This is a Chapter of the Study “How does the media on both sides of the Mediterranean report on migration?” carried out and prepared by the Ethical Journalism Network and commissioned in the framework of EUROMED Migration IV – a project, financed by the European Union and implemented by ICMPD. © European Union, 2017.
For more than 2000 years the Mediterranean has been a crossroads of endeavour, trade, civilisation and progress, with people constantly on the move between its shores. In recent years its long history as a crossing point has been scarred by the tragic and appalling loss of life that has accompanied the biggest mass movement of people in recent history.
More than a million people bound for Europe made the migration journey across and around the eastern Mediterranean in 2015. In 2016, according to Frontex, the European border agency, the number of migrants fell dramatically. Despite this reduction in overall numbers attempting the crossing, the tragedy intensified with more than 5,000 people losing their lives in what was the deadliest year on record.
In the last few turbulent years, on both the northern and southern shores of the Mediterranean, the media have faced stern tests of their professionalism in covering migration. Problems related to migration, different types of political discourse and the human tragedy associated with migration have dominated reporting, and this study provides an insight into how the media have reported on a broad and complex topic in the midst of what was repeatedly described as a crisis. It is based upon expert reflections from within journalism on the performance of media across all platforms and, in the spirit of peer review, includes recommendations for improving coverage.
Journalists from 17 countries, mostly around the Mediterranean, have examined the quality of media coverage within their respective national contexts. They highlight examples of good work marked by careful, sensitive and humanitarian reporting and also expose the shortcomings as well as the darker side of media driven by political bias, hate speech and opportunism.
The conclusions from many different parts of the Mediterranean are similar; there are inspirational examples of journalism at its best – stylish, resourceful, and painstaking – and equally powerful instances of media stereotyping and social exclusion.
But everywhere the study paints a picture of journalists and journalism under pressure: of under-resourced media unable to provide the time and money needed to tell the story in context; of poorly trained journalists uninformed about the complex nature of the migration narrative; of newsrooms vulnerable to pressure and manipulation by voices of hate, whether from political elites or social networks.
The influence of social media cannot be underestimated in an age when many, if not most, consumers get their information firstly from social networks and through their mobile devices. The publisher is more likely to be a major internet company, such as Facebook, which requires fresh thinking on how to promote core standards of journalism in covering migration on all platforms.
This study confirms that media narratives continue to shape public opinion, but it also reveals how in all countries journalism is a distorting lens as much as a magnifying glass. On the one hand it can expose inhumanity and corruption in the way that migrants are treated, and on the other it is able to follow an agenda that inspires discrimination and hate that intensifies the suffering of the victims of migration.
The migration story is told in two voices. The emotional coverage of human loss through iconic images of human suffering and the hard realities of massive movements of population that have the potential to disrupt the living conditions, security and welfare of host communities.
What is unquestionable is that media around the Mediterranean 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 sub-Saharan migrants on their way to European destinations, are now becoming host countries, but oftentimes the media seems reluctant to embrace this new reality.
In some European countries political leaders have welcomed new arrivals and media coverage has ebbed and flowed with the political tide. The enthusiasm for migration in countries like Sweden, Germany and France has weakened in the face of acts of terrorism or rising public concern over the impact of new arrivals on settled communities.
Media everywhere struggle to detoxify the migration issue. Journalists will often edit and remove racism and avoid repeating the hate-speech of political extremists, but others worry that boycotting hostile and bigoted voices inadvertently leads media to play down legitimate public concerns over the negative impact of migration.
It is noted that while Islamophobia and anti-Arab rhetoric is present in some media coverage in parts of Europe, this is mirrored by similar racist narratives directed notably at sub-Saharan migrants in some countries of North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean.
Across the region the guiding hand of politics is at work. Conservative voices that are hostile to refugees arriving on their doorstep and left-leaning parties that focus on the humanitarian crisis look to their friends in the media to help them make political capital out of the crisis.
In this situation, policymakers and political leaders themselves have a role to play in shaping the public discourse. Everyone with an interest in this issue, not only journalists, has a responsibility to avoid playing on people’s fears and uncertainties, to eliminate the language of confrontation and hostility and to encourage national dialogues on how to meet the challenges of migration.
This is crucial because most often the story is told in the context of national experience. To some, as in Hungary, it is a new phenomenon, to others, such as in Palestine and Israel, coverage is framed in the sharp focus of long-running regional conflicts.
In many countries the political temperature has cooled as numbers of migrants on the move have declined, but some media still stoke public fears and uncertainty. However, there are some grounds for optimism as well as examples, such as coverage of the situation in Lesbos in Greece, which shows that global media attention, celebrity visits and a sense of history can help media shape the migration story into a positive, even inspiring expression of human solidarity.