‘Mixed messages: Media coverage of migration and fatalities’, by Aidan White and Ann Singleton, was originally published as a chapter in ‘Fatal Journeys – Volume 3 – PART 1 – Improving Data on Missing Migrants’. Copyright: IOM’s Global Migration Data Analysis Centre GMDAC 2017. Re-published with permission.

Ethics and Reporting Realities

The technologies for capturing and disseminating images and information may have advanced, but these questions are not new. Indeed, many of the 400 or so codes of ethics that govern the work of journalists worldwide make specific reference to the ethical duty of journalists to show respect in their coverage of suicide, accidental death and those who are victims of war, terrorism and humanitarian disaster.

A typical example is the National Press Photographers Association’s Code of Ethics in the United States, which tells its members:

Treat all subjects with respect and dignity. Give special consideration to vulnerable subjects and compassion to victims of crime or tragedy. Intrude on private moments of grief only when the public has an overriding and justifiable need to see.(40)

But addressing the humanitarian challenge of migrant deaths and putting this worthy sentiment into practice appears not to be a newsroom priority, even at a time when migration has jumped to the top of the news agenda.

Since the end of 2015, television screens and newspapers have been filled with stories about the tragedy of migration – Syrian child refugees drowned in the Mediterranean; Rohingya(41) fleeing persecution in Myanmar who suffocate on boats in the Andaman Sea; children dying of thirst in the desert as they try to enter the United States to escape gang warfare in Central America.

These stories provide the sensational backdrop to a global drama that the media often reports superficially and, with some notable exceptions, without sufficient consideration or understanding of the statistical data, or of the complex backstory to migration – a multifaceted global phenomenon – but also and primarily a humanitarian challenge.

Very often the information media provide about migrant fatalities is flawed, inaccurate, incomplete or misinterpreted and exaggerated, even though the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has made great strides in recent years to improve the flow of statistical information about the loss of life. Other methodological improvements and data collection efforts include those of organizations described in Parts 1 and 2 (forthcoming) of Fatal Journeys Volume 3, including those of the contributors to this report, and the University of Amsterdam, International Commission on Missing Persons, International Committee of the Red Cross, UNICEF and Save the Children. But media rarely engage directly in helping to strengthen this process.

There is a paucity of information available on how media cover migration fatalities and missing persons and little research on how media cover migration issues as a whole, although two multicountry reports by the Ethical Journalism Network – Moving Stories (2016) and How Media on Both Sides of the Mediterranean Report Migration (May 2017, with International Center for Migration Policy Development and the European Union) do give some insights into the challenges media face.(42)

These reports reveal how media in many different countries work under remarkably similar conditions: (a) journalism under pressure from a failing media economy; (b) undue political influence on the news agenda; and (c) a tendency towards hate speech, stereotyping and social exclusion of refugees and migrants.

These reports ‒ covering Australia, Austria, Algeria, Bulgaria, Brazil, China, Egypt, Hungary, Israel, Jordan, Italy, France, Gambia, Germany, Greece, India, Lebanon, Malta, Mexico, Morocco, Nepal, Palestinian Territories, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Tunisia, Turkey, United Kingdom and United States ‒ reveal a range of factors that hinder media coverage of migration. The most common issues reported to a greater or lesser extent in all countries include the following:

Censorship, particularly self-censorship: In many countries, even in settled democracies, reporters and editors who do not want to offend their media employer or the government will allow political bias to influence their coverage of migration and migrant communities.

Lack of resources: The economic weakness of traditional media leads to cuts in editorial work and less investment in training and the time needed to do good work through research and detailed investigation.

Lack of skills and knowledge: A widespread lack of expertise in reporting migration means that journalists lack confidence and will often adopt a “herd mentality” in their coverage, leading to casual stereotyping and uniform, superficial coverage of complex questions.

Inexact use of terminology: Journalists and media regular fail to distinguish between asylum seekers, refugees and migrants and often use loaded and unexplained language covering “smuggling”, “trafficking” and “illegal migrants”.

Undue political pressure: Media struggle to produce balanced coverage, particularly in countries where political leaders respond with a mixture of bigotry and panic, which has been a feature of coverage in the United States and some parts of Europe.

The rise of hate speech: Worsening public discourse and incitement in political speech is often echoed in media, with journalists describing migrants as a threat through coverage that often includes unsubstantiated links with crime and terrorism.

Limited range of sources: There is a lack of migrant voice and over-reliance on “official” information. This also reflects a lack of media participation in efforts to identify people killed in migrant disasters and to locate their families.

Lack of international focus: The national perspective at the heart of media coverage often means media fail to place the migration story in a global context. Local interests predominate at the expense of a wider understanding of migration and the reasons for it.


(40) A full list of codes and standards for journalists is available from http://accountablejournalism.org

(41) Note that the term Rohingya as used to describe the Muslim peoples of Rakhine State, Myanmar, is not accepted by the Government of the Union of Myanmar, which in June 2016 issued an order directing State-owned media to use the term “Muslim community in Rakhine State”.

(42) The full reports are available from https://ethicaljournalismnetwork.org

Cover Photo: “State of Exception/ Estado de Excepción”. Backpacks of migrants found in the Arizona desert, as part of the Undocumented Migration Project led by Jason De León at the University of Michigan.

Installation: Richard Barnes (Artist/Photographer), Jason De León (Anthropologist), Amanda Krugliak (Artist/Curator). © OTTO 2013 (Photo by Richard Barnes


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