‘Mixed messages: Media coverage of migration and fatalities’, by Aidan White and Ann Singleton(36), 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.


The Missing Migrants Project and other sources of information on the numbers of migrant deaths rely, to a large extent, on media reports (as well as on official sources of data). This presents methodological challenges for researchers, which are addressed in Text Box 1, and ethical challenges for researchers and journalists. This chapter discusses current media practices and challenges in reporting on missing and dead migrants.(37) It makes recommendations on how current practices can be improved.

Media coverage plays a major role in the framing of policy discourses, and its importance in shaping public opinion should not be underestimated (however cause and effect is attributed).(38) Equally, the ethical tests facing journalists have grown in an age when every natural disaster, migrant shipwreck, terror attack or act of war triggers a flood of horrifying and violent images that generate a multitude of dilemmas for media. In this context, reporting on the deaths of migrants presents the media with significant professional challenges.

Few subjects are more important to readers and viewers than how media cover death. It calls for care, sensitivity and, above all, respect for the families and those left to grieve the loss of loved ones. In the case of the deaths of migrants, the pain of loss is often made worse by uncertainty(39) caused because the bodies of many of those who die, whether at sea or on land remain unidentified.

Gone are the days when only press photographers captured grief and terror with their lenses, or when journalists were the privileged gatekeepers to information about humanitarian disaster or social upheaval. In the digital age, bystanders can also snapshots of severed limbs and burned corpses with their phones and cameras and upload them directly online. At the same time, everyone with access to a mobile telephone and the Internet can report on and tell the story of human suffering without the filter of media professionals.

In recent years, the reporting of migration disasters, mainly in the Mediterranean, as well as in the waters of the Asia-Pacific, have raised challenging questions for journalists. How best should the stories of migrant suffering be illustrated without resorting to sensationalism? What responsibilities do authorities, researchers and the media have to the victims and their families when dealing with missing and dead migrants? What are the ethical challenges of reporting on the missing and injured migrants, on the dying and the dead and how can information be presented without dehumanizing the victims or breaching their rights to privacy? What are the specific responsibilities when reporting on children?

To answer these questions, this chapter examines, in particular, the role of mainstream media in coverage of missing migrants rather than having a focus on social media. The influence of social media in creating new and important lines of communications within migrant communities is undeniable, but the dominant information flows that shape public opinion emerge from traditional media narratives.

Although the influence of the press and printed form has diminished, broadcasting and online platforms delivering traditional journalistic material are the most used and trusted sources. Journalism, shaped as it is in a framework of values, provides a reliable resource and for that reason, most of the data on missing migrants comes from mainstream media reports, rather than from social media.


(36) Aidan White is a journalist, and founder and Director of the Ethical Journalism Network. He was General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists for 24 years until 2011. Ann Singleton is Senior Research Fellow at the University of Bristol and Senior Advisor to IOM’s Global Migration and Data Analysis Centre.

(37) The focus in this chapter is on news media, traditionally understood to be organizations involved in the gathering and distribution of news, commentary and information materials for public consumption on any platform of communications (text, audiovisual and digital).

(38) As the Migration Observatory has observed regarding the United Kingdom, there is “A tendency for journalists themselves to play the role of framing problems in the migration debate, rather than simply reporting on others’ (such as politicians, ‘think-tanks,’ or academics’) analysis. This highlights the key role played by journalists and media organisations in shaping the UK migration debate.” (www.migrationobservatory.ox.ac.uk/resources/reports/decade-immigration-british-press/)

(39) The concept of “ambiguous loss” and findings from the Economic and Social Research Council-funded Mediterranean Missing Project, are discussed in chapter 4 by Simon Robins.

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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