone shows that British media outlets tend to have a more positive tone (+65 %) as compared to German news outlets (+28 %). Moreover, there were remarkable differences between the media outlets. In Germany, the conservative FAZ and the liberal Sueddeutsche Zeitung differed slightly in their coverage’s overall positive tone, while in the UK, the liberal Guardian presented migrants much more positively as compared to the conservative Times. However, in both countries, the public broadcasters ARD and BBC presented migrants almost exclusively positively (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Tone of media coverage about migrants in different news media.
Figure 2:

Tone of media coverage about migrants in different news media.

Figure 3: Evaluation of measures to solve the refugee crisis.
Figure 3:

Evaluation of measures to solve the refugee crisis.

Our second indicator concerning the tone of media coverage is the evaluation of different measures to solve the refugee crisis. We distinguish measures to exclude migrants (prevention of migration, returning migrants) from measures to include them (integration of migrants, humanitarian actions). In German as well as British news media, the prevention of migration was, by far, the most discussed measure (34 % versus 46 %). However, at the same time, it was evaluated less positively, especially in the British media. In contrast, integration was seldom discussed but almost exclusively positively evaluated. All in all, our analysis reveals that in both countries’ news media inclusive actions were evaluated much more positively than were exclusive actions. While in the German FAZ, Sueddeutsche, and Tagesschau all measures were evaluated positively, the liberal Guardian evaluated excluding measures, on average, slightly negatively (Figure 3).

Concerning the framing of migrants and migration, we first assume that certain terms to describe migrants carry different subliminal evaluations. To analyze this, we distinguished three common terms used in the news coverage: refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants. The German news media analyzed clearly preferred the term ‘refugee’ in their coverage. About 90 % of articles used this label, while the term ‘migrant’ was almost absent. The differences between the three German outlets were marginal. In contrast, our sample of British media used the terms ‘refugee’ and ‘migrant’ to almost the same extent. The overall balance of labels in the British media was caused by the different use of the terms in different media depending on their editorial lines. While the BBC almost perfectly reflects the UK’s average, the liberal Guardian used the term ‘refugee’ (62 % versus 33 %) more frequently. In contrast, the conservative Times preferred the term ‘migrant’ (55 % versus 25 %; Figure 4).

Figure 4: Terms used to describe migrants.
Figure 4:

Terms used to describe migrants.

Finally, we coded the framing of migration as a danger or an opportunity for the receiving countries. In total, 1,453 news items mentioned either the risks or the opportunities of migration. In contrast to the position of the German government, German news media clearly framed migration as a danger (-43 %). However, their British counterparts were even more skeptical (-64 %). Again, the liberal Sueddeutsche Zeitung and the conservative FAZ did not differ much in terms of their framing of migration, while the conservative Times framed migration much more negatively compared to the liberal Guardian. While the German public broadcaster ARD showed the most negative framing, the British BBC almost perfectly reflected the British average (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Framing of migration as an opportunity or a danger for the receiving countries.
Figure 5:

Framing of migration as an opportunity or a danger for the receiving countries.

Taken together, our findings predominantly but not exclusively support H4. As expected by indexing theory, German news media mostly supported the positive view of the German government on migrants. However, in contrast to the government’s position, the media clearly framed migration as a danger. German media coverage was more consonant than British media coverage—interestingly, also when it did not follow the government’s line. In the UK, in particular, the conservative Times and the liberal Guardian frequently differed in the way they depicted the refugee crisis, rather reflecting the ambiguous views of political elites.

4 Summary and discussion

In this study, we compared the balance of newspaper and television news coverage about the so-called refugee crisis of 2015/16 in Germany and the UK. Because German political parties largely agreed that migrants should be accommodated, the German government decided to leave the borders open for migrants. Germany received almost one million migrants, mainly from Syria but also from quite different countries such as Albania and Kosovo. In contrast, there was no political elite consensus in the UK, and the conservative British government almost completely closed the borders to migrants. During the refugee crisis, German news media were frequently accused of reporting one-sidedly and presenting migrants in a too-positive light. Theoretically, this can be explained by indexing theory, which claims that media coverage reflects the position of the government if there is a consensus among the opinions of political elites. To test the consequences of these different initial situations on the balance of media coverage about migrants and migration in both countries, we conducted a content analysis of the coverage of six German and British news media outlets with large audiences and different editorial lines between May 2015 and January 2016.

Our analyses show remarkable differences in the news media coverage in the two countries. The German news media analyzed reported much more frequently about migrants and migration than did their British counterparts. Moreover, while German media predominantly covered the refugee crisis in Germany, British media tended to look over the Channel and refer to political developments in continental Europe. Furthermore, German news media mainly depicted German politicians sharing the government’s positive view on migration, whereas British news media depicted politicians from countries other than the UK. As expected by indexing theory, German news media, in three of four cases (i. e., tone of coverage about migrants, evaluation of actions to solve the crisis, terms to describe migrants), consonantly supported the view of the German government. However, the framing of migration differed from the other findings: In contrast to the German government’s position, German news media consonantly framed migration as a danger to German society. Consequently, German news coverage can best be described as inconsistently consonant. When migrants as human beings were mentioned, German news media shared the humanitarian view of the German government: Migrants must be protected and should be integrated. When migration was discussed as an abstract phenomenon, the same media outlets stressed its negative consequences. British news media reported less consonantly. As there was no consensus among British political elites regarding how to deal with the refugee crisis, the media did not collectively follow the government’s position. Instead, in particular, the two leading newspapers followed their general editorial lines. In particular, the liberal Guardian frequently opposed the view of the conservative British government.

Consequently, our study contributes to the research on indexing theory as well as to the research on the balance of media coverage about migration in general. Concerning indexing theory, our analysis shows that indexing is present in cases other than military interventions. However, German news outlets did not follow the German government’s position in every case. Obviously, other factors influence news coverage in times of an elite consensus. Further research is needed to investigate these factors. Moreover, our research design comparing media coverage in countries with different levels of elite consensus might be used in future studies on the hypotheses of indexing because it provides a stronger test of indexing theory than do single-country studies.

Concerning research on the general balance of media coverage about migrants, our findings might reconcile the contradictory results of previous studies. Obviously, the findings heavily depend on which indicators are used to measure the balance of news coverage. Consequently, future studies might take into account a variety of indicators to create a complete picture of media coverage. Although many studies compare news media coverage about migration in various countries (Berry et al., 2015; Chouliaraki and Zaborowski, 2017; Fengler and Kreutler, 2020; Heidenreich et al., 2019), many of them remain quite descriptive due to the large number of countries examined. Our study focuses on only two countries but clearly points out two factors to explain differences in coverage: the level of elite consensus and the level of concern about the issue. Future studies might further test these explanations or uncover different ones.

However, our study is also subject to limitations. A first limitation concerns the comparison between news media coverage in Germany and the UK. In this study, we imply a most similar design of comparative research (Przeworski and Teune, 1970), as we assume that differences between the coverage of German and British news media can be traced back to the different levels of political elite consensus in both countries. However, when comparing various countries’ media coverage, we must consider that differences in media coverage may also be caused by the general characteristics of the countries’ media systems or journalistic cultures. Hallin and Mancini (2004) initially categorized the UK as a North Atlantic or liberal media system and Germany as a Northern European or democratic corporatist media system, for example, implying that German journalists report in a more partisan manner, while indicating that British journalists report in a more balanced manner on political issues. However, the authors also assumed a convergence of European media systems in the direction of the liberal model. More recently, Brüggemann, Engesser, Büchel, Humprecht, and Castro (2014) have empirically shown that categorizing Germany and the UK as the same media system type is now a much better fit in many regards. They cluster both countries as ‘central’ media systems, based on six dimensions in which there are clear similarities: (1) The press markets in both countries are similar. (2) The professionalism of British and German journalists is comparably high. (3) Political parallelism is more equal than it is in, for example, countries from southern Europe. Regarding (4), the ownership regulation, both countries tend to moderately regulate their press markets. Finally, both countries are highly similar with respect to their (5) public broadcasting systems and (6) press subsidies. Concerning journalism cultures, a recent survey on German and British journalists’ professional attitudes (Henkel, Thurman, and Deffner, 2019) shows many similarities but also some differences. In particular, the data show that British journalists seem to conceive of their role as being more confrontational toward those in power. Consequently, our study is limited in the sense that its findings may, to some extent, also be explained by the existence of different journalism cultures. However, we are nevertheless convinced that media systems and journalism cultures have more similarities than differences and that our findings can, therefore, largely be traced back to the different initial situations in both countries.

A second limitation concerns the news media under examination. We chose three news media outlets in each country based on different formats (newspaper versus television) and different editorial lines (liberal versus conservative). Nevertheless, we cannot fully be sure whether these outlets really reflect the media landscape in both countries. Probably, we would have found different results had we included tabloid newspapers or news broadcasts of private TV channels, as these may report differently on migration (Maurer, Jost, Haßler, and Kruschinski, 2019).

A final limitation concerns the causal relationship between political elite opinion and news media coverage. While indexing theory implies an influence of political elite consensus on media coverage, in the German case it has also been assumed that, conversely, news media coverage forced the political consensus about migration. Thus, future studies should examine the causal relationship between political elite consensus and political media coverage.


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Published Online: 2022-06-10
Published in Print: 2022-06-30

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