The media plays a huge part in shaping our understanding of the world, including how we respond to other people. Coverage of immigration is no different, and previous research has suggested that even subtle changes in language and framing can change the way people think about immigrants.
A new study, published in Scientific Reports, looks at the real life impact of negative media portrayals of immigrants. It finds that negative coverage can increase hostility towards immigrants and favouritism towards members of the non-immigrant in-group — which can have serious financial, emotional and social consequences for communities.
The first study involved 350 Italian students, some of whom first watched a TV report about immigration. In one condition, participants saw a negative report, which argued that immigration was costly and a threat to the cultural identity of non-immigrants; in another immigrants were portrayed as a positive resource and opportunity to enrich the local culture. Those in the third group watched no video at all. Before and after watching the video, participants gave a sample of their saliva.
Next, participants completed measures relating to their perception of the threat immigration poses, how anxious they felt engaging with immigrants, and how they felt about the video. The game element of the study then began, with participants taking part in a “trust game” designed to measure trust, and a “dictator game” designed to measure altruism.
In the trust game, the participants were given ten euros and asked how much they wanted to send to another person. This amount would then be tripled, and the “trustee” would then send a portion of the money back (so, in theory, the participant could make a higher amount of money if they trusted the receiver to send a substantial portion back). Participants played both as the sender and the receiver at different points of the study. In the dictator game, participants were again asked to send a portion of ten euros to a receiver or to receive money themselves, only this time no money was sent back.
Importantly, some participants saw a list of their partners in the game that consisted of distinctly Italian names; some saw a mixture of Italian names and names that suggested their partners were immigrants; and some saw no names.
The results showed that participants who watched the negative video were more altruistic towards those with traditionally Italian names than to those with names that sounded as if they belonged to immigrants. There was also some evidence that they were less likely to trust those they believed were immigrants (by sending them less money in the trust game). The negative video was also associated with increased perceptions of immigration as a threat, and with increased testosterone-cortisol ratio, which can indicate higher levels of stress and aggression.
A second study replicated these methods, only this time participants shared demographic data and completed measures of political orientation, how likely they are to give gifts, and subtle and blatant prejudice towards immigration and immigrants. They then watched the videos and completed the games as in the first study. Finally, participants answered questions on outgroup threat, how much they believed immigrants represent a health risk for the Italian population, and anxiety around engaging with immigrants.
In this case, those who watched the negative video were less likely to behave in a trusting way towards those with non-Italian sounding names compared to those with traditional Italian names. Unsurprisingly, left- and right-wing participants exhibited different levels of trust towards immigrants: right-wing respondents who saw the negative video were less likely to trust immigrants, while there was no effect of the video for left-wing respondents. Similarly, those who displayed blatant and subtle prejudices were less likely to feel trust towards immigrants after watching the negative video, but there was no effect of the video for those with low levels of prejudice.
So, the results suggest, anti-immigrant media coverage can have a serious impact. Responses were threefold: emotional, through increased anxiety; physiological, through markers of stressed or aggressive responses; and material, through the reduced likelihood of sharing money. Prosocial behaviour towards non-immigrants, however, increased, suggesting again that immigrants could lose out in a society primed to reject and exclude them.
The fact that the positive video had no significant effect was also a key insight; the team suggests this may have been because of a bias towards remembering or being impacted by negative messaging. Thinking carefully about how to counter this negative bias could therefore be a key way of reducing the anti-immigrant sentiments all too prevalent in the media today.