Amid economic turmoil, journalists are frequent accomplices to rising xenophobia directed at Europe’s immigrants.
The role of the media in the worsening image of migrants in Europe was debated in Budapest at a conference titled “Promoting Migrant Integration through Media and Intercultural Dialogue”.
The conference, organised in May by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the Hungarian Presidency of the European Union, was aimed at helping media representatives provide fair and balanced coverage of migration issues.
With far-right, anti-immigration parties gaining strength throghout Europe, journalists have been signalled as frequent accomplices to rising xenophobia.
“European public opinion is being pressed with the threat of a migration wave. Both politicians and journalists should recognise their mistakes,” Czech sociologist Ivan Gabal told participants.
Mircea Toma, president of Active Watch, a Romanian media monitory agency, mirrored a similar view: “Journalists often don’t look at events with an eagle eye, but rather with the same perspective as anyone in the population,” he said.
The increasing commercialisation of the mainstream media and the profit imperatives it imposes seem to be at the core of the lowering of quality in media coverage of migration related issues.
“We certainly need some transparency rules to see where the funding is coming from and what are the political groups involved,” Aidan White, former general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists told participants.
“There is a crisis within the media, a financial crisis that is reducing the quality of training, of journalism, and ultimately journalists’ capacity to tell complex stories.”
Demands of the industry
There is a harsh, competitive environment that is leading editors and journalists to violate codes of ethics. “If anti-immigration writing allows the media to stay in business, the media will go for it,” Milica Pesic, executive director of the UK-based Media Diversity Institute warned.
Still, blame should not be placed exclusively on the media, White said: “This is not just a problem of the media. Issues related to economic migration are complex, but lack of courage is leading to an unscrupulous form of politics. We are facing a general problem of societal anxiety about our healthcare, our education and our labour market.”
An anxiety which, participants agreed, has peaked with the Middle East revolts in general, and the Libyan crisis in particular.
Since the beginning of what some have termed “the Arab Spring”, “no more than 30,000 people have arrived in Europe, but the reaction has been surprising”, Kinga Goncz, vice-chair of the European Parliament’s LIBE Committee told the conference.
“This is not a large number – but from reading the media you would think it’s a huge number. There’s a paranoid fear that these people will overburden Europe, while actually some of the economies that are better recovering from the crisis, like Germany’s, require even more migrants,” she said.
The latest crisis has also underlined the ethnocentrism of European media. “Eight hundred thousand people, overwhelmingly migrant workers, have fled from Libya and gone mostly to Tunisia, Egypt, Niger, Chad and Algeria. This indeed represents a migration crisis, but it is not affecting Europe yet,” said Jean- Philippe Chauzy, head of the IOM’s Media and Communication Unit.
The message was, however, not that media should portray migrants positively; instead speakers stressed the need to ensure balanced and accurate reporting.
“Journalists have prejudices of their own,” Pesic said. “It’s very important to know the facts, figures and sources, but even when they have them, some papers will go out of their way to mislead.”
Concerns over lack of journalistic ethics were shared by more than one state official: “Journalists often have an agenda, in the ministries we often provide them with correct, written information and they still write it wrong or put things out of context,” said Paulina Babis from the Polish Ministry of Labour and Social Policy.
Yet some questioned why journalists would even begin by approaching officials and not give voice to those who remain mostly voiceless: “Migrants and their organisations should speak for migrants, not government officials,” White said.
“Journalists will go to the easiest available source, they don’t have time for much else. What we need is an alternative sources handbook that should be made available to them,” he suggested.
Journalists, civic actors and international and state officials agreed the solution lies in increased cooperation between the media and other societal actors.
“Migration is a complex and changing issue and journalists have less and less time to develop expertise. They don’t have the resources to cover an issue which requires a comprehensive understanding of the context,” Chauzy said.
“The present context is one of economic downturn and growing unemployment, which is leading to polarisation. That’s why the media should get all the information it needs: biased coverage is less acceptable in an era when access to information is a lot easier than at any other time in history,” he said.