The UN Refugee Agency was so concerned about the use of language that it commissioned research comparing approaches across Europe.
It found Germany and Sweden overwhelmingly used the terms “refugee” or “asylum seeker”, while Italy and the UK press preferred the word “migrant”. In Spain, the dominant term was “immigrant”.
The UNHCR said these terms had an important impact on the tone of each country’s debate, while there were also different themes that dominated.
Humanitarian themes were more common in Italian coverage than in British, German or Spanish press. Threat themes (such as to the welfare system, or cultural threats) were the most prevalent in Italy, Spain and Britain.
Overall, the Swedish press was the most positive towards refugees and migrants, while coverage in the UK was the most negative and the most polarised.
A BBC spokesman said: “We always think carefully about the language we use and in this report we have made very clear the human cost of this tragedy. It is not always obvious whether those making these crossings already have refugee status, are seeking asylum, looking for work, the stage of their journey, or whether they will try to enter a country illegally. We judge each story on a case-by-case basis.”