18 December 2015
An international report on media coverage of migration and the refugee crisis says journalists often fail to tell the full story and "routinely fall into propaganda traps laid by politicians".
The 100-page report, Moving Stories (PDF), is published by the Ethical Journalism Network (EJN) and reviews media coverage of migration in the European Union and in 14 countries across the globe. It has been released just ahead of the United Nations-sponsored International Migrants Day on Friday 18 December.
“Around the world media coverage is often politically led with journalists following an agenda dominated by loose language and talk of invasion and swarms,” said Aidan White, EJN Director. “But at other moments the story is laced with humanity, empathy and a focus on the suffering of those involved.”
In this interview, Aidan White, director of the Ethical Journalism Network, tells us more about the Moving Stories report and what it describes as "journalism's biggest test in 2015".
How did the idea of this report come about? Who initiated it and why?
We started this project in early 2015 just as the migration and refugee issue was emerging as the biggest story of the year. As the number of tragedies in the Mediterranean grew and columns of refugees began to stream across European borders, the EJN and our members quickly realised that media needed to rise to this challenge. Some journalists and media have risen to this challenge, while others are struggling. We hope that this report will help journalists and media do a better job of covering migration in 2016 as this is a story that is not going away anytime soon.
Your report tackles the media coverage of global migration and the refugee crisis and is published to mark International Migrants Day on 18 December 2015. How would you describe the way news organisations reacted and reported on the migration flows in Europe and beyond for this past year?
European media have struggled to provide balanced coverage of the migration flows in Europe with political leaders responding with a mix of bigotry and panic. The Moving Stories report looks at how sensationalism has been allowed to dominate migration reporting in Bulgaria, as well as a more mixed picture in Italy, where hate-speech is counterbalanced by the Charter of Rome, an ethical charter for media professionals covering migration. The UK media have often told the story without a sense of scale or balance as illustrated by the extensive reporting of the relatively small refugee camp in Calais.
Your report says "journalists often fail to tell the full story and routinely fall into propaganda traps laid by politicians". What are those traps and why do you think journalists fall into them? Do you think that resolving these issues is only a matter of training journalists on how to better report on migration flows?
The issue of hate-speech is less a problem for media, but for the political community. When Donald Trump starts campaigning on the basis of ever-more outrageous and hate-filled statements as an electoral ploy, media are trapped by their obligation to report what he says. They might work hard to put such speech in context, but it often is so devoid of facts that it defies fact-checking and verification.
Media-savvy leaders like him can stir up ill-feeling and grab headlines without taking any responsibility for the consequences of what they say. Similarly, East European leaders who want to bar Muslims and only allow refugees access if they are Christians are stirring up resentments and hatred, but media have to report what they say and try to limit the potential damage by putting it in context.
I don't think media are more hateful, but there is a rise in political hate-speech. Some unscrupulous politicians are taking advantage of widespread public uncertainty, to promote scaremongering and sometimes they get away with it because in many places journalism does not provide the informed context for reporting that will challenge their often unsubstantiated and provocative rhetoric.
Part of the problem is that the fabric of journalism has been weakened because of structural change within the media industry. Now more political leaders and powerful interest groups are exercising undue pressure on media — particularly in countries of East Europe and the Balkans, where much of the hatred is found.
Access to reliable facts and data on the migration flows and refugee crisis hitting Europe has been a great hurdle for media organisations over the past year. The situation moving on so rapidly, it has been difficult to report on it accurately. Many say that news organisations took a while to get their facts and numbers right. But should they take all the blame or did other institutions fail to provide better resources and information?
I'm not sure that access to information was a major problem for media organisations. It's important to note that:
a) as the report states media in Europe missed opportunities to alert people in Europe to an imminent refugee crisis. Journalists failed to use their access to available information from EU sources that would have revealed the scale of the problem building on their borders months before it finally broke.
b) Media have had access to sources that were able to constantly update them — the UN Refugee Agency and the International Organisation of Migration all through 2015 were pumping out up-to-date figures including details of casualties; numbers on the march, etc. At the same time there are major NGOs and numerous agencies dealing with humanitarian issues that were able to keep media briefed.
The question is why so much of this information was not picked up or used to strengthen coverage. If media had identified the importance of the story and given it appropriate priority journalists with the skills to access available sources and to understand the issues involved would have been able to cover it effectively. The problem is that most media allowed the story to be driven by political forces, and that opened the door to a lot of political manipulation, hate speech and distortion that could and should have been properly countered by careful, sensitive reporting in context.
The report gathers case studies on how news organisations covered migration flows and the refugee crisis in 14 countries such as Bulgaria, the UK, India, Mexico and the US. What common points did you discover between those nations? Did some countries do a better job than others?
The report finds many similarities across the 14 countries featured. The issues of undue political pressure, lack of media competence to understand and report on the complexities and migration, and a worrying rise in intolerance are widespread. These problems come up everywhere illustrating that media everywhere face an enormous challenges.
If there is any advice journalists could take away from your report, what would it be?
Media organisations need to provide training to their staff so they are better equipped to deal with the challenge of political hate-speech. The report also suggests that we need a more focused approach to migration in newsrooms with more specialists to cover the story; and a more robust system for ensuring they tell the full story. And finally we need to include more voices from migrant communities.
You can download the full report here (PDF).
Photograph at the top of this article by UNHCR / F. Noy