The media coverage of migration in recent years is reviewed here in the context of published reports from 20 countries. The story is always told in two distinct voices: the emotional coverage of human loss through iconic images of human suffering; and the hard realities of massive movements of population that have the potential in the short term to disrupt the living conditions, security and welfare of host communities.[1]

Behind each of these narratives, the attitude towards Muslims as a distinct community is often not specifically recognised, although the media coverage tends to assume that most of the people involved, particularly from the Arab world, are Muslim.

In much of the reporting media coverage becomes softer when the humanitarian angle is portrayed. The swing between “hard” and “soft” coverage has its best illustration in the dramatic impact of the picture of Aylan Kurdi, the toddler found dead on a Turkish beach after a migration tragedy. The worldwide portrayal of this tragic figure from Syria, a Muslim country, led to an outpouring of sympathy, but the hard edge to reporting returns once acts of terrorism are widely reported.


In France, a country where the populist far-right National Rally, formerly the National Front, has 30 per cent of the vote and is increasingly ‘normalised’ by mainstream media, the migration story was hijacked in particular by the far right to reinforce its anti-Islam agenda.[2]

The media placed a major focus on Muslims and the ‘dangers’ they represent for the integrity and soul of the nation. They are seen as a threat to both ‘secularism’ and the French culture and constitution because of their ‘refusal to assimilate’. Terrorism added a dramatic dimension to what was already a challenging issue.

Attempts by the left wing and liberal media to counter negative coverage by highlighting the positives of multicultural society and migration, such as migrants’ and refugees’ contribution to society, have been regular features in a number of media. However, they are increasingly challenged by a growing right-wing media sphere. For example:

  • Traditional right-wing publications such as Valeurs Actuelle have increased their circulation and/or visibility, while new publications like the ‘anti political-correctness Causeur have appeared.
  • More to the right, the so-called ‘fachosphere’ has developed websites that provide a platform for hate-mongering.
  • The far right now has its own media observatory (OJIM, Observatoire des journalists et de l’information mediatique.

Despite the tormented and tumultuous political context “there have been a significant number of good practices,” says VoxPublic Director Jean-Marie Fardeau. “A number of media have not only fairly and humanely reported the facts but also highlighted the complexity of the issue. Such an approach has been used not as an excuse to silence inconvenient truths but as a condition for a more truthful and accurate representation of reality”.

Nevertheless, ethical lapses have tainted the coverage of major moments in the migration story. The competitive nature of journalism, especially among cable news channels, has been an excuse for forgetting elementary principles. During the closure of the Calais jungle in October 2016, for instance, there were numerous examples of violations of the migrants’ dignity and privacy. Hundreds of reporters thronged to the scene, put their cameras right in the faces of the migrants, overwhelmed them with identical and often silly questions, and entered their private shelters, without asking their authorisation, just to “get the picture”.

“This human subject,” wrote Le Monde’s Aline Leclerc, “should require a superior form of dignity. It is one of these moments when journalists find themselves confronted with their ethics, their capacity to resist the pressures of the mass media, and the demands of their newsroom, in order to find a balance between news gathering and respect for the other.” [3]

The 11th September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York represent a pivotal moment in the coverage of Islam in the French media, according to Islam, Media Subject, a study of textual data in three major French daily newspapers (Le Monde, Liberation and Le Figaro) between 1997 and 2015 [4]. Using quantitative and qualitative methods, the study, carried out by the Barcelona Center for International Affairs and the French digital research agency Skoli, looked at thousands of articles including the words ‘Islam’ or ‘Muslim’. The study attempted to investigate claims that media coverage of Islam is either negative or is self-righteous in its particularly friendly approach.

There was a 440% increase in the appearance of the term ‘Islam’ between 1997 and 2015, with a peak of 22,187 in 2001 and an average mention of 46 per day in 2015, compared with only 9 in 1997. Researchers argue that the 9/11 events ‘began a phase in which Islam – as religion, political ideology and marker of identity – plays a key role in the reading of the analysis of international events (attacks, conflicts in Arab Muslim countries, etc.), as well as national news coverage (secularism, national identity and so on)’. From 2001 on, the term ‘Islam’ was used most frequently not to describe the religion in its conventional sense but was applied much more widely to organisations, individuals, Arab Muslim countries and ideologies.

The study highlights a relationship between international and national news that researchers believe warrants further study. International news increasingly used religion as the prism through which to account for events, while national coverage saw a growing tendency to follow international terminology even in local stories such as the veil issue.


In Germany, the start of the crisis in the summer of 2015 saw a focus on the humanitarian aspects of the story. On 27 August the Austrian police discovered on the A4 motorway near Parndorf an abandoned refrigerated lorry that belonged to a human trafficking ring; it contained 71 human corpses and in the same week the story of toddler Aylan Kurdi found dead on a beach in the Turkish seaside resort town of Bodrum was making headlines around the world.[5]

At her summer press conference on 31 August German chancellor Angela Merkel made her by pronouncement “we can do it.” While the statement polarised public opinion, many mass media outlets such as Die Zeit, Der Spiegel, and Bild newspaper adopted it as their own. Shortly afterwards, Die Zeit, for example, printed the affirmative headline “Of Course We Can Do It.”

On 5 September 2015, Angela Merkel pledged to take in all of the refugees who had been stranded at Budapest Keleti train station. The Hamburg Media School study concludes that 82% of German news items in 2015 cast the issue of refugees in a positive light. Twelve percent were purely informative; while only six percent viewed the country’s refugee policies as a problem.[6]

Martin Kaul, a reporter for Die Tageszeitung, commented: “The media-generated euphoria was like wind in our sails. All of a sudden we recovered our belief in a humanitarian Europe and a Germany that was open and friendly, a belief that others had perhaps lost.[7]

The media reinforced people’s willingness to help the 13,000 refugees who were arriving in Germany every day. The country’s largest tabloid, the conservative Bild, extended an explicit welcome to them and began a campaign, titled “Helping Out,” which involved printing regular tips to help readers get involved where they lived. The campaign logo even used the #refugeeswelcome hashtag, which had previously been the domain of the left and of left-wing politics.

The desire to give refugees and immigrants a voice and a forum soon took hold in newsrooms. Refugees, many of them Muslims, were no longer to be simply the subjects of news articles, but their authors as well.

The first such project of a large scale for the public-at-large appeared in Zeit Magazin on 28 May. Published bilingually in German and Arabic, it addressed the situation of refugees and was illustrated with cell phone photos provided by refugees themselves, which they had taken on their journey to Germany.

However, the sympathetic treatment of refugees in the media had negative effects as well. It awakened the feeling that the concerns and fears of the German population were not being taken seriously.

This notion was reinforced by later research on how German media covered the 2015 refugee crisis and whether they failed to adequately portray the views and concerns of the host population. Lead by Michael Haller, Professor for Media Studies at the Hamburg Media School a study published in February 2017 analysed coverage of the main German daily newspapers in the period February 2015 until March 2016. “The study shows”, explains Haller, “that the majority of German journalists and editors failed to report the facts.” [8]

The “Willkommenskultur” – Welcome Culture, dominated coverage and critical voices or the views of experts took a back seat. As a result, those who felt marginalised by the coverage looked for representation elsewhere and found it with the right-wing populist parties such as the AfD.

Many media do not agree with this assessment. Die Zeit, which as a weekly was not included in the study, pointed out that many experts had been heard, especially on the public service channels, still a key source of news, especially for the older generation.

Beyond the reporting of migration itself, other incidents posed ethical challenges for media for instance in the reporting of incidents in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, 2015 when scores of women were sexually assaulted or robbed.

The male perpetrators were quickly described as having “come from North Africa.” Journalists were faced with a dilemma: to name the perpetrators’ presumed countries of origin or not? Guideline 12.1 of the German Press Code specifies that a suspect’s “religious, ethnic, or other minority membership” may not be identified “unless this information can be justified as being relevant to the readers’ understanding of the incident.”[9] But this sort of discretion had become complicated in the meantime since agitation against refugees, foreigners, and immigrants was already snowballing on social media.


The first wave of global media coverage of the tragedy of migrants and refugees risking their lives to escape war and poverty in the Middle East and elsewhere was played out in Italy where in the year to August 2015, several shipwrecks led to more than 5,200 deaths.

Since that time the issue of migration and xenophobia has figured strongly in political debates. Strong anti-Muslim, anti-migrant and racist messages were evident in the run-up to national elections in early in 2018 which saw stunning success for right-wing parties.

During 2017, according to the media report, Notizie da paura by Carta di Roma, the media support group which promotes ethical media reporting of race relations, prime time television news devoted an extra 26 percent news about immigration than in 2016. Writing on the mood of ordinary people after the election, journalist Francesca Marchese noted, “They are not racist. But they are disappointed and – more important – they are frightened.”[10]

The Carta di Roma report also suggests that media see migration as a permanent emergency, rather than a social reality that needs to be addressed in a coherent and rational manner. Local studies have also found discrimination in reporting of related issues dealing with religion, violence, financial and health problems.

The result has been “a cocktail of insecurity and fear” that also explains why the sense of threat towards migrants and refugees has increased in Italy: from 33 percent in 2015 to 43 percent in 2017, according to Demos&Pi, a research organisation based in Vicenza.

And it is not just news reporting that is criticized. Some popular Italian talk shows and political programmes are also under fire. One, “Dalla Vostra Parte” (broadcast by Mediaset, Rete 4) sparked particular outrage and was accused of open racism. A reporter was fired because he allegedly paid a migrant to impersonate a Roma crook and a violent extremist Muslim on two separate occasions.

This anti-Muslim focus has its roots in the alarmist discourse about immigration in 2015, with the number of arrivals described as an “invasion” and the use of the language of war, typified by the front page of the Milan newspaper Il Giornale on 24 August: “Immigration chaos. Invasion by land. The landings continue but the alarm is now mainly on the Macedonian front: thousands of refugees push to enter Europe. It is an endless emergency.”

The mood changed following Germany’s announcement in September 2015 that Germany was opening its doors to all Syrian refugees and asylum seekers, Newspapers reported acts of kindness and solidarity, with Austrians and Germans welcoming refugees them as they arrived from Hungary.

This contrasted with previous coverage where acts of solidarity with the migrants and refugees had been overshadowed by protests, and more space given to politicians whipping up tensions and the concerns of people fearing for their neighbourhoods due to the presence of migrants. Matteo Salvini of the Lega Nord (the right-wing Northern League) supported by the extremist group Casa Pound made inflammatory and violent messages, tailored to the sensational and ensure media exposure. The Lega Nord’s MEP, Gianluca Buonanno, also distinguished himself with some outrageous comments: on 29 August 2015, he spoke of using electrified barbed wire “if and when illegals come around these parts” to stop them, “like you do with boars”.


Media coverage in Greece was also heavily influenced by extremist politics, in this case by the activities of “Golden Dawn”, an anti-Muslim and neo-Nazi party which organised assaults against migrants, in the spirit and style of Nazi storm troopers. This triggered sympathy from within media for the victims, although many times media noted that somehow, they were “also to blame” for illegal street trading or being resident without a permit.[11]

The messages coming from media on migration were driven by two strong forces within Greek journalism – a tendency towards fierce nationalism to protect Greece, its culture, identity and history from external threats, and a second non-nationalist influence seen as more pro-European and outward-looking. These competing ideas are still in place.

2015 was marked by an unprecedented influx of refugees, sparking a humanitarian crisis that resonated across the country and in the European Union. During the year, some 900,000 refugees arrived, almost all from predominantly Muslim countries — Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq.[12]

In an October 2016 study by Professor George Pleios at the National and Kapodistrian University Athens concluded that during the summer of 2015, media coverage reflected the stereotypes of the past. Refugees are often presented indiscriminately as part of the migrant group and negatively labelled as “illegal immigrants” and the arrival is called a “tsunami.” There is blatant indifference to their rights and strong anti-Muslim sentiment.

“Indeed,” says Professor Pleios, “The mass media spread fear that the arrival of refugees will cause problems to public health and the local economy, for instance, tourism and that national security may be threatened, involving loss of territory to Turkey, with terrorist activity by violent extremists. It is seen as a threat to religious and cultural identity and a demographic threat to the profile of the population”.

Later coverage shifted with media deploying less racist terminology and a focus on humanitarian support. This sharp change of approach arose largely because the drama of refugees arriving on Greek islands became a global story with thousands of journalists from the world’s media broadcasting shocking reports, pictures and video material on the arrival and rescue of these desperate people.

Dramatic stories of desperate people circulated around the globe; pictures that touched the world with drowned bodies washed up on beaches (particularly that of Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi) were shown in the Greek media as well. This form of coverage focusing on the human cost did much to displace the rhetoric of racism.

From March 2016 onwards saw a spectacular decrease in refugee flows and there were many thousands of media reports, showing sympathy, compassion and solidarity. But they also sent a strong message to other refugees seeking to come to Greece from Turkey – that routes to Northern Europe are closed and that those who try to make the journey would face miserable and inhumane conditions.


The impact of migration as a threat to national culture and identity from mainly Muslim people from the Middle East and beyond was also a central theme of coverage in Bulgaria. Until 2013, migration had been a marginal issue for media. Between 2009-2012, only 812 articles on the issue made their way into the press, electronic and online media in the country according to a survey by Proway Communications agency. A year later, the picture changed completely with thousands of people crossing the Bulgarian-Turkish border to seek asylum in Europe.[13]

A brief content analysis shows a major shift in the discourse, with key topics identified as: national security, terrorism, disease and refugee camps. The asylum seekers were largely framed as a homogeneous mass of mainly Muslim people, who constitute a “problem”, a “threat” for the integrity for Bulgarian and European societies.

Even though there were some grassroots initiatives and volunteers working through NGOs stepped in to provide essential support for the refugees, their arrival provoked a largely negative public reaction, warmed up by a loud far-right and xenophobic public discourse. This opened space for a surge in hate speech, hate crimes and discrimination. It was by any standards a massive challenge for media to moderate this intemperate and hostile reaction.

One incident illustrates the impact media coverage can have: In April 2014 a group of 17 Syrian refugees, including six children, were forced to leave the house they rented in the village of Kosovo[14] after continuous protests by local people. The villagers were determined not to accept the Syrians because, they said, their safety was under threat. Asked by a reporter why refugees were feared so much, a Kosovo resident answered: “We know they are danger. We have read the press, we have seen the news on TV.”

Instead of mediating the conflicting opinions and providing balanced and reliable information, the mass media plunged into sensationalism, and often in breach of basic ethical and professional principles of journalism in the process. But there were questions if journalism was prepared for the task of covering the story. It quickly became apparent that there were insufficient knowledge and experience of covering migrant and refugee issues among journalists which meant high-quality reporting and analysis was thin on the ground.


In Spain, the quality of journalism covering migration and related issues has generally improved in recent years. A study of Spanish media coverage[15], published in 2012, identified five repeated and distorted narratives: the idea of “avalanche” and “invasion”; the danger of migrants bringing illnesses or inappropriate cultural customs; the association between migration and criminality; migrants being poor and marginalised; and the invisibility of migrant women.[16]

In general, the migrants themselves wouldn’t be given much of a voice and the full context of the situation in their countries of origin and reasons why the migrants left would also be missing in these news stories. Again, the turning point in the Spanish media was the image of the dead body of Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi. The images provoked a change in the general media discourse. However, this sympathetic turn was cut short by the terrorist attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015.

Nevertheless, a four-volume study by Red Acoge on how the media covered migration in Spain between 2014 and 2016[17] highlights how over time coverage generally improved, in particular by humanising and giving migrants and asylum-seekers a voice, and by trying to provide context to explain why these people had left their places of origin. Red Acoge found that the number of articles containing “errors” fell from nearly 50% among those analysed during the first part of 2015 to 20% of those analysed in 2016.[18]


In Sweden, journalists have been accused of bias particularly in reporting migration and stories covering minorities, racism and discrimination. In the public debate they are accused of being politically left-leaning, but repeated studies at the University of Gothenburg conclude that this does not influence their reporting.[19]

Research by journalist Björn Häger suggests that journalists have, indeed, been exercising self-restraint when reporting migration to avoid giving support to racists or to promote policies supported by the nationalist political party the Sweden Democrats (SD).

In some newsrooms, journalists follow guidelines not to support racist ideas in their reporting. For public service radio and television, this is a particular obligation because the network is independent, but mandated to promote democratic ideas and values. As a result in one case, an SD leader speaking on television was accompanied by simultaneous broadcasting that fact-checked and corrected his statements. Traditional ways of presenting the views of opposing forces in a story are not enough when obvious lies are presented.

Journalism also suffers from not being connected with migrants and the migrant community. Half of the total members of the Swedish Union of Journalists live in the capital, Stockholm. They are normally well educated, live in the city, and not in suburban areas alongside migrants and many Muslim communities. Changing the profile of people inside journalism is slow but gradual, especially in public service media, where second-generation migrant staff are now more present and more journalists with migrant backgrounds are entering the profession.

Nevertheless, right-wing organisations and websites such as Avpixlat, linked to SD through one of its leading members, claim there is a conspiracy among journalists not to provide critical reporting of migration. Among the websites hostile to migrants, and among some groups in the population, the cover-up theory is strong.

These groups feel they are not allowed to speak freely and that sentiment has been reinforced by the fact that traditional media now automatically block comments on migrant stories and related stories on Muslims that might provoke hate speech.


Until 2015, migration in Hungary rarely made it onto the news agenda, although related issues were discussed by journalists in terms of how the country’s own Roma community is portrayed in the media: everyday ethnic discrimination, unconscious mixing of poverty issues with matters of race, political partisanship, and a profound lack of a common language to address issues of “the other”, as well as an absence of reliable and widely accepted facts and narratives. [20]

To judge the nature and quality of the Hungarian media’s efforts to report on migration is difficult as the circumstances were extreme: hundreds of thousands of people came rushing through the country in a month; there was a mix of extremes — signs of panic and at the same time empathy within society; and deepening partisanship fuelled by government rhetoric and propaganda. At the heart of the public confusion since 2015 lies a new word, intentionally made up for propaganda purposes: “migráns”, a word that had not existed before. The media traditionally used the Hungarian equivalents of ‘refugee’, or ‘asylum seeker’, to describe the limited number of people coming to the country. The shift in terminology was unusual and has not been reported elsewhere.

But in Hungary, this new made-up word was used by government officials and media under government direction or influence replacing every other term. Journalists at state media were reportedly told to use the word every time they address the issue. ‘Migráns’ sounds foreign and sounds ugly, while ‘menekült’ (refugee) has soft, empathetic connotations.

Also, the term ‘economic immigrant’ was coined to put an emphasis on the job security issue, rather than the humanitarian, asylum seeker approach that sees migrants as people escaping from war zones. From that point, the choice of words used made a clear distinction: those using ‘migráns’ clearly shared the governments’ anti-migrant rhetoric. This led to a situation where using any of the older terms became a political statement even if it wasn’t meant to.

As a result, unbiased reporting became almost impossible. No words were left untouched by this war of rhetoric. No matter which words a journalist picked to describe the people at the borders and in the pop-up camps, it surely meant something else, something more than intended. However, ‘migráns’ clearly took over subconsciously even in the everyday speech of the country.

The Prime Minister Viktor Orban put it at the top of his agenda after attending the free-speech-march on 11 January 2015 in Paris following the Charlie Hebdo attacks. On the day of the march, he spoke out on public media about migration and terrorism, not the protection of free speech. From that point on it became his number one issue. The state media and the ever-growing number of government-backed private media followed suit. Many argue that this was an intended scapegoating strategy. His government’s pressure on media has continued ever since. (See section on Bias at Work.)

The announcement of a ‘quota referendum’ to challenge the European Union over its plans to allocate a quota of refugees to each member state led to a campaign that appeared to be about everything but migration itself. The government claimed that the EU had no right to force its member states to take in any migrants (the EU proposed relocating 120,000 refugees from front-line states such as Greece and Italy. It called for Hungary to resettle 1,294 people.)

The intensity of the government campaign was unprecedented. Towns and countryside were filled with advertising hoardings to the extent that during the last few weeks of the campaign it was almost impossible to find empty slots even for commercial advertising campaigns. Those who opposed the government campaigned for a boycott of the referendum.

Changes in the approach of other European governments, particularly in neighbouring countries like the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland, and the rise of anti-migration groups were seen as the triumph for the Hungarian government. In the end, the referendum made little difference. It witnessed a low 43% turnout, not enough to make it binding, but of those who voted 98% were in favour of the government.


The issue of migration in Austria began to headline in media in 2015 when there was a record number of asylum request, around 90,000[21], an increase of 200% over the previous year, and a number, in a country of 8.5 million inhabitants, which was seized on especially by tabloid press as something of an existential threat.[22]

Coverage in Austria as in other countries was presented by media largely as a crisis for national states rather than for the international community. The largely neutral media reporting at the beginning changed over the year, giving way to increasingly negative coverage of refugees. In the press, there were almost double the numbers of negative articles as positive articles, while the number of neutral reports decreased steadily according to one study. [23]

The reasons for weak media performance are many: the priority is given to commercial priorities over ethical and professional content; a professional journalistic culture that relies heavily on political elites as sources of information; and a journalistic bias towards sensationalism.

In addition, the Austrian Press Council relies on voluntary compliance among its members and has little possibility to sanction non-members who violate its code and principles. It is therefore commonly referred to as a “toothless tiger”. However, the situation in other countries is not so bleak (See Page 44 – Press Councils as a Tool To Combat Bias.)

Nevertheless, towards the end of 2016, the Council came up with a checklist for journalists covering migration, refugees, and asylum seekers.[24]

It provides a useful ethical framework for journalists, but since the tabloids are not members and disproportionately distort and sensationalise reporting on migration, uptake of this checklist is limited to interested freelancers, plus some journalists working for the quality press.

[1] Countries covered were: Austria, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Greece, United Kingdom, Hungary, Italy, Malta, Spain, Sweden, Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Tunisia and Turkey.

[2] Report by Jean-Paul Marthoz (How the media on both sides of the Mediterranean report on migration, EJN, 2017). A useful overview of the situation is also found here



[5] Report by Michaela Maria Müller, (How does the media on both sides of the Mediterranean report on migration (ICMPD/EJN, 2017).




[9] Deutscher Presserat, German Press Code: Guidelines for Journalistic Work as Recommended by the German Press Council (Berlin, 2013), p. 9, online:

[10] Report Francesca Marchese, Ethics in the News (EJN, 2018)

[11] Report, Nikos Megrelis How the media on both sides of the Mediterranean report on migration (EJN/ICMPD 2017)


[13] Report by Rossen Bosev and Maria Cheresehva, Moving Stories: International review of how media cover migration (EJN/ICMPD 2016)

[14] As under UN Security Council Resolution 1244/99

[15] López Talavera, Mª del Mar. “La ética periodística en el tratamiento informativo de la inmigración”. Article published in Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Cuadernos de Información y Comunicación, p339-354, 2012. Available to download as a PDF file in Spanish on

[16] Report by Jose Miguel Calatayud How the media on both sides of the Mediterranean report on migration, (EJN/ICMPD2017)

[17]  The four volumes are available to download in Spanish on


[19] Report Arne Konig, How the media on both sides of the Mediterranean cover migration, (ICMPD/EJN 2017)

[20] Report, Balazs Weyer How the media on both sides of the Mediterranean cover migration (ICMPD/EJN 2017)

[22] Report Katharine Sarikakis in How the media on both sides of the Mediterranean covers migration (ICMPD/EJN 2017)





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