The old adage ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ may be a cliché. Still, web and social media practitioners are encouraged to use images to entice readers to written content. Studies show that web pages and social media posts with images are visited significantly more often than those without (see MDG, 2012). Quite clearly, if we want to promote academic work successfully on the web, we need to use images. But with a complicated subject like migration, an important question arises: which images can we safely use?

In writing for the web we often take our cue from journalism. Attention-grabbing headlines, the inverted pyramid structure (information placed in decreasing order of importance) and short paragraphs can help readers absorb information. When it comes to imagery, however, journalism has a poor record.

Scan the media for immigration stories and you will find a uniformly negative or oversimplified visual representation of migration. The tabloids sensationalise with vaguely menacing pictures of crowds in foreign dress, often with the faces blacked out, ostensibly for privacy reasons, but with the ultimate result of furnishing them with a somewhat criminal look. Also common are images of women wearing the burqa, which obviates the need to censor faces, but helps convey a sense of something foreign and unknown. The broadsheets, by contrast, tend to go safe and boring with pictures of lines at immigration control.

It is often said that people remember only 10 per cent of what they hear, 20 per cent of what they read, and 30 per cent of what they see. Although there is no actual research backing these numbers (Genovese, 2010), the fact remains that images have a powerful impact. Tabloid readers are left with the impression that immigrants are poor and possibly criminal, while broadsheet readers might assume that immigration is merely about border control.

Bias in images is reinforced in newspaper content. Research conducted by COMPAS’s Migration Observatory has demonstrated that there is a textual bias in newspaper coverage of immigration, with ‘illegal’ being the most common descriptor of immigrants across all newspaper types (Allen and Blinder, 2013).

So how do we, as communicators of academic research, push back against this bias? When COMPAS first started, we didn’t use images on the website, simply because we didn’t have access to an image collection varied enough to represent the multifarious aspects of migration. One solution was to source images from the public. In 2008, COMPAS started an annual photo competition. The competition invites photo submissions from UK residents on various themes involving migration, from ‘Life in Motion’ to ‘Traces of Belonging’. Prizes are offered for the winning entries, with the condition that any submission can be used in COMPAS publications and promotional materials. This competition has provided us with a large pool of quality images, some of which are included in this anthology.

Even with this varied collection of images, however, we must still select carefully. An image chosen for a pop-up banner once drew comment from an attendee at one of our seminars. The image was of a white man, and the interlocutor wondered why we had not used an image of a member of an ethnic minority. This person represented a civil society organisation working with migrant groups, and as such was concerned about the general dearth of positive representations of ethnic minorities in the media. However, migration is not solely an issue of ethnicity. In order to present a nuanced view of immigration we need to include ‘invisible’ migrants as well, namely those who are white, wealthy and sometimes even British, and who feature far less prominently in the popular media as ‘migrants’. For example, while London has a larger population of French residents than Bordeaux, and could be considered France’s sixth largest city in terms of the population of French migrants, as of 2010 there were some 44,000 more British migrants living in France than the reverse (Vargas-Silva, 2012).

At COMPAS we try to promote staff research using images that pique the reader’s interest in the ideas expressed, rather than confirming existing bias. We use a wide variety of images, some sourced from the COMPAS photo competition entries, some purchased from stock photography providers. In doing so, we strive to illustrate the complexity of migration and the wide variety of migration research conducted at COMPAS.


MDG Advertising Agency (2012) ‘It’s All About the Images Infographic’, MDG blog, 14 May,, date accessed 13 January 2014.

Genovese, J. (2010) ‘The Ten Percent Solution: Anatomy of an Education Myth’, eSkeptic newsletter, Skeptic Society, 24 March,, date accessed 13 January 2014.

Allen, W. and Blinder, S. (2013) ‘Migration in the News: Portrayals of Immigrants, Migrants, Asylum Seekers and Refugees in National British Newspapers, 2010 to 2012’, Migration Observatory report, COMPAS, University of Oxford.

Vargas-Silva, C. (2012) ‘EU Migrants in other EU Countries: An Analysis of Bilateral Migrants Stocks’, Migration Observatory Briefing, COMPAS, University of Oxford.

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