A-levels and Asylum: How the news media subtly shapes attitudes about equality

In the first two weeks of August 2020 two stories dominated British media headlines: reports of an increased number of people crossing the Channel in small boats to seek asylum in the UK, and students receiving their A-level or Scottish Higher exam results. At first glance the two stories appear worlds apart, but both are about the aspirations of mostly young people whose future opportunities are at stake.

Despite this, a comparison of the relevant media coverage reveals significant differences in how these groups were treated by mainstream press. QCEA’s analysis of a selection of news articles and video reports from BBC, ITV, Sky News and Channel 4 between 5-18 August indicates that media applied a differential value system to young people striving for better opportunities: while one group was humanised, positively empowered and given a voice, the other was erased and delegitimised.

Some futures are prioritised over others

Stories about A-level results revolved around the controversy surrounding this year’s grade calculation process, which initially determined marks using an algorithm as exams could not take place due to COVID-19. Amid reports that nearly 40% of results in England were moderated downwards causing many students to miss out on university places, media led with the conviction that students had had ‘dreams ruined’ and were being ‘robbed of their futures’. Young people’s ambitions and thwarted opportunities were at the centre of the outcry. However, such concern was missing from news coverage of people crossing the Channel where motivations were rarely mentioned, let alone explored in depth. Mainstream outlets took a simplistic approach, without acknowledging that hope for a better future is what drives people to undertake dangerous journeys.

An uneven emphasis on the human impact

Statistics were an important component of both news stories, with outlets highlighting both record-breaking numbers of people crossing the Channel and the proportion of ‘downgraded’ A-level results. However, efforts to move beyond statistics were unequal. News anchors emphasised students’ distress on receiving disappointing grades and supported heartfelt interventions (notably from headteachers) stressing the importance of viewing affected students as ‘real people with real lives’. But the need to look beyond the data was not extended to the Channel crossings. Aside from the occasional interview, most reporting subsumed these people behind the generalised term ‘migrants’, making little attempt to explore complex individual stories.

Similarly, technical and legalistic discussions absorbed attention and ultimately concealed the human dimension in both stories. In media coverage of the Channel crossings, significant space was given over to debates around what is (not) permitted within the bounds of maritime and refugee law. This was notably the case in reactions to reports that the British Navy could deploy ships to prevent people from crossing the Channel. While a similar technical discussion of the A-Level results algorithm also sometimes displaced the human element, reporting was generally more person-orientated.

Personal stories told on the Sky News website

Not all injustices are deemed worthy of corrective action

Another contrast can be seen in how narratives of victimhood and (in)justice were created around the two groups. In reporting on the A-level story, media stressed the unfairness of the calculated results, explaining that students were being unduly ‘punished’ and were victims of circumstances beyond their control. People crossing the Channel were likewise portrayed as victims of the traffickers and criminal gangs providing them with small, unseaworthy vessels, and news outlets repeatedly acknowledged the danger inherent in the Channel route.

Both stories address systems which have failed those they are meant to serve, but the difference lies in the reactions and proposed solutions. Regarding A-level results, the focus was on ensuring young people were not unfairly disadvantaged, with the possibility to appeal unexpectedly low results frequently cited as an option for students. Indeed, the UK government later reversed its decision to apply the algorithm and students received grades based on teachers’ estimates instead. Disadvantage, then, was addressed and resolved by rectifying mistakes and creating a more just system.

Radio 4’s Today was of the BBC news programmes analysed

Meanwhile, when confronted with an inadequate legal asylum framework the main response from mainstream media and the politicians they platformed was to double down. This is evident from a baseline assumption in news reporting that such crossings are inherently ‘illegal’, as well as references to ‘illegitimate’ asylum claims. Furthermore, political discussions around possible ways forward focused on strengthening the system to keep people out more effectively rather than advocating reform, for example through the creation of safer pathways to the UK.

Different kinds of agency and empowerment

Finally, media ascribed A-level students and people crossing the Channel with different kinds of agency. Students were frequently interviewed and quoted in articles, with media choosing to represent a range of profiles (including young people from disadvantaged backgrounds) and report widely on student-led demonstrations against the ‘downgrading’ of results. In contrast, people crossing the Channel were rarely given the opportunity to speak for themselves and were only assigned agency in the assumption that the decision to attempt the crossing was a completely free one. The generally positive portrayal of dissatisfied young people taking action to improve their future contrasts sharply with the scepticism leveled at those undertaking desperate sea journeys in the hope of a better life.

ITV News interview an A-level student for television news

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Sophia Mason is an international policy analyst on placement with QCEA

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