UK media must remember ethical obligations in coverage of Channel crossings

5 point reporting guide for migration

By Hannah Storm, EJN Director

In 2016, the Ethical Journalism Network launched a five-point guide for journalists covering migration.  Looking at some of the coverage by the UK news media of the numbers of people recently crossing the Channel, it’s obvious these guidelines are as necessary now as when we launched them.

Migration has long been a polemical issue, one on which almost every single person – no matter what their understanding of the issue – seems to have an opinion. In an island nation, it is often used to highlight the divisions between ‘them and us’, exploited by politicians to incite hatred, raise their profile and deflect the media’s attention from other issues.

In recent years, and most obviously in the run up to the EU referendum in 2016, migration has become a political football. Too often elements of our media industry fail to recognise that those who are being kicked around are real people. These are women and children and men frequently forced by war, disaster and human rights abuses to flee their places of safety, to risk their lives and those of the people they love. They should be given a chance to tell their side of the story. We should be hearing their voices not a sensationalised version of their struggle.

But instead in the UK, we have heard the kind of war vocabulary bandied around as if we were under attack: words like ‘invasion’, suggestions that the military be deployed to protect our shores. And yet, some in the media seem to fail to recognise that the UK has an obligation to provide sanctuary to people fleeing conflict and human rights abuses, that it has so far failed to provide safe routes for these people, and that in reality the numbers of people we are talking about are actually a very small percentage of the global figure of those displaced.

According to its annual Global Trends report published by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in June 2020[1], 85 percent of the displaced people in the world are currently hosted in developing countries, with far lower financial capacity to support them than the UK.

In an article published on August 11 in the Independent[2], Bradley Hillier-Smith called for an ethical response from the UK government to the Channel crossings, arguing that it had contributed to the ‘intolerable’ and ‘unsafe’ conditions in camps in northern France, having provided funding for riot police who are reported to have harassed and intimidated people in those camps.

And, just as there might be an ethical response by authorities, so too there should be with media, whose job it is to hold those in power to account.

And yet, many in the media get perilously close to reporting on this issue and the lives at stake as if it were some sort of entertainment. It’s depressing to see some journalists report on the plight of people in boats as though it were some TV show commissioned as a competition to show the survival of the fittest. This is not another edition of a reality TV show and yet watching some of the coverage this week, it has felt like that. It’s something the Labour MP Zarah Sultana has recognised. She was quoted in the Guardian on August 12 as saying: “We should ensure people don’t drown crossing the Channel, not film them as if it were some grotesque reality TV show.”[3]

And yet, look at the numbers, look at the stories that are not being covered by some parts of the media, look at the context and the legal realities of this situation, look at the role the UK government has played in the deteriorating situation in camps on the French coast, look at the language that is being used to stoke antipathy and hatred.

To give the media their due, those who have followed boats in the Channel who have filmed people making the perilous journey, those who have pointed their microphones at these same people for a soundbite, have highlighted the risks they have taken, have also communicated with coastguards, and have shown a degree of humanity, and this is something highlighted by the same article which quotes Zarah Sultana, MP.

But we have also seen how the media gets caught up in its own game of pursuing a story because everyone else is doing it, without stopping to think if they are adding to the problem, without considering what stories they are not covering by reporting on this, into whose hands are they playing, if they are covering the symptom not the cause, if they are holding accountable those who really need to answer the questions about why this is happening.

In 2015, the EJN published ‘Moving Stories’[4], highlighted some of the issues that come up when the media covers migration, showing how journalists often failed to tell the whole story and become trapped by propaganda pushed by politicians for their own ends. Written at the end of a year in which more than one million people arrived in Europe by sea[5], our publication referenced the hate speech used by politicians, the failed opportunities by the media to grasp the complexities of migration issues, and the falling standards of an economically-stretched industry amongst other issues.

In many ways, the story of people crossing the Channel comes at a perfect time for those bent on creating division or distraction. For months and months, practically the only story being covered has been that of Covid-19. This provides a distraction from the pandemic at a time when the UK government is still obfuscating in its response to the health crisis that has seen the highest number of Covid-19 related deaths in Europe, and when the British Prime Minister is losing the trust of his party around the negotiation of trade deals following our departure from the European Union.

Our media industry is reeling from the effects of the pandemic too, the economic impact, the job cuts, furloughing, the challenges of working from home, the need to react quickly without perhaps all the resources we had in the past, the unprecedented nature of dealing with a disease whose spread and scale is not entirely clear: again the fear of the unknown. We have already seen the impact of hate speech with regard to Covid-19, the dangers of racial profiling during the pandemic. We know that people from marginalised communities – from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities are much more likely to be affected by this disease – and we know that these same people make up a large percentage of those crossing the Channel. I

When the EJN wrote our guidelines, we shared five different points for journalists to help them more ethically cover migration stories. They are summarised here, but available via an infographic in multiple languages:

  1. Facts not Bias – Are we being accurate, impartial, inclusive and fact-based in our reporting and are we acting independently of political narratives?
  2. Know the Law– Do we understand and use the definitions correctly – and do we articulate to our audience the rights due to people under international, regional and national law?
  3. Humanity – This lies at the heart of ethical journalism. We need to consider how we frame our stories to avoid over-simplification, victimisation, and too narrow a context that does not reveal the bigger picture.
  4. Speak for all –Do we include the voices of these people in a fair and inclusive way, are we listening to them and the communities through which they are passing and which they are joining; do we understand how representative self-appointed spokespeople for all communities are?
  5. Challenge hate – Have we taken the time to consider to what extent inflammatory content and words about migrants or those who seek to limit migration can lead to hatred? Words like swarms, waves and floods should be used with caution, so too the indiscriminate use of words like racism and xenophobia.

https://ethicaljournalismnetwork.org/resources/infographics/ethical-guidelines-on-migration-reporting

In addition, in partnership with the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency, the EJN last year launched an online training toolkit for journalists covering migration.[6]

It’s clear that the media plays a very important role in shaping public opinion, with that comes responsibilities to act ethically, to be accountable, accurate, independent, impartial, and to promote humanity. In 2020, it seems many in the media still have a way to go.

[1] https://www.unhcr.org/news/press/2020/6/5ee9db2e4/1-cent-humanity-displaced-unhcr-global-trends-report.html

[2] https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/refugees-english-channel-boats-migrants-death-a9663031.html

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/aug/11/bbc-and-sky-accused-of-dehumanising-people-trying-to-cross-channel?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

[4] https://ethicaljournalismnetwork.org/resources/publications/moving-stories

[5] https://www.unhcr.org/news/latest/2015/12/5683d0b56/million-sea-arrivals-reach-europe-2015.html#:~:text=Over%20one%20million%20sea%20arrivals%20reach%20Europe%20in,sea%20in%202015%2C%20with%20almost%204%2C000%20feared%20drowned.

[6] https://fra.europa.eu/en