Matthew Tannam-Elgie takes a look at the media's coverage of migrants and internally displaced people
Public indifference can be a godsend or a tragedy, depending on the subject at hand. Some celebrities breathe a sigh of relief when their breakfast ceases to become an object of mass scrutiny. Some politicians are reduced to misery when their words fall on deaf ears. Some ordinary people are put at a gross disadvantage by the media’s growing silence, but they struggle on all the same.
Obviously, there is a cause for concern now that the migrant crisis is receiving less coverage in major news publications. A report on the crisis’ media coverage by Doctors Georgiu and Zaborowski of the London School of Economics and Political Science, highlights many problems arising from this. Both academics point out that politicians rely on the mainstream media to make informed decisions on current affairs. On top of that, topics discussed in everyday conversation roughly correspond to topics discussed in the media. When the migrant crisis loses coverage, this formula creates a vacuum of knowledge among the public in relation to the hardship faced by people fleeing war and famine.
Despite this, it is important to note that media coverage is not always helpful. As Georgiu and Zaborowski mention, contextual information was stripped away during the height of the crisis and a fleeting image of castaways dashing across a beach was all that remained in the minds of many newsreaders. After an initially sympathetic response, some media outlets began to identify migrants as hostile outsiders craving land and jobs. Female migrants also received very few opportunities to relate their stories, particularly in Hungary, although many male migrants also found that there was an information blackout at play.
Whether the pros of reporting outweigh the cons is a troubling question. After spouting numerous editorials denouncing refugees, tabloids such as The Sun underwent a tonal shift after the image of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s corpse made headlines in 2015. A similar thing happened with Bild, a German newspaper that began inserting pull-out maps of Berlin written in Arabic after Kurdi’s death. Without the circulation of Kurdi’s photograph, and a handful of other tragic images, it is difficult to say if such a tonal shift would have occurred within the same year across Europe.
On the other hand, state-controlled press outlets in Hungary found it difficult to feel empathy for dead children. In fact, anti-immigration slogans are still dominating motorways over there and editorials also remain an effective method of dissemination. In Western Europe, the aforementioned change in tone was brief, and a massive proportion of newspapers began to discourage the welcoming of refugees after the November Paris Attacks. Elements of the media continued to be an obstacle for refugee integration, with a lack of context surrounding their situation bolstering the false depictions of depravity. Scarcity of context remains an issue today, with the accompaniment of a lack of reporting to begin with.
While media coverage of the migrant crisis is not completely dead and gone, a trickle of reports have emerged following the drowning of more than one hundred people near Libya earlier this month, the rapid reports of the past few years have definitely slackened. In a perfect world, balanced reporting would still focus on refugees and accurately convey their desperation. However, compassion is clearly fickle; if a slew of empathy can be burned by a bout of fear after a couple of months, one would not be blamed for thinking it might be better for the press to refrain from criticism and allow more opportunities for refugees to raise their own voices.