The media plays a powerful role in public discourse and opinion. Their contribution is stronger than ever with social media’s rising ascendancy. We rely on the media to inform us about the world we live in, from politics to celebrities, the trivial to the history defining. It is not only the public who look to the media for information. Politicians, business leaders and NGOs rely on media coverage for immediate updates. In situations with changing geo-political conditions, media articles often define their decision making. It thus matters how the media portrays refugees and asylum seekers. Their reports contribute to our understanding of immigration. This establishes the tone of public debate which defines the reception and integration of refugees in their new countries.
Media coverage is not something intangible or without consequence. Journalists and media organisations have the power to define what we know, but also how we act in the public sphere. We cannot ignore this. Whether reinforcing or challenging stereotypes, the media's contribution to discourses on immigration require investigation.
Reinforcing Stereotypes and Xenophobia
The media's choice of rhetoric is significant. Their dissemination of language has significant impact on public discourse at large. Terms once thrown about by journalists, such as 'hordes', 'swarms' and 'illegal', are now synonymous with immigration. This vocabulary fuels hostility. It also feeds escalating public anxiety towards the 'other'.
Some perpetrators in the 2015-17 terrorist attacks had a refugee background. Many media outlets used this fact to further existing xenophobic tropes. The media thus contributed to the overt link between refugees and terrorism. A blatant example is the Sun's article titled 'Killer Loophole' (June 2017). It investigates the London Bridge attacker's asylum status. By doing so, subtle links are made throughout between asylum seekers and terrorism. The reporter also details how supposedly 'thousands of non-EU nationals' are using Ireland to enter Britain - a denoted 'scam'. With media coverage like this, it is unsurprising that hostility is at the forefront of public discourse.
Articles making the same connections between refugees and terrorism are prevalent throughout Europe. This trend has risen following the Paris attack and the Cologne sexual assaults in 2015. The Polish magazine wSieci used the headline: 'The Islamic Rape of Europe'. The cover depicts a white woman draped in the EU flag being groped by a dark-skinned man. Racist images, such as this, are not only a feature of the right-wing media. More liberal outlets, such as the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, also feed this discourse. Their cover illustrates the white silhouette of a woman's legs. The space between is taken up by a black arm and hand. Our media outlets are reinforcing racism and xenophobia buried deep in European culture.
Overdrawn links between refugees and terrorism perpetuates the alienation and 'othering' of refugees. Fear only leads to mistrust and misunderstanding. Narratives fuelled by negative stereotypes hinder refugee integration and acceptance in society. Anti-immigration media coverage thus has tangible implications for our societies.
Over the past decade, public attitudes have shifted in favour of further restrictions to immigration. Across Europe, the far right and nationalist movements made electoral gains. These groups rose in popularity through promising to crack down on refugees. UKIP's rise and Brexit itself is a glaring testament to this.
Refugees as ‘Victims’: More Harmful than Constructive?
Overly sympathetic media portrayals can create one dimensional images of refugees as ‘victims’. This does not diminish the importance of empathetic journalism. However, media coverage focused solely on stories of suffering and vulnerability can lead to dehumanisation. Refugees and asylum seekers are then defined by their current status. Media coverage selects which stories are 'worthy' of empathy - children, women and the elderly. Those not fitting this agenda do not receive the same empathetic treatment.
Nevertheless, sympathetic media coverage can force change. The photo of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi's lifeless body carried by a Turkish police officer struck Europe. Some cite it as the ‘awakening’ of the European people’s conscience. This photo featured on the front cover of newspapers across Europe. Examples of headlines included: 'A picture to bring the world to silence' (la Repubblica) and 'An image that shakes the awareness of Europe' (El País). Albeit briefly, this image had the power to shift public discourse during the height of the 2015 'Refugee Crisis' - a testament to the media's power.
Images and stories play a vital role in evoking empathy towards refugees and asylum seekers. This is crucial to create a climate of understanding and tolerance. However, it is important that this is not the only lens through which we view refugees. They are full and complex humans with jobs, education, histories and families. We should not reduce refugees to merely ‘victims’.
The Silencing of the Refugee Voice
The refugee voice is often excluded or silenced in media coverage. Almost 80% of news articles do not identify an individual refugee or migrant (Refugees Reporting, 2017). Many articles focus on national legislation; yet, this is reflective of another problem. Journalists rely heavily on politicians and public officials as their sources. This privileges their narrative. In turn, the 'Refugee Crisis' becomes a question of policy rather than people. Invisibility characterises voices of refugees, marginalising those at the narrative's centre.
Independent investigations conclude that 'voices of refugees are heard less often than those of politicians and experts' (Finnish Institute, 2016). The Council of Europe (2015) similarly described refugees as 'silent actors and victims'. Our media is thus failing to represent the refugee voice. Of the 21% of news articles that mention a refugee, only 40% quoted them directly (Refugees Reporting, 2017). This trend of indirect representation is problematic. Direct quotes are indeed the most accurate ways to represent people. So, indirect quotations can easily perpetuate misunderstanding, leading to intolerance.
This is not only a failure for refugees. It is also a journalistic failure. Journalists and media organisations should strive to report balanced and accurate stories. Stories that imbue knowledge and not greater ambiguity.
Challenging Stereotypes: Balanced and Objective Reporting
We have established that the media is powerful. It can reinforce stereotypes but can also provide one of the greatest challenges to them. Journalists working to humanise and individualise refugees' and asylum seekers' stories can confront intolerance and misunderstanding.
Sue Clayton’s short film, titled Hamedullah: The Road Home, is a potent example. It documents the journey of a child refugee. Following his 18th birthday, Hamedullah was deported from his home in Kent back to Afghanistan, where he had fled as a child. In response to this film, support for Hamedullah mobilised from communities in Kent - an area with many UKIP supporters. Hamedullah's story had resonance with people. He is portrayed as an individual with the same human needs and emotions as the audience. Clayton thus opposed existing stereotypes about refugees and immigration. But she also challenged how the mainstream media often represent refugees.
Balanced, fair and objective news articles can have the same effect. Headlined ‘Syrian women cook up a way to survive’, this 2017 Times article is illustrative of this. It describes how three Syrian women refugees have set up their own catering service. This stands contrary to popular stereotypes about refugees relying on Britain’s welfare system. Throughout the article, each woman is treated as an individual and directly quoted. It encourages the reader to view these female refugees as everyday mothers, wives and family members - not so dissimilar from themselves. Stories like this facilitate understanding.
Media coverage of refugees is an ongoing and shifting situation. It is subject to the ever-changing socio-political dynamics of our modern world. Following the recent Taliban take-over of Afghanistan, the media’s ability to privilege certain refugee narratives is increasingly stark. In the 9th September 2021 online edition of the Times, two very different portrayals of refugees and asylum seekers are depicted. There was outrage about ‘Afghans in hotel ‘prisons’ even after quarantine ends’. In this article, a former Afghan civil servant is named and directly quoted. This is juxtaposed to the headline story: ‘French anger at Priti Patel’s plan to block Channel migrants from UK waters’. Language used included: ‘migrant boats’, ‘police’, ‘border control’, ‘illegal’ and ‘violent’. Not one asylum seeker is named or quoted.
The way in which different refugees and asylum seekers are presented in the media will continually fluctuate. However, we can rely on the media’s enduring influence on public attitudes. It will continue to determine who we sympathise with and those we alienate. Indeed, Refugees Reporting concludes ‘the crisis is not one of numbers or capacity. The crisis is one of political will and understanding’.
Balanced and objective journalism humanises the refugee experience. It sheds light on the people affected rather than purely statistics or government policy. The media is in a position to frame discourses of understanding and tolerance. Steps have already been made towards this but there is much more to be done.