‘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.

Missing links and media narratives

While the thousands of desperate refugees and migrants moving from the Middle East and from Africa to Europe or from Central America to the United States might command the headlines and news bulletins; for instance, migration within countries – from rural to urban areas – involves tens of millions of people in China, India and to a lesser extent Brazil, and dwarfs the international movement of people. There are few reports on the deaths of those involved in internal migration, which include the onward migration of international migrants following their arrival in the country of destination.

In addition, there is little focus on migration success stories, the importance of remittances, the positive aspects of labour migration and the cultural richness of diaspora communities and their contribution to human development.

Despite all of this, there are exceptions, inspiring examples of careful, sensitive and ethical journalism and concern inside journalism over the reporting of migration fatalities. There has been a proliferation of prizes and awards for journalism and migration that recognize an abundance of examples of how the story has been laced with humanity, empathy and a focus on the suffering of those involved (See Panel 3).

These reports suggest that even in the age of the Internet and with rapidly expanding access to online sources, trusted media play a vital role in bringing the world’s attention to these events.

These reflections are useful, but it is striking that there is so little information or available research looking at how media report on migration fatalities, with one remarkable exception, which is referred to later in this article. This lack of information, particularly on the crisis of missing persons, hinders efforts to develop more professional awareness within media and journalism.

In most countries, the migration story is told in two voices: (a) the numbers and statistics that focus on the hard realities of massive movements of population with the potential to disrupt the settled conditions of host communities; and (b) human interest coverage of migrant loss and plight of refugees in their flight from war-torn areas. Very often, the media coverage of the emotional drama of migrant suffering is short-term and limited to focus on specific incidents that register high loss of life. There is often a lack of follow-up and deeper reflection on the migrant experience.

At times the story has been politically led with media following an agenda dominated by loose language from politicians and talk of invasion and swarms. In-country media often frame the migration story in a negative context and fail to address the legitimate concerns of host communities about the consequences of migration. This failure to set out the potential benefits of immigration, for instance, has contributed to a widespread sense that migration is “a problem” rather than an opportunity.

The coverage of fatalities remains fixed in a media narrative of sensationalism and humanitarian disaster with too little focus on the lives of the victims and the context that drives them to seek escape from persecution, conflict or grinding poverty. Nor is there any media focus on missing migrants who have not died, those who might still be alive, or on the continuing ordeal of the families who live with uncertainty when they lose contact with relatives who make the perilous journey to seek work and a new life elsewhere.

Regrettably, the negative media narrative on migration is hardly new. It has been well-established for decades. Already at the turn of the millennium, Britain’s famously robust and unashamedly biased tabloid newspapers were in full cry in their campaign against immigrants. A 2003 survey on media reporting of migration, What’s the Story, by the anti-censorship group Article 19, for instance, revealed the following:

  • There were 51 words of a disparaging nature regularly used by media to describe asylum seekers;
  • The media quoted statistics were “frequently unsourced, exaggerated or inadequately explained”;
  • Tabloid newspapers made no attempt to distinguish between economic migrants and asylum seekers; and
  • The hostile coverage of media provoked a sense of shame and alienation among migrants.(43)

The failures of the press have been highlighted in previous works. Journalist Caroline Moorehead, for instance, set out many of these in her book, Human Cargo (2005). Moorehead noted that despite industry efforts to tone down press coverage, “hostile and bigoted reporting continues” alongside casual disregard for simple, relevant and important facts that counter the negative framing of the asylum story.

The situation is often worse in countries from which large numbers of migrants are at present travelling from – Eritrea, Mali, Syrian Arab Republic and Afghanistan – because there is no functioning, independent media or media covering migration stories.

These are the communities who are most vulnerable to the scourge of people smuggling or the even more insidious business of people trafficking and whose lives are often most threatened on the migrant journey, but their stories are hardly reported at home.

This means that the fate of many of the victims of migrant disasters whose bodies are found after the deaths following shipwrecks in the Mediterranean and elsewhere remain unknown to their families. Establishing links between media reporting these deaths and media in the countries concerned might be one important way to begin sharing data and helping to bridge this information gap.


(43) See www.article19.org/data/files/pdfs/publications/refugees-what-s-the-story-.pdf


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