The interdisciplinary IMMIGRANTS project aims at a better understanding of how media influence majority’s attitudes and behaviors towards immigrants – a socially pressing issue connected to rapid expansion of immigration in Europe. In the project, we focus on different aspects of media news – their valence, labels used for immigrants’ ethnicity and pictures of immigrants accompanying media articles about immigrants. We are interested in the role of different underlying mechanisms and boundary conditions. In the IMMIGRANTS project, we bring together different traditions on media and immigrant research and address several gaps in social scientific literature.
Information about the role of different aspects of media news in enhancing prejudice is of relevance to professionals communicating about social minorities (e.g., journalists, politicians, social workers, NGOs employees, etc.) as well as their audience (e.g., general public, social policy makers, etc.). Thus, outcomes of IMMIGRANTS should inform guidelines for trainings of journalists, policy makers, and social workers to become more sensitive to the impact of language describing immigrants.
Language describing immigrants’ background
The ethnic or national background of an immigrant can be described either with a noun (e.g., a male German) or with an adjective (e.g., a German man). Graf and Sczesny’s past findings indicate that the use of nouns in reference to immigrants’ background consistently leads to more negative attitudes towards immigrants than the use of adjectives. Thus, when writing or talking about immigrants, their background should be referred to with adjectives (an Eritrean immigrant) rather than nouns (an immigrated Eritrean), so that existing negative sentiments against immigrants in host societies do not deteriorate further.
Positive and negative news about immigrants
As for the content of media news, mass media can depict immigrants in a positive or a negative light, or both at the same time. Graf and Sczesny found that positive and negative reports shape the majority’s attitudes toward immigrants in the respective directions. Positive reports about immigrants result in more favorable attitudes than negative reports. Importantly, the majority’s attitudes can be influenced by a one-off exposure to a single news report. This has considerable consequences, given the frequency and ubiquity of media news that can reach a vast number of people.
The simultaneous presentation of positive and negative information does not differ in effect from the effect of positive reports. Thus, including positive information in reports about immigrants can contribute to more balanced reporting with the positive information overriding the detrimental effect of negative-only information.
The credibility of news and their sources
In their research, Graf and Sczesny found that the credibility of news and their sources plays an important role for the effect of news content on attitudes: The reports about immigrants influence the majority’s attitudes towards immigrants only when readers regard the news or their source as trustworthy. Interestingly, however, the linguistic aspect affects attitudes toward immigrants even when readers do not believe the content of the news. This suggests that while credibility is an important factor in news consumption, the subtle linguistic aspects sidestep people’s judgment of the content of media news and influence their attitudes towards the groups in question even if they don’t believe what they read or hear.