Brussels Sends Wakeup Call for Fair Portrayal of Migration

Published: 31 October

Region: Europe

migrants in the mediaThe death of more than 340 would-be migrants, escaping war and poverty, off the coast of the Southern Italian island of Lampedusa has awaken Europeans’ moral responsibility on the urgency of making an end to these tragedies.

That particular shipwreck was the umpteenth accident of that kind, but the high number of deaths put the issue in the headlines and on the desks of European and Italian legislators.

Hand in hand with the revision of policies, a change of attitude towards migration must also come from the media, which often frame it as a problem.

The conference “Migrants in the Media”, held in mid-October at the Berlaymont EU Commission building in Brussels, was intended as a wakeup call for media professionals to be more responsible when reporting on migration.

Together with other journalists, representatives of civil society, academics and policy makers, the Media Diversity Institute offered its contribution to the conference with a speech by the executive director Milica Pesic.

Opening the discussion, Cecilia Malmström, European Commissioner for Home Affairs, underlined the ease with which media point the finger at non-EU migrants when something bad happens in our countries. “When violent crimes against girls were committed by young boys in the suburbs of Stockholm, the explanation was soon found in migration,” said Ms Malmström. “But when similar crimes have been committed by blond, blue-eyed Swedes in Cyprus, there was no blame at all.”

The portrayal of migration, however, does not need to contain explicit criticism to convey a negative message. In a more subtle way, terminology can influence our perception as well. The label “illegal”, used to refer to un-documented migrants, has a huge impact on how society perceives migration, for example.

migrants and europe better togetherAfter the tragedy of Lampedusa, the Association Charter of Rome asked journalists not to publish the names of the victims. Their families in Eritrea might have been in danger if their identities had been revealed. “In Italy we are assisting to a radicalisation of how migration is reported,” said Anna Meli, president of Association Charter of Rome. “Security issues in politics, crime news, limited sources, and inappropriate language: these are the issues we need to address.”

If the solution to the Mediterranean cemetery seems to be the draft of a legal means to get migrants to the EU without embarking in perilous journeys of hope, a different logic is needed to improve media’s approach to migration.

“Civil society organisations have to understand how media work, if they want to have an impact on the press,” said Milica Pesic. “They have to produce good press releases to help journalists produce stories showing the positive contribution of migrants to the society.”

Media can foster better understanding between different groups and cultures, but journalists first need to be aware of their power to shape our ideas. Trainings, workshops, petitions can all help media offer an accurate portrayal of migrants.

Still, responsibility might not be only on journalists. Ricardo Gutierrez, from the European Federation of Journalists, believes that readership is to blame as much as the editors. “It’s important to change people’s mentality, not editors’,” he said. “Editors are interested in what makes the headline – that is conflicts, upheavals, and clashes.”

With this aim – of spurring the reflection on the contribution migrants make to European societies – a multimedia competition was also organised by the European Commission.

Students from art, graphic and communication schools all over the EU submitted more than 1,500 artworks. A European jury shortlisted 27 finalists and decided on three winners, one per category, plus the winner for the special Prix Nicolay Genevay.

  • Best Poster: Better together, Andrea Raia, Fondazione Accademia di Comunicazione, Italy.
  • Best Photo: Rue des Palmiers 80, Romy Cordivani, Institut des Hautes Etudes des Communications Sociales, Belgium.
  • Best Video: My family’s migrations, Nadja Haugas, Martin Siilak, Kuressaare Ametikool, Estonia.
  • Prix Nicolay Genevay: Break the Circle, Giulia Ricciardi, Andrea Dell’Osa, Italy.