Stereotypes, politically biased reporting, and lack of coherent approach to migration exist in the media all over the continent, a new study on media reporting on migration in the Mediterranean reveals.
The unprecedented migrant flow in the last two years puts the media professionals in in situation in which they have never been before no matter if their country meets the phenomenon for the first time or have long history of migration.
The analysis How Does the Media on Both Sides of the Mediterranean Report on Migration exams the media attitudes towards migration in 17 countries, nine of which members of the EU. It was commissioned by the EUROMED Migration IV and funded by the Directorate General for Neighborhood and Enlargement Negotiations of the EU. The Ethical Journalism Network conducted the research in 2015 and 2016 throughout observations of 17 professional journalists.
In all 9 EU countries covered in the report, great examples of reporting have been uncovered. Many media outlets intentionally spent resources and talent to bring the complex picture to the audience. Others’ mode was inconsistent and influenced by politicians or by the tone of the social media, making room for ethical and professional lapses, stereotypes and prejudice.
In some European countries, like Germany, France or Sweden political leaders have welcomed the new arrivals and media coverage has ebbed and flowed with the political tide.
Many journalists as well as the public were moved by images of refugees arriving on the shores of Italy and Greece and the pictures of the ones who did not make it, lying dead in the Mediterranean. Emotions where strong all over Europe and media in Sweden for a long time reflected on the humanity of helping arriving refugees to find their way.
Similar trend in reporting was seen in Germany, Greece, in Spain and Malta but the terror attacks in Paris and Brussels 2015 and 2016 weakened the enthusiasm for migration and the tone of the media, even in the most welcoming countries, became more negative. Migrant issues began being examined in relation to security.
In France, the coverage was increasingly EU focused, and according to the report “the divisions among EU member states have become part of the national debate”. In other countries like Austria or Hungary, the story has been told in the context of national experience and presented largely as a crisis for national states, the report argues.
In Italy and in Austria journalists initiated professional codes or guidelines on migration reporting outlining the principles of their work on the topic. However, while press codes are helping to preserve professional standards in most of the countries, they are not respected or vowed everywhere by all media.
Here are some of the main findings in the nine European countries observed by the study:
AUSTRIA: Journalists’ handbook on migration helps maintain professional standards
The migration crisis in Austria was presented by the media largely as a crisis for the national states rather than for the international community. The generally neutral media reporting at the beginning changed over the year, giving way to increasingly negative coverage of refugees.
The reasons for the weak media performance are many: the preference given to commercial priorities over ethical and professional content; a professional journalistic culture that relies heavily on political elites as sources of information; and a journalistic bias towards sensationalism. In addition, the Austrian Press Council relies on voluntary compliance among its member and has limited power to sanction non-members who violate its code and principles. It is therefore commonly referred to as a “toothless tiger”.
To overcome negative reporting towards the end of 2016, the Council came up with a checklist for journalists covering migration, refugees, and asylum seekers. It provides a useful ethical framework for professionals.
The public broadcaster ORF produced a handbook on the role of quality journalism in migration issues in which a series of guest authors discussed reporting on migration including ethical standards, accuracy and balance, fight against fake news. ORF’s guidelines help maintain civil and nuanced reporting, without resorting to excessive bias or editorial control.
Although there are examples of editorial bias, neutral and objective reporting is far more prevalent than any other trend. Broadsheets meanwhile have made some efforts to incorporate migrants into actual reporting, with Die Presse actually ‘handing over’ output for a day every week, for a certain period, to a team of migrant journalists who worked in conjunction with editors for the newspaper, allowing for an approach which offered a more reflective view from the migrants’ perspective.
Here are some of the main findings of the report for the nine EU countries in the report:
FRANCE: Extreme politicisation shape migration reporting
The coverage in France is heavily influenced by politics. Finding the right formula has been difficult and ethical lapses have tainted the coverage of major moments in the migration story in France. The way most media approached migration was also the result of an ominous trend: the extreme politicisation of the migration issue in the context of the rise of xenophobic populist movements.
The rise of far-right media is benefitting from the economic crisis affecting legacy media. Many newsrooms have seen cut backs, with less investigative journalism; fewer specialised journalists able to master all the complexities of the migration story; and less money to send reporters to countries of origin to investigate the reasons behind the decision to embark on the perilous, and sometimes deadly migration journeys.
Migration has been hijacked by the far right to reinforce its anti-Islam agenda. Successive terror attacks in Paris, Brussels, and Nice added a dramatic dimension to what was already a challenging issue.
Public service media, in particular AFP, RFI, France Inter, Arte, and most of the “liberal” quality papers and magazines, have been lauded for their attempts to provide thorough and balanced coverage of this most complex and divisive of news stories.
“Fact-checking” has been more widely used and applied to hotly debated controversies.
Many media have also endeavoured to explain and use the correct language instead of mixing all the terms in a hodgepodge of (sometimes intentional) confusion. Le Monde for instance refers to “migrants in an irregular situation” to designate the so-called “illegals” and painstakingly underlines the differences between migrants and refugees.
GERMANY: Terrorism turns upside down media coverage of migration
Following the terror attacks in Paris and especially in Berlin, the euphoria towards migration in the media became more muted. The mass assault of women in Cologne on Ney Year’s Eve altered the coverage of refugees in the media.
Journalists’ initial enthusiasm and occasionally even advocacy for refugees have since been replaced by attempts to represent the complexity of migration. Media perspectives and approaches to the phenomenon have likewise become more global and nuanced.
Before the beginning of the refugee crisis migration and refugees were treated by the German media exclusively as problems for Europe’s external borders, while their domestic political import was ignored. That changed in 2015. The number of reports in the media rapidly increased. In that year alone more than 19,000 news reports were published. Between July and September 2015, during the height of the refugee crisis, some newspapers published up to seven articles per day.
A study by The Hamburg Media School concludes that 82% of German news items in 2015 cast the issue of refugees in a positive light. Twelve percent were purely informative; while only six percent viewed the country’s refugee policies as a problem. Following chancellor Merkel’s pronouncement, “We can do it”, even the tabloids and conservative media adopted welcoming attitude towards the newcomers.
Currently the media gives too little coverage to the positive side effects of migration, including both economic and social transformation processes.
Chapter on Germany: “We Can Do It”: A Test of Media Solidarity and Political Nerve over Migration
GREECE: Journalists deeply divided to “pro-national” and “pro-European”
In Greece, one of the most affected by the migrant crises EU members, media sways from one end to the other. At the beginning media coverage reflected the stereotypes of the past. Refugees are often presented indiscriminately as part of the migrant group, and negatively labelled as “illegal immigrants” and the arrival is called a “tsunami”.
At the pick of the crisis in the autumn of 2015 sharp change of approach arose in the Greek media largely because the drama of refugees arriving on Greek islands became a global story with thousands of journalists from the world’s media broadcasting shocking reports, pictures and video material on the arrival and rescue of this desperate people.
From March 2016, onwards there was a spectacular decrease in refugee flows, which brought new shift in the migration reporting and it became more negative and hostile with efforts to transfer those people to other areas inside the country.
The mixed messages coming from media on migration issues is also influenced by the fact that within Greek journalism there are two strong influences, one group fiercely nationalist and anxious to protect Greece, its culture, identity and history from external threats, and the other, non-nationalist tendency which sees itself as more pro-European and outward-looking.
During the crisis, the media have shown the capacity for professionalism and humanity, but they have also demonstrated how easy it is to retreat back into divisive and harmful coverage.
Chapter on Greece: Media’s Double Vision as Migrant Crisis Catches the World’s Imagination
HUNGARY: Migration caught up in the war of rhetoric
The total lack of a common approach, the chaos in terminology and the lack of experience created a situation, where within a year, the number of people in Hungary who considered migration a serious potential threat, or a potential source of terrorism and job insecurity, increased from 3% to 82%.
It may appear that reporting on migration itself was the major media story of the past two years, but that is not entirely true. In fact, the story became more about the government’s policy and its anti-migrant rhetoric.
The statistics on the choice of photographs used by the media is also telling: 31% pictured a government politician, 11% a member of police or border patrol, and 22% migrants.
Hungarian media were largely unprepared and when the first waves of migrants started crossing the borders it was too late for reporters to refer to any guidelines or conference papers.
After the influx of refugees stopped, coverage of migrants fell away to be replaced by a story dominated by the government’s policies towards migration and their disagreements with some of Hungary’s neighbours and the European Union.
Chapter on Hungary: How the Shock of the New Became a Polarising, Fearful and Toxic Story
ITALY: Migration coverage professional code adopted by journalists
With constant migrant flows through the Mediterranean, Italian media reports on migration on a daily basis.
Xenophobic statements are condemned by media which adopted a code for professional coverage and included migration reporting in the training courses.
The Code requires from journalists not to disclose the identity of asylum seekers, refugees, or victims of trafficking and migrants who choose to speak with them. Journalists pledge to use reliable and expert sources so that people get clear, comprehensive analyses of the issues.
In comparison with the previous years, there was a significant easing of the alarmist tone, down to 27%, and an increase in attention to the subjects of immigration and hospitality.
MALTA: Interest to migration coverage dims
Malta was the first EU country to confront the raising migrant wave back in 2005. Despite the challenging and uneven media landscape, migration proved to be a nexus issue that focused resources and empowered parts of the press, individual journalists and columnists, and civil society, to assert their independence from institutions and demand more accountability from the state.
The editorial line of virtually all news outlets rows against the tide of the xenophobic sentiments.
In this context, the highest priority for the Maltese media today is to move away from high-octane, sensational reporting of migration and towards more profound coverage of day-to-day interaction and integration of migrant and local populations. However, the budget cuts in the newsrooms are affecting the quality of work due to insufficient number of reporters to write on migration.
Chapter on Malta: The Challenge of Normalising the Media’s Migrant Crisis Machine
SPAIN: Lack of transparency and resources affects migrants reporting
Throughout 2015, as more asylum-seekers and migrants were becoming stranded in north Africa, Turkey and Greece, and drowning in the Mediterranean, the media increased their coverage of this phenomenon, reporting more on the hardships faced by people trying to reach Europe and focusing less on the stories of Sub Saharan Africans trying to enter Spain.
The definite turning point for the media outlets that had maintained an anti-migration position was the image of the dead body of Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi, on a Turkish beach. The images shocked many and provoked a change in the general media discourse. However, the honeymoon between the refugees and some of the Spanish media that previously used to support anti-migration positions started to crumble after the attacks in Paris.
2016 saw the novelty of the refugee story fading and the public was becoming less sensitive to the repetition of dramatic images. Media coverage of migration went partially back to focusing on those trying to cross the Spanish borders coming from Sub Saharan Africa, while keeping an eye on the Mediterranean route.
When it comes to challenges and obstacles found in their work on migration, journalists note the lack of transparency of the Spanish authorities, and, especially among freelancers but also some staffers, the lack of resources and support available to do their job properly. Migration is not high on the agenda on the editorial level and journalists find it difficult to publish their stories and to secure enough time for research and work on in-depth stories.
SWEDEN: The migration story is casualty of “post-truth”
Border restrictions, identity checks and issues flowing from the arriving refugees dominated media coverage in 2016.
The editorial tone went from welcoming to a more negative one in relation to migrants, as problems related to migration came in focus.
Media and journalists are under severe pressure. They are attacked by hate sites, and their credibility is undermined also by the emotional power of the migration story and the very fact that facts do not count as much as they did before on this issue. At a time when the profession of journalism is losing status, media haters are delivering threats on the net and are especially targeting female journalists. There has been proof that some of these journalists are being silenced by the hate. 4 out of 10 had experienced violations, pressure and harassment.
The migration story is a casualty of so-called post-truth discourse in which facts are less important than emotional responses.
Chapter on Sweden: Journalism on the Spot as Europe’s Asylum Leader Takes a Change of Direction
Study: How does the media on both sides of the Mediterranean report on Migration? (Summary)
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