Is Australia’s Print Media Supporting a Moral Panic About Migrants?

A research article by David Eades looks at whether Australia’s newspaper coverage of the migrant crisis is contributing to a moral panic about immigration and refugees. We summarise the article’s main findings below.

By Carolina Are

Picture: blackpoetry via Unsplash

The Study

Eades’ article aims to contribute “to advancing our knowledge regarding the interaction of political framing, community fears, the print media and how these link to the marginalization of people seeking asylum.” In particular, he focuses on the notion of “moral panics” including both rapid moral panics that dissipate quickly, and long-term, slowly unfolding panics that can result in what Hage has called “paranoid nationalism”.

Hage descibed this phenomenon in Australia as a growing hostility to immigrants, where Australians transfer their economic or ideological fears onto foreigners. This develops a national uncertainty, where citizens fear the potential negative impact of foreigners entering the country and undermining the national culture and Australian way of life. This is a slow moral panic, expressed through a paranoid nationalism that seeks legitimization through undermining the rights of the ‘other’. Eades is interested in the role of the media in fostering forms of ‘paranoid nationalism’. His research explores a case study of print media in Australia to look at how news stories can marginalise people who enter nations as migrants.

Political Context

Boat migrants have been an ongoing, central focus of Australian politics since the early 2000s, with spikes in boat asylum seekers arrivals starting after John Howard’s time as Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal/National Coalition’s party. This happened during Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard’s Labor governments from 2007 until 2013. Boat migrants then became one of the core issues of the 2013 election, gaining increasing media coverage in the lead up to the polls.

A variety of studies found that many Australians have negative attitudes toward asylum seekers, especially in relation to perceptions of threat. The Liberal/National coalition government exploited these fears, framing it as the current Labor party not being tough enough on border control aided by news media.

Tony Abbott’s Liberal/National coalition did defeat the Labor party in September 2013 in part through this ‘stop the boats’ campaign. “The expressed concerns regarding an increase in boat arrivals of asylum seekers in Australian waters was more noticeable in the print media than other media forms,” Eades writes.

In his study, Eades focuses on media coverage from the 2011–2013 period because after 2013, interest seemed to drop off in terms of news print media coverage of boat arrivals of asylum seekers.


Eades reviewed three Australian newspapers from 14 March 2011 to 30 September 2013 between 4 and 5 times a week using Critical Discourse Analysis. He compared the media discourse of one major national Australian newspaper and two major metropolitan newspapers in a capital city of Australia, representing two corporations. He analysed the media content for two main approaches or ‘frames’:

  1. Mainly concerned about asylum seekers. E.g. stories that emphasise the threat and burden of asylum seekers, arguing that asylum seekers who come by a boat are a problem in relation to security, health and financial areas.
  2. Mainly concerned for asylum seekers. E.g. stories that emphasise the humanitarian aspects relating to asylum seekers, such as lives lost a sea and the importance of keeping in line with UN conventions.

For Eades, this type of framework provides a more meaningful basis to understand moral panics and paranoid nationalism, as it builds in the influence of socio-cultural and political factors on attitudes towards asylum seekers captured through the print media.

Eades’ two hypotheses are that:

  1. Newscorp’s The Daily Telegraph and The Australian would have a different emphasis than Fairfax’s Sydney Morning Herald, because fo their different owners.
  2. Neither media corporation would move beyond the ‘threat’ and ‘national burden’ rhetoric. They would both express a moral panic and paranoid nationalism And neglect the positive contribution  asylum seekers have and can make to the nation.


Negative Coverage of Asylum Seekers

Eades found that “both corporations reflect a moral panic in different ways through their line of journalism and provide justification for exclusionary practices regarding boat arrivals of asylum seekers.” However, there were interesting differences in the type of coverage published by different newspapers.

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Eades found that The Telegraph tends to produce more negative, sensational stories for its more popular readership, while the more ‘elite’ target readership of The Australian is presented with a different picture of the asylum issue. For instance, 83% of the articles by Newscorp’s The Telegraph tend to focus on the negative effects of asylum seekers’ arrivals, while The Australian, features 55% of this type of articles.

In contrast, Fairfax’s Herald only features 39% articles with a negative spin, leading Eades to argue that the “comparative percentage of articles of each frame across the media corporations is consistent with their preferred political alliance.” He adds:

“The higher number of articles of the ‘mainly concerned about’ frame in Newscorp’s Telegraph and The Australian indicates support for the Liberal/National coalition party. The Liberal/National coalition party had a negative reaction to the issue of boat arrivals while they were the opposition party leading up to the 2013 election. In contrast, the lower number of newspaper articles in the Fairfax’s Herald ‘mainly concerned about’ reflects a greater level of support for the Labor government’s immigration policy. The Labor party were in power during the time frame of analysis when there was an increase of boat arrival of asylum seekers.”

Of the sample of 209 newspaper articles captured in Eades’ preliminary analysis across all three newspapers combined, 59% of articles show more ‘concern about’ asylum seekers and 41% more ‘concern for’ asylum seekers.

Concern and Respect For Asylum Seekers

Eades also conducted a more comprehensive review of 918 articles from 14 March 2012 until 30 September 2013, adding a frame concerned with ‘mainly respect for’ asylum seekers, where he looked at statements that migrants could bring work or other positives into Australia.

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Remarkably, only one percent of the stories on asylum seekers examined any positive impact they might have on Australia’s economy or on Australian life in general. Eades writes:

“Asylum seekers are primarily presented as a possible national threat to societies’ foundations, a social problem, or being a burden but not as a contribution to the nation. […] The types of representations made of asylum seekers through newspaper reportage that reflect a heightened moral panic or a slower moral panic encapsulated by a paranoid nationalism. It also documents the lack of coverage regarding the contribution asylum seekers can and have made to Australia.”

Fears of asylum seekers in Australian newspapers include:

  • Lack of honesty. The coverage shares an idea that asylum seekers came to the country under false pretences – e.g. one article asserts: ‘Convicted criminal refugee gets visa’ (Tel., November 30, 2012, 15).
  • Othering. The ‘othering’ of asylum seekers through a range of social anxieties projected onto them promotes fear of a wider social threat. It is worth noting that of the 137 articles that relate to misconduct, 125 of these are featured by The Australian and The Telegraph, and only 12 by The Herald.
  • Health risks. Newspaper articles associate asylum seekers with ‘animal quarantine’, ‘rodents’ and ‘infection’. The photos accompanying one article contain the caption ‘wildlife is under threat from rats carried by one of the boats’ (Aust., June 19, 2012, 5). These articles imply migrants “need to be isolated from the mainstream population”, further contributing to the public anxiety of a possible medical epidemic.
  • The financial burden. Migrants are portrayed as an economic burden to Australia at a cost to the tax payer. Headlines and articles seem to argue that boat asylum seekers are treated to luxury and “have an easy life”, receiving handouts of Government Centrelink payments (Aust., September 18, 2012). Notably, of the 64 articles that relate to the cost to the Australian taxpayer, 54 are published by Newscorp, 41 of these by The Telegraph, 13 by The Australian and only 10 by Fairfax’s Herald.

Fears for asylum seekers’ lives in the coverage includes:

  • Preventing boats from sinking. Eades writes: “Concern for a change of government policy to stop boats of asylum seekers sinking, is a permanent theme in newspaper reports leading up to the Australian 2013 Liberal/National Coalition party’s election campaign. In total, 259 or 28% of the articles surveyed relate to tragedies of boats sinking and issues linked to people smuggling.” However, although concern for the loss of life is raised, it is sometimes also compared to the loss of valuable stock transported on a cargo ship.
  • Fake virtue. Eades writes that ‘stopping the boats’ to save lives has gained significant print media coverage, with mainly Newscorp’s papers manipulating a ‘concern for’ frame regarding people drowning through skewed reporting of incidents. He argues: “They utilize this strong argument of ‘concern for’ the welfare of asylum seekers drowning at sea, and relate it to border control as a virtuous act to protect lives. Articles that highlight concerns for the conditions asylum seekers have fled are not very prominent in any of the newspapers in contrast to the large focus on tragedies at sea. […] Yet only 1% of the articles surveyed relate to personal stories of asylum seekers.”
  • UN Charter. In Eades’ analysis, only 0.04% of the articles surveyed refer to Australia’s obligation to host refugees under the UN conventions.  In fact, in the coverage examined the “UN conventions aimed at protecting people are deemed to be either irrelevant or provide an incentive or magnet for people to travel to Australia by boat. One article recommends that it is time to withdraw from the refugee convention and that a humane policy would see Australia reject anyone who arrives without a visa (Aust., June 29, 2012, 13).”
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Moral Panics in the Australian Print Media

Eades’ analysis shows a clear difference of reporting between the two media corporations in Australia, with Newscorp in particular mainly focusing on the negative effects of asylum seekers’ arrival. Yet, Eades argues that “neither media corporation moves beyond the ‘threat’ and ‘national burden’ rhetoric,” expressing a moral panic and paranoid nationalism while neglecting any respect the contribution asylum seekers have and can make to the nation.

In times when media coverage of asylum seekers is so politicised, Eades’ argues that such reporting can have a marked impact on public opinion and on refugees’ experiences, as well as directly feeding into political discourse:

“This case study of the skewed reporting of the asylum seeker issue in Australia illustrates how the print media uses an issue of international concern [for political purposes] Newspapers may overtly align themselves with specific political parties and adopt frames that either support or show disapproval of their policies. The print media also capitalize on national or international public fears or concerns by contributing to a two-sided moral panic in the context of Australia’s migration concerns. What is neglected is a focus on the contribution asylum seekers have made and potentially will continue to make to nations.”

In his recommendations, Eades concludes that it is necessary to change negative attitudes and opinions through a corresponding shift in political labels that are publicised through media reporting.

Read “‘Stopping the boats’ to save lives? Humanitarian concern as a slow moral panic,” by David Eades in Media Practice & Education here