VoxEU Column Politics and economics

The media coverage of immigrant criminality: From scapegoating to populism

Populists often claim that immigration is a threat to the interests of the majority. This column quantifies the extent to which the media coverage of immigrant crime fuelled populist political support in a Swiss referendum. It finds that disproportionate coverage of immigrant crime increased an anti-minaret vote by 5%.

Recent research has focused on economic insecurity to explain recent support for populist parties. This insecurity increased after the financial crisis, and it includes threats to jobs, import competition, and negative income shocks, combined with the increased exposure of the labour market to globalisation. For example, the growth of imports from China were a factor in the leave vote in both the Brexit referendum (Colantone and Stanig 2018) and Trump’s victory in the 2016 US presidential election (Autor et al. 2017). 

Additionally, voter concerns about immigration and violence predict support for populist parties (Figure 1). For example, 43% of the French voters in the 2014 EU elections who perceived immigration to be the top societal concern voted for the National Front. The refugee crisis and its impact on national security was frequently debated during the 2018 parliamentary elections in Italy, the 2017 parliamentary elections in Austria, and the 2017 federal elections in Germany. In his 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump’s frequent references to the dangers of immigration and "radical Islamic terrorism" received massive media attention. 

Figure 1 Voter concerns as a predictor of the populist vote in 2014 EU elections

Source: Couttenier et al. (2019)

The fear of the immigrant criminal

Stigmatisation and scapegoating help depict communities with growing immigrant populations as unsafe. Since voters are often unable to assess the propensity of immigrants to commit crimes, their beliefs are fed by two non-representative samplings: what they observe in their local communities, and what is reported in the media. So it is likely that potentially biased media coverage of immigrant crime has a significant impact on political outcomes and support for populism.

We have quantified the political dividend from the media coverage of immigrant crime (Couttenier et al. 2019) by focusing on one of the most controversial referendums in recent years. The 2009 vote on whether to ban minarets in Switzerland was initiated by the Swiss People's Party (SVP/UDC). The referendum openly criticised Islam, a religion practiced by many recent immigrants to Switzerland, and alleged that Muslim immigrants had a propensity to commit crime. 

There was a 57.6% vote in favour of the minaret ban, which was unexpected and drew worldwide attention. We combined detailed information on pre-vote crime coverage from 12 Swiss newspapers in which the nationality of the perpetrator(s) was mentioned, with an exhaustive dataset of violent crimes detected by the police. In practice, readers could have estimated the propensity of Muslims to commit crimes from a sample of news reports that mentioned a perpetrator’s nationality, but not a religion. Their inference would essentially be based on news reports of crimes committed, and the proportion committed by nationalities that are predominantly Muslim. We were able to provide two compelling pieces of evidence to shed light on the role played by the media in shaping beliefs on how dangerous immigrants were, which translated to votes for populist platforms.

Media bias in the coverage of crime and the populist vote

First, the media was far more likely to report crime committed by a member of the immigrant community. By comparing the proportions of crimes committed by natives and immigrants as reported by the police, and as reported by the newspapers, we found that a crime committed by an immigrant was twice as likely to be reported in the news, even after accounting for the characteristics of the individual and the crime. This pattern was more pronounced in the months preceding the referendum (Figure 2). 

Figure 2 Average probability of crime coverage in 12 Swiss newspapers

Source: Couttenier et al. (2019)

Second, being exposed to news about crimes committed by immigrants made it much more likely that voters would favour the minaret ban at the municipality level. We also found that readers did not 'de-bias' the news, and would overreact to news about crimes committed by immigrants. 

One of the challenges in the statistical analysis is that newspapers with more xenophobic readerships also over-reported immigrant crimes. To eliminate demand-driven news provision, we instrumented the crime news exposure using pre-vote random variations in the occurrence of detected crimes in the neighbourhoods of a newspaper’s offices. In other words, we focused on the distance between the area where a crime occurred and where the newspaper was edited, which is a random driver of crime news coverage.

The political dividend

We could then quantify the political dividend to populist causes arising from the news coverage of immigrant crime. To accomplish this, we estimated counterfactual simulations of the voting pattern if the law prohibited newspapers from disclosing a perpetrator’s nationality. This law already exists in some European countries, including Germany and Sweden. The vote in favour of the minaret ban would have decreased by 5 percentage points, from 57.6% to 52.6%. 

Figure 3 Realised and counterfactual vote difference

Note: Darker colours represent larger drops in the vote in favour.
Source: Couttenier et al. (2019). 


Autor, D, D Dorn, G Hanson, and K Majlesi (2017), “A Note on the Effect of Rising Trade Exposure on the 2016 Presidential Election”, MIT Working Paper.

Colantone, I, and P Stanig (2018), “Global competition and Brexit”, American Political Science Review 112(2): 201-218.

Couttenier, M, S Hatte, M Thoenig, and S Vlachos (2019), “The Logic of Fear-Populism and Media Coverage of Immigrant Crimes”, CEPR Discussion Papers 13496.

Guiso, L, H Herrera, M Morelli, and T Sonno (2017), “Demand and Supply of Populism”, CEPR Discussion Papers 11871.

Rodrik, D (2017), “Populism and the Economics of Globalization”, NBER Working Papers 23559.

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