Why it matters
The role of journalism is to inform people about the world we live in, and to provide accurate information that enables people to develop an informed opinion about events, issues, their lives, and communities.
This means that the world the media presents is important in shaping understanding of the societies we live in. A lack of representation in the media can mean invisibility. When people or communities are invisible, their rights can much more easily be violated.
Media portrayals not only affect how society views groups, but how members of groups and communities see themselves.
Therefore, it is very important that media provides a realistic coverage of our societies, a coverage that does justice to all the different communities who live together in any given space. That includes of course, migrants and refugees.
When everyone feels represented, and included, they also feel valued. If migrants and refugees are only portrayed as a “burden” or as a “threat”’, their lives will be affected, and those of their communities too.
On the other hand, an inclusive, accurate coverage of society helps to create a feeling of belonging, and contributes to a less polarised debate. If all communities are adequately and accurately represented, (ab)using emotions for political purposes becomes much more difficult.
Journalism, and the media, should help people understand the world around them, and navigate the complexities of our societies. For that to truly happen, representation in news should be more inclusive and reflective of society.
Below are some points that explain why an accurate and inclusive coverage of migration is important for all. The list is non-exhaustive.
We live in a complex world. When media reporting oversimplifies the subject matter, nuanced understanding of an issue can vanish. However, complexity does not mean complication. News reporting should aim to provide an overview of different facets of an issue or event. Providing context, and background is important to building knowledge and understanding of a complex issue.
In the case of migration, when media focuses only on the moment of flight, on the trauma of the journey, it leaves out everything else that makes a person who they are, with their story, their abilities, their reasons for being in a particular situation. Most damagingly, it encourages an identification of migrants and refugees only with the movement of migration or flight. That movement is only a very small part of the experience of every migrant and refugee.
A nuanced coverage can help people understand that migration is a natural phenomenon, that people have been moving from one country to another, from one place to another, for as long as humanity has been on the planet. Oversimplifications and sweeping generalisations such as “refugees are good” or “migrants are bad” leave no space for nuances, for the grey areas in between. And our lives are mostly made of grey areas.
Migration is a complex phenomenon, and a fluid one. People who voluntarily decide to leave their countries may at some point realise that they cannot go back. Likewise, some people who would “technically’” be refugees may choose not to be recognised as such.
Migrants can be “voluntary” one moment and “forced’” the next. Dividing people into “voluntary migrants” and ‘forced migrants” is an artificial concept. People may move from one category to the other several times during their lifetime. The responsibility of media and communicators in communicating this complexity is extremely high.
Colombian researcher Camila Esguerra Muelle argued in a book about media representation of migration that “it is important to understand that the materials and language we use and produce, as researcher and journalists, have the capacity to create realities for those who read us. We need to know what realities we produce, and become responsible for them.”
Categories and definitions help us understand the world, but we also need to be aware that categories and definitions are fluid. Media can help break down contexts and backgrounds, so that we can understand complex concepts.
A research on migration reporting in South Africa argues that “the media typically present limited perspectives on cross-border migration, thereby leaving South Africans in the dark about the sheer complexities of this global and age-old phenomenon.”
The over-simplification can contribute to xenophobia, and even have harmful consequences, such as actual violence against those perceived to be “foreign”. According to the South African study, “a 2009 report by the Human Rights Commission found that perpetrators of the 2008 xenophobic violence were ‘inspired’ by media coverage of attacks.”
These findings are consistent with a Reuters Digital News Report that across the countries sampled, “most people agree that the news media keeps them up to date with what’s happening (62%), but only half (51%) say news media help them understand the news.” The lack of complexity in the news may be contributing to this result.
The only way we can start to understand what migration – and any other complex phenomenon – really means is by bringing more complexity into the discourse.
Our societies are diverse and multi-faceted. Diversity has been part of who we are for a long time: young and old people, people of various faiths and beliefs, people with various sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions, people with disabilities, people with various national, ethnic or racial origins have always been present in our societies.
Media reporting does not always reflect this diversity. Media regularly choose to focus on some specific groups. These groups vary from country to country, but they are invariably a representation of the most powerful in society.
A study by WACC Latin America on the representation of poverty in the border areas between Argentina and Brazil, and Argentina and Bolivia, found that indeed, poorer, marginalised people are scarcely represented in the media, even in areas in which they are visibly present in society. The issue of poverty, when present, is not approached from a point of view which allows a frank discussion and constructive engagement, eliminating the possibility of finding common solutions.
Media has an important role to cover in a democratic society; it is highly problematic when it uses its power to offer coverage to specific people and topics, failing to highlight others, or excessively focusing on some.
Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan stated that “by giving voice and visibility to all people – including and especially the poor, the marginalised and members of minorities – the media can help remedy the inequalities, the corruption, the ethnic tensions and the fundamental rights abuses that form the root causes of so many conflicts.” Diversity in the way media portrays societies is crucial to foster social cohesion and prevent conflict, according to a study by the Media4Diversity project.
In the context of migration, research in Europe found that “most immigrant groups and ethnic minorities are underrepresented in the media when compared to the respective number of people actually living in each country”, while at the same time coverage of immigrants in, for example the Netherlands and Germany, focused only on asylum seekers – a very specific “subset” of migrants – even before the “crisis” of 2015.
The 2017 Refugees Reporting study found that representation of refugees and migrants does not necessarily correspond to the actual presence of migrant communities in different countries. While a majority of refugees to Europe came from the Middle East during that period – ; a significant refugee population in Italy actually came from Western African countries, in particular, Nigeria. Yet, this population was completely invisible in the news of the country, and almost never mentioned.
The more diverse people are included in the news, the more people will feel represented by the media. Representation can help (re)build trust in the media, and this is particularly important in light of the steadily declining trust levels recorded by Reuters.
The recommendations below are from a report published by the Media4Diversity project. They are focused on Europe, but can easily apply to different contexts.
A more balanced and faithful representation of Europe’s diversity will reap a dividend of greater social cohesion and security, public trust in the media, and new avenues for income through journalism and production that has greater resonance with its audience.
Encourage and participate in balanced, inclusive national and European dialogues, platforms for reflection, debate, cooperation and partnerships between policymakers, civil society organizations and media organizations on the role of media in promoting diversity and combating discrimination in order to identify emerging opportunities and exchange best practices.
Ensure that all grounds of discrimination in the media arena – national, racial or ethnic origin, also specifically related to Roma, religion or belief, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity, youth and old age, as well as the issue of gender dimension and multiple discrimination – are equally acknowledged and included in media initiatives to counter discrimination and promote diversity.
When designing any media initiative in order to promote diversity and challenge discrimination in an organisation or across organisations, establish and communicate clear and quantifiable goals (such as minimum targets in diversity recruitment, minimum annual training hours for the workforce, and concrete targets for increasing audience share from diversity groups) and ensure that progress is monitored continuously and fully evaluated once an initiative has run its course.
Ethical journalism is the baseline of all responsible reporting. A journalism that is based on facts, is impartial and accountable, and that is aware of its impact on the lives of others. In many countries around the world, journalists are asked to abide by a code of ethics or conduct which is meant to regulate the profession. In other countries, there are codes specific to the subject of migration: the Italian Charter of Rome is one example. It was developed jointly by journalists, civil society organisations and the UN Refugee Agency. It is based on four key principles:
The 2017 project Refugees Reporting showed that, when journalists adhere to a code of conduct, the results are visible. Among the seven European countries surveyed, Norway was often a positive outlier.
This may be attributed to the existence of a long-standing Norwegian Union of Journalists’ Code of Ethics, which is used by most journalists in the country.
This meant that, for example, the principles of gender equality and the direct quoting of sources had become entrenched in the journalistic practices in the country, contributing to a more ethical and responsible journalism overall.
At the international level, the Ethical Journalism Network offers five principles for ethical reporting on migration.
It is important that all of us understand that the way we see the world is a product of many influences and societal and personal experiences we have made throughout our lives.
This is a simple fact. But by becoming aware of it, we can start to understand when our preconceived notions are affecting the way we think or talk about an issue. This is necessary reflection for everybody, but especially so for those who write and prepare content for the benefit of others.
A report by People in Need, targeted at journalism students, urges future reporters to “be aware of the way we see the world and why, what impact it has on the way we approach stories and the events that we relate to our audience.” We all have our biases, our backgrounds, our privileges or setbacks – there is a need to be aware of that, and to realise when this may be getting in the way of accurate reporting.
A neutral, ethical and impartial reporting is what media should always strive for. Journalism should provide readers, listeners and viewers with accurate, factual, and impartial information, so that they can make informed decisions.
In the Refugees Reporting study, the aspect of neutral journalism emerged as a key point, noted by refugees and migrants themselves. Empathy should be promoted; neither outright hostility, nor sympathy, are helpful. Sympathy can be a dangerous slippery slope, with the danger of running into a frame of victimisation, or assistentialism.
An overtly positive reporting on migration is unhelpful, because it is unrealistic. Migration has its benefits and challenges, and both can be newsworthy. It is important to maintain a balance between the two, and most importantly, to ensure that the coverage on both aspects is neutral.
Overtly negative coverage is even more dangerous. “An ultimate negative result of media portrayal is the dehumanization of social groups. Thus, individuals of these groups are denied to be human, which justifies their exclusion, mistreatment, and even support for deportation,” argues this study.
For example, in the case of South Africa, media “play an active role by disseminating the news of what they perceive as illegal activities of migrants, further putting pressure on the government and the institutional apparatus to act. By portraying a link between immigration and crime, the media can intensify public opinion and promote moral panic.”
Neutrality is a paramount value to adhere to. It is also, in the end, a matter of adhering to basic ethical journalism principles.
We live in particularly polarised and polarising times, where extreme opinions take centre stage, with little room for the middle ground Sensationalism, inaccurate reporting and disinformation campaigns can contribute to the creation of toxic public debate, where migration is often brought up as a contentious issue. Media can, however, play a different role. It can bring balance back into the discussion, it can enlarge the space for the middle ground.
Exposure to certain media, which look at migrants and migration through overtly negative lens, influences readers’ attitudes towards migrants and migration over time. Inflammatory reporting, aimed at sensationalising, stoke the flames of social unrest.
The Ethical Journalism Network found that “media struggle to provide balanced coverage when political or community leaders at national or regional level respond with a mix of panic and prejudice to the movement of migrants and refugees across national borders”.
Reporting on political developments where leaders use the same inflammatory language that journalists would want to avoid, is a challenge. Respecting ethical principles when leaders seem not to, is a challenge. That is why media professionals need to think carefully about the events they report, about the words they use, and the angles they choose for stories.
There is space for a more nuanced discussion in our societies, and media can play an important role in opening that space. This includes factual reporting, which underlines the complexities of migration, considers broader geopolitical and economic contexts, and focuses on balanced solutions. This can be a positive, constructive way forward.
Writing and reporting about migration in a responsible and accurate way, which follows the principles of ethical journalism, can help change perceptions and reshape conversations around migration.