A new study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and conducted by a team of researchers at Thames Valley and Sussex Universities explored readers' thoughts and behaviours toward asylum seekers immediately after reading press coverage. Findings suggest that the effect of negative stereotypes is often unconscious and automatic, even among people with relatively low levels of prejudice.
"Our important discovery is that negative, especially tabloid media coverage plays an important role in both creating and facilitating the use of negative stereotypes in our everyday lives," says researcher Dr Catherine Lido. "Sometimes we may act in line with a common cultural stereotype, without intending to, or even being aware we have done so."
Dr Lido adds, "we found that being shown negative newspaper articles linking asylum seekers to criminality can result in negative judgements about asylum seekers in general. On the other hand, neutral or even positive newspaper coverage of asylum seekers has no similarly positive impact on readers' views."
In this study, negative newspaper articles always had a clear negative effect. The reason that positive ones did not have a positive effect, argue researchers, is perhaps due to there being few strong positive associations with asylum seekers within British culture.
"The finding that simply reading a newspaper article that presents a negative component of a social group can have such ramifications on people's thoughts and behaviours is quite profound, especially when a positive portrayal of a stereotyped group fails to immediately counteract negative stereotypes," suggests Lido.
These findings are based on a series of experiments, conducted by Raff Calitri and Dr Rupert Brown and Alain Samson and led by Dr. Catherine Lido, in which students at two British universities read mock newspaper articles portraying asylum seekers in either a negative for example as dishonest, criminal or positive light.. A 'control group' was exposed to a neutral article that had nothing to do with asylum seekers. Participants then completed tasks, presented to them as unrelated studies, measuring real-world behaviour involving asylum seekers and criminality.
In one experiment, with a diverse student sample, participants were asked to rate asylum seeker applications. Compared to the neutral group, having read negative newspaper articles about asylum seekers resulted in a lower likelihood of granting asylum. Those who were shown positive articles were affected no differently from those who read neutral ones.
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