It’s in the News: The Impact of Asylum Issue Salience on Judicial Decision-Making

Abstract

While many governments around the globe are struggling to deal with processing relatively high numbers of asylum seekers, asylum and refugee issues have also become one of the top concerns among citizens. This is reflected in the extensive media coverage that asylum policy, refugee arrivals and many other topics pertaining to asylum seekers have received over the last years. How does this high level of attention affect decision makers who are involved in the asylum procedure?

Using a natural experiment, this paper analyzes empirically whether the extent of media coverage of asylum and refugee issues in Swiss newspapers—taken as a proxy for the extent to which ‘asylum’ and refugees are considered a (salient) issue among the public—affects Swiss asylum appeal judges’ decision making and investigates whether particular topics affect grant rates more than others.

Based on all asylum appeals decided in Switzerland between 2007 and 2015, I show that the effect of newspaper coverage on judges’ grant threshold is consistently negative: judges of all parties become more restrictive in times of high media coverage of asylum issues, as do non- partisan judges. This effect is at most partly driven by higher numbers of arriving asylum seekers and, as a topic model approach suggests, more attributable to the coverage of topics that feature citizens’ voices (accommodation of asylum seekers) than federal-level asylum policy making. These findings suggest that issue salience presents a challenge to the consistency of professional judges’ decisions, especially in times when asylum issue salience and the number of newly arriving asylum seekers are consistently high.