Tracking social cohesion and cultural diversity in the media

It is difficult to convey complex and nuanced research findings around immigration and social cohesion when the media’s interest is in polarisation and headlines. AAP/Dan Peled

If you were to believe some reports in the mainstream media earlier this week, Australians are now more racist, alarmed by immigration and much more negative about asylum seekers arriving by boat.

However, the results of this year’s Scanlon Foundation national survey, Mapping Social Cohesion - on which these news reports were based - tell a different story when examined in full.

Communicating results is an experience that brings into focus the problem faced by social researchers wanting to reach a broad audience, and highlights the challenge of communicating findings when the data is too rich to be reduced to simple generalisation.

Views on social cohesion

The Scanlon Foundation surveys provide the only systematic tracking of opinion on a broad range of issues related to social cohesion, immigration and cultural diversity. Since 2007, six national and four regional surveys have been conducted, with total respondents now in excess of 20,000, including some 6,000 respondents in 2013.

The objective of the surveys is to provide the basis for knowledge-based discussion of issues of major significance for the future of Australia. The survey includes questions on sense of belonging and identification; equity and social justice; levels of personal and institutional trust; and attitudes to specific immigrant groups, asylum seekers and multiculturalism.

The current survey also included the views of immigrants and the nature and extent of continuing links to former home countries.

Getting the message right

The survey findings have been of interest to the Australian media, with extensive newspaper and television coverage devoted to it. However, the media does not deal well with complex and nuanced research. In the allocation of newspaper space by column and centimetre, Chopper Read trumps reporting of social research, even in “quality” press outlets such as The Sydney Morning Herald.

Journalists assigned to report survey findings are in nearly all cases perceptive and hard-working generalists, but without expertise in immigration and the interpretation of opinion polls. Newspaper reporting typically adopts an approach focused on raw numbers, without consideration of methodology, without the contextual knowledge to establish significance by comparing the findings of different surveys. There are very few exceptions in today’s media: David Marr, now with the Australian edition of The Guardian, represents an endangered species.

The headlines given to reporting this year’s survey results are indicative of newspapers’ confusion, or agenda-based decisions, on what to report.

“Racism reports jump, poll finds” (The Age/Sydney Morning Herald, October 21)

“Political trust falls to new low” (The Australian, October 21)

“Majority don’t want asylum seekers: survey” (AAP, October 21)

“Australians growing more negative about asylum seekers and high immigration, survey finds” (Herald Sun, October 21)

For the social cohesion project, a necessary problem is one of complexity. In the annual report of survey findings this is partly solved by the calculation of an index of social cohesion, based on statistical analysis of 18 questions. But the index is understandably abstract, and of limited broad interest.

As a communications strategy, the challenge is to develop understanding of the determinants of public opinion. Fundamental in this endeavour is to move beyond attention to individual questions, where wording and range of response options can be critical in shaping results. The difficulties – which defeat most of the media coverage – and the potential yield of knowledge is here illustrated by consideration of opinion on immigration, asylum and cultural diversity.

What do we think about immigration?

There are only a few western countries where the majority support immigration. Australia is one; Canada is possibly the only other. A question that has been the staple of polling since the 1950s asks:

What do you think of the number of immigrants accepted into Australia?

Responses to this question are known to be volatile, with negative views of the intake exceeding 70% in the early 1990s. But opinion has shifted over the last 15 years. Across the six Scanlon Foundation surveys, the proportion that considered the intake to be too high peaked at 47% in 2010 and was 42% in 2013.

The majority of Australians view their country as an immigrant nation, and there is broad acceptance of the consequent cultural diversity. In the 2013 survey, 84% of respondents agreed that multiculturalism “has been good for Australia”; 75% agreed that it “benefits the economic development of Australia”; and 71% agreed that it “encourages immigrants to become part of Australia”.

Positive responses are not restricted to those usually the most favourable to cultural diversity – urban dwellers, highly educated and youth – but are consistently high across the population.

This and other questions indicate that multiculturalism – an ambiguous term that individuals interpret in different ways – is established as a strong and supported “brand”: one that resonates with the Australian public.

But the limits of support are also clearly established. It does not extend, for example, to government provision of financial support to ethnic groups for cultural maintenance, which is only supported by 36% in the current survey.

What do we think about asylum seekers?

Attitudes to asylum seekers arriving by boat are sharply differentiated from attitudes to immigration. In the 2013 survey, just 18% supported the proposition that those arriving by boat should be eligible for permanent settlement, while almost double this number (33%) favoured the turning back of boats.

What really are Australians’ attitudes to asylum seekers? AAP/Paul Miller

Advocates for asylum seekers either challenge the reliability of such a finding, or blame the politicisation of the issue. They point to the race to the bottom evident in political debates and the media; the lack of informed understanding of the plight of asylum seekers; the extent of racism in Australian society.

Close examination of the survey findings brings into question the validity of such narratives. The Scanlon Foundation finding of high levels of opposition to boat arrivals is replicated in other surveying.

In 2013, contrary to claims of Australian racism, 33% of respondents to the Scanlon survey were positive towards immigration from Ethiopia, 45% were neutral, and only 16% were negative. Attitudes to a regulated humanitarian program - which resettles refugees in Australia from Africa and other regions - have been in the range of 70%-75% in favour.

Contrary to claims concerning the impact of political debate and the media, the pattern of attitudes towards boat arrivals has changed little between 2010 and 2013. This is despite the increasing polarisation of debate. Finally, despite claims of public ignorance, attitudes are largely consistent across demographics, with only 28% of university graduates supporting eligibility for boat arrivals to gain permanent settlement. The one exception is amongst supporters of the Greens.

These findings on immigration, cultural diversity and asylum seekers indicate the complex reality that needs to be confronted when considering Australia’s public opinion. They indicate complexities beyond one-dimensional depictions often to be found in media reporting of survey findings – and in claims made by advocates opposed to immigration and supporters of the right to asylum.