‘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.

How victims figure in the minds of media

On 27 August 2015, five days before the death of the boy in Turkey, 71 people thought to be migrants were found dead in a lorry abandoned on an Austrian motorway. The incident was major news. But there was one problem: there were no images that told the story very well – only pictures of police officers.

In this case, “words had to do the talking”, as Fiona Shields, photo editor at the Guardian, put it. But journalists at Die Neue Kronen Zeitung, the largest Austrian newspaper, disagreed. They obtained, and published, an uncensored photo of the dead bodies. The Presserat condemned the newspaper and ruled that the use of the photo breached ethical codes. The newspaper, said the council, had failed to respect the human dignity of the deceased.

This incident highlights two important aspects of the way media treat the death of migrants. The first is the lack of self-awareness inside media on the different practices employed to report deaths and also how they might differ in the coverage of fatalities involving children, adults, older people, people of different social status, whether or not they are nationals of the reporting country or unknown migrants from other countries. At the heart of this issue is whether or not dead people have rights in the minds of reporters and editors. The issues are certainly covered in the plethora of guidelines, codes and standards that journalists are encouraged to follow, but there is not enough available research to indicate how effective these are in ensuring professionalism and consistency in the way journalists report migration deaths.

The second issue raised by the Austrian incident is the way proximity influences how media cover fatalities. When national media are covering the deaths of persons from and in far-off lands, they tend to be less concerned about issues of identity and privacy. Pictures of dead bodies are routinely used by some media when the victims are not likely to be known to their immediate audience. This often leads to contradictory behaviour.

In Norway, for instance, media were scrupulous in their coverage of the victims of a terrorist attack in July 2011, which claimed 77 lives, most of them young Norwegians. No pictures were published of any of the victims of the attack. And when another European publisher – the magazine Paris Match – published a long-lens photo of some of the bodies, it caused outrage and led to a temporary ban inside Norway. Yet the following year, the news editor of the country’s leading private broadcaster, TV 2, told editors at the Global Editors’ Network Summit in Paris that Norwegian media had no qualms about publishing pictures of dead bodies from war zones or humanitarian crises in distant lands.

The Austrian press council ruling suggests that even when the victims are likely to be unknown to the media audience, the media should respect the right of people alive or dead to be treated with dignity. This case also highlights how media must also ensure that distance between their reporting and the country of origin of dead or missing migrants is not allowed to weaken the journalist’s obligation to show humanity to all, even in cases where the identity of victims is unknown.


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