Migration from the Lens of European Media


A new study by a team of researchers reveals far-reaching and curious discoveries on migration

By Anthony Akaeze

IN the last five or more years, people in different countries around the world had often woken up to, or simply learned of a story in the media. Some of the news grip, some don’t, yet not every story that grabs attention stays with the reader/viewer for long. They simply fizzle away with time. Some do not, however, for reasons not unconnected with the media’s propensity to amplify or keep the story in the public domain. Looking back or rummaging through attention-grabbing stories or headlines of the last five or six years may prove a handful for even the most painstaking researcher but it is difficult to imagine any other news story, within that period, that gripped the mind as much as migration did. The migration stories people are most familiar with are something of a stereotype.  They usually begin in Africa or the Middle East and end somewhere in Europe,  the Americas, Asia or elsewhere. These, for the migrants involved, are the lucky ones. The unlucky ones never make it to their destinations. Some die along the way, others are trapped in between the journeys, some are turned back, while some, against the odds, make a detour. From all these emerge stories and images of all kinds. Of all, photos of people on rickety boats on the Mediterranean Sea headed to Europe via Italy or elsewhere, people crammed on a caravan on the Sahara Desert fleeing their homelands, or young girls selling their bodies for sustenance in countries like Italy, have, more or less,  become migration posters.

Without a doubt, the role of the media in reporting migration – the endless movement of humans from one locality to another, country to another, one part of the world to another, a phenomenon that continues to this day, is already well documented for posterity but how well is this done?

The answer to this and more lies in a new work with the title Migration Coverage in Europe’s Media, a work, as the name implies, that looks at how media across Europe cover migrants and refugees. It is the result of a study by the European Journalism Observatory (EJO), in conjunction with  Otto Brenner Stiftung,  conducted in 17 countries. EJO is a network of 12 journalism institutes across Europe. The research team was led by Professor Susanne Fengler and Marcus Kreutler, both of Erich Brost Institute for International Journalism, TU Dortmund.

The study, described as “the first international project to compare coverage of migrants and refugees across so many different political systems, media systems, and journalistic cultures,”  analysed “2 417 articles for six selected study weeks between August 2015 and March 2018.”

A press release Tuesday by the European Journalism Observatory and Otto Brenner Stiftung, co-funder of the project, which “sheds light on the media’s role in the migration debate,” said the study revealed “fundamentally different patterns of coverage between Germany, Italy and Greece, and all the other EU countries.” In Germany, Italy, and Greece, for instance, “migrants and refugees are presented as domestic topics, reflecting the fact that these countries are primarily destinations of migrants and refugees.” However, “the media in all other EU countries in (the) sample treat the topic predominantly as a foreign affairs issue – events related to migration take place far away from home, beyond the domestic borders. Media in France, the UK, and Hungary emphasize the prominent role of their leaders in international policy-making. Germans, in particular, might be surprised to learn that there seems to be little public pressure in other countries to find a “European solution” to the regulation of asylum procedures.”

The study also “finds stark differences in the tone of coverage in different countries.” It says that “in general, media in Central and Eastern Europe focus more on problems experienced with, and protests against, migrants and refugees. Media in Western Europe emphasize the situation of migrants and refugees and the help provided to them. Western European media in our sample also quoted many more (non-migrant) speakers with positive attitudes towards migrants and refugees than media in Central and Eastern Europe. A pattern also emerges when we contrast data for left-liberal media and media with a more conservative profile: Liberal-left media quoted more speakers with a positive attitude, and reported considerably more on help for and the situation of migrants and refugees.”

Journalists occasionally talk of scoop. For the researchers, an interesting discovery is a fact that some journalists or writers either simply do not know the difference between migrants and refugees, or they at times use them in situations that do not apply.

“One of the main problems identified in our study is that media across Europe do not make clear to their audiences the background and legal status of people seeking to enter Europe as a migrant or refugee. Coverage is dominated by political debates and political actors (45%), leaving almost no room (4% of the articles) for coverage of economic, cultural, historic, and other background information,” it states, adding, “Only a third of the articles (33%) makes clear the distinction between refugees, who have a protected legal status, and migrants, who leave their countries of origin for economic, social, educational and other reasons. Most articles (60%) confuse migrants and refugees or remain unclear.”

The study asks: “Do they do this out of ignorance? Because national politicians use ambiguous wording? Because journalists assume their audiences don’t know the difference – or because they lack the time and space to be more specific? Our study cannot throw light on the reasons; however, media also remain vague about the countries of origin of migrants and refugees. Only 778 out of the 2,417 articles retrieved for the study weeks specify where people come from – 293 articles mention Syria, the others “Africa” (64), Myanmar (30), Albania and Ukraine (18 each), and Afghanistan (16). But there is change over time: In the earlier weeks of our analysis, the Middle East as an origin is particularly in focus, and where people are clearly identified, it is mostly as “refugees”; in later weeks, we increasingly find people identified as “migrants”. However, the share of articles that do not identify the people presented as either refugees or migrants remains high throughout our period of analysis.”

For journalists seeking to improve their migration reporting, the researchers offer some words of advice. “With regard to the representation of migrants and refugees, European media might learn from the United States, which was part of our sample as well. While The Washington Post focused mainly on immigration from Central America in the study period, The New York Times took more of a global perspective and focused on the “European refugee crisis”. US articles featured a particularly high number of individual migrants and refugees, who were also quoted – probably as a result of the Anglo-Saxon reporting traditions and a code of ethics (by the Society of Professional Journalists) that stipulates to “give voice to the voiceless”. In Europe, the Spanish media come closest to this interest in the perspective of migrants and refugees.”

Full details of the study and graphs of the report are available on the EJO website and on the website of Otto Brenner Stiftung.

– Jan. 17, 2020 @ 14:15 GMT |

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