24 Nov 2023 Background: Why accurate media coverage of migration is important
The world the media paint becomes the face of the societies we live in. The under-representation, or outright exclusion, of certain communities from the media, makes them invisible. And when people are invisible, their rights can much more easily be violated. Migrant and refugees, like all other under-represented and marginalised communities, should have an adequate space and accurate representation in the media.
We live in a complex world. When media reporting oversimplifies the subject matter, nuanced understandings 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 focus 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.
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 up 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 portraying this complexity is enormous.
Colombian researcher Camila Esguerra Muelle has argued in relation to media representations 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.” Over-simplification can contribute to xenophobia, and even have harmful consequences, such as actual violence against those perceived to be “foreign”.
Such findings are consistent with a Reuters Digital News Report 2019 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.
Diversity of representation, a driver of trust
The world’s 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 2018 study by WACC Latin America on the representation of poverty in the border areas between Argentina and Brazil, and Argentina and Bolivia, found that poorer, marginalised people were scarcely represented in the media, even in areas in which they are visibly present in society. The issue of poverty, when present, was not approached from a point of view which allows frank discussion and constructive engagement, eliminating the possibility of finding common solutions.
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.
WACC’s 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.
Ethical, responsible and balanced journalism
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:
- Adopt appropriate and legally accurate terminology.
- Use accurate, verified information.
- Protect sources.
- Consult experts.
At the international level, the Ethical Journalism Network offers five principles for ethical reporting on migration:
1. Facts not bias
Are we accurate and have we been impartial, inclusive and fact-based in our reporting? Are we acting independently from narratives that stem from politics and emotion rather than facts? Are we fairly and transparently reporting the impact of migration on communities?”
2. Know the law
Asylum seeker? Refugee? Victim of trafficking? Migrant worker? Do we use irregular migrant? Do we understand and use migrant definitions correctly and do we articulate to our audience the rights migrants are due under international, regional and national law?
3. Show humanity
Humanity is the essence of ethical journalism. But we must keep our emotions in check, avoid victimization, over simplification and the framing of coverage in a narrow humanitarian context that takes no account of the bigger picture.
4. Speak for all
Do we have migrant voices? Are we listening to the communities they are passing through or joining? Question how representative self-appointed community and migrant spokespeople really are.
5. Challenge hate
Have we avoided extremism? Have we taken the time to judge whether inflammatory content about migrants or those who seek to limit migration can lead to hatred? Words like “swarms”, “floods” and “waves” should be treated with caution, as should indiscriminate use of “racism” and “xenophobia.”
Creating a more inclusive discussion
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.
There is clearly 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.