Media narratives continue to shape public opinion on the issue of migration, but in all countries, journalism is a distorting lens as much as a magnifying glass. On the one hand, media expose inhumanity and corruption in the way that migrants are treated, and on the other, they often follow an agenda that inspires discrimination and hate that intensifies the suffering of the victims of migration. What is unquestionable is that media tell very different stories. Many countries have been built on migration, but often media appear to lose sight of the migrants in their midst and give them no voice in their coverage. This absence of voice is also felt in countries where the status of migrants is changing. Some North African countries, for instance, places formerly regarded as stopping-off points by subSaharan migrants on their way to European destinations, are now becoming host countries, but often media, as noted in a 2017 study, are reluctant to embrace this new reality.(45)
The limited knowledge and technical understanding of migration that prevails among many media professionals, as well as the lack of migration information and data available to inform the work of even well-intentioned journalists often results in reporting that reduces migration to its extremes.
This suggests that there is still much work to be done to explain the nuances of the migration story to journalists and media decision makers to help them contribute to more balanced reporting about a complex phenomenon.
More research will need to be conducted to improve understanding of the interplay between the media’s reporting, public opinion and establishment discourse. In particular, more research is needed into the role of media in reporting fatalities and dealing with the crisis of missing persons in the aftermath of migrant disasters that adds uncertainty to the pain and ordeal of the families left behind.
Above all, media need to recognize that migrants and refugees are often vulnerable minorities who can quickly become scapegoats for the ills of society – social and economic decline, crime and unemployment, pressure on health and welfare services and lack of security.
Media and journalists’ groups can counter this threat and help people better understand the complex migration story by applying ethical principles, avoiding crude stereotypes and developing good newsroom practice.
Media should prepare concise guides to promote best practices for the reporting on refugees and migrants. In addition, all media should examine their internal structures to make sure they are telling the story in the most effective way. News organizations can:
- Appoint specialist reporters with good knowledge of the subject to the migration and refugee beat and ensure they work closely with migration data experts.
- Provide detailed information on the background of migrants and refugees and the consequences of migration. It is especially important to note that some major studies reveal how migration can strengthen national economies in the longer term, even where there are short-term challenges.
- Avoid political bias and challenge deceptive handling of the facts and incitement to hatred particularly by political, religious or other community leaders and public figures.
- Respect sources of information and grant anonymity to those who require it most, particularly those who are vulnerable and most at risk. • Establish transparent and accessible internal systems for dealing with complaints from the audience over coverage of migrant and refugee issues.
- Review employment policies to ensure newsroom diversity with reporters and editors from minority communities.
- Provide training for journalists and editors covering everything from international conventions and law to refugee rights and what terms to use while covering refugee stories.
- Monitor coverage regularly. Organise internal discussions on how to develop and improve the scope of migration coverage.
- Manage online comments and engage with the audience to ensure that migration stories are not used as a platform for abuse or intolerance.
Media associations and journalists’ unions can also support national structures for independent regulation or self-regulation of journalism, such as press councils. Where there are industry-wide codes of conduct and guidelines dealing with non-discrimination these should cover reporting migration.
Engage with the media audience and connect with migrants: Refugee groups, activists and NGOs, many of which provide vital information for media, can be briefed on how best to communicate with journalists, and media can explain to the audience their policies and editorial approach that may encourage readers, viewers and listeners to contribute useful additional information. Media should also play a role with migrant and refugee support groups in establishing monitoring projects to track missing persons.
Support efforts to identify missing migrants: Media can play an important role in working with migrant support groups to help identify and trace dead or missing migrants. In particular, media can assist the IOM’s Missing Migrants Project, which collaborates with government and nongovernment entities to collect data. Training seminars on migration reporting should focus on the importance of this issue and how media can help to strengthen national initiatives to compile information on lost or missing persons who may be among the unidentified victims of migration disasters elsewhere. Such work can also be strengthened by encouraging media support groups to join networks campaigning for better quality in collection of data, improved identification of the dead and support to families of the missing.
Challenge hate speech: Hate speech is widespread in the media. Often, it can’t be prevented when it comes out of the mouths of prominent public figures, but journalists should always remember that just because someone says something outrageous doesn’t make it newsworthy. The Ethical Journalism Network has developed a five-point text for hate speech as a useful tool for newsrooms (see below).
Access to information: Media cannot report without access to reliable information and facts. When access to information is restricted, such as not being allowed to enter refugee camps, media and civil society groups should press the government both nationally and internationally, to be more transparent. Media and journalists’ unions should meet regularly with police and State authorities and agencies to ensure journalists have safe conditions in which to work and access to the information they need.