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.

In the picture: Humanity or the people’s right to know?

One migrant death that changed the direction of media coverage around the world occurred on 2 September 2015 when the body of a three-year-old boy who had drowned was found on a beach near Bodrun in Turkey after a boat carrying migrants capsized in a failed attempt to reach the Greek island of Kos.

The boy, from Kobane in northern Syrian Arab Republic, died along with his five-year-old brother and their mother. Their father survived; a further nine people did not. At that time, the boy was just another statistic, one of more than 2,600 migrants known to have died crossing the Mediterranean Sea to Europe in 2015, according to IOM.(44)

But what followed was sensational and unprecedented: an international outpouring of sympathy and support for the ordeal faced by all refugees and migrants making perilous journeys to escape war and privation.

Throughout 2015, the steady rise in numbers of migrant deaths reported by media in most countries had appeared to have little effect on public opinion, but the slight, peaceful figure slumped face down in the waters off a Turkish beach changed the public mood. Within 12 hours, the image had been shared by hundreds of millions of people on social media. The next day, it was on front pages worldwide.

Its impact was extraordinary. The refugee crisis was suddenly given a tragic and human face. The image inspired a wave of solidarity and sympathy for migrants within the public at large. It led to a resurgent debate among politicians on how to confront the humanitarian challenge of migration.

But publication of this picture was not without controversy. Many readers questioned whether or not it was appropriate to publish images of such a young, dead victim and the potential impact on his family.

Interestingly, most people cared less about the photo being widely shared online; it was the publication in traditional media brands that raised questions and stirred emotions. Many people recognized the value of the image as a symbolic representation of migrant suffering, but were troubled by the identification of the boy and the intrusion into his family’s grief.

“Everybody fights over iconic images,” said Peter Bouckaert, Emergencies Director at Human Rights Watch and one of the first people to share the image on social media. “And in the end they perhaps lose their original meaning. It is the same with people running around with Che Guevara T-shirts as a symbol, rather than understanding who Che Guevara was.”

Amol Rajan, at the time editor-at-large of London’s Independent newspaper, wrote that the dilemmas involved had been thoroughly discussed in his editorial room. However, journalistic interests prevailed: “It was to shock the world into action, to improve refugee policy and to put pressure on a prime minister whose behaviour in this crisis has been embarrassing.”

But did this shock therapy work? Since the publication of that iconic image, many more children have died in the Mediterranean: 178 in 2016, and 48 in the first six months of 2017. Shocking the audience and promoting discussion on matters of great public interest are legitimate tasks for public interest journalism, but there are limits, as Austrian journalists discovered in a ruling by their self-regulating press council Presserat, which deals with complaints from the public on press behaviour.


(44) See Missing Migrants Project 2015 data, available from https://missingmigrants.iom.int/latest-global-figures


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