Migration and refugees have been in the news a lot in the last two years; a deeper understanding of migration and refugees, unfortunately, has not. From misleading language to distorted facts to the abuse of the very term "breaking news" (when in fact emigration, particularly into Europe, tends to remain constant) -- coverage of refugees and migrationis all too often predictably poor.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. The recent wave of migrants has sparked fear across Europe. A recent Pew survey of ten nations finds that half of those polled believe refugees increase the likelihood of terrorism and gobble up jobs and social benefits. In fact, Greeks, Poles, Indians, Hungarians and the French say a loss of jobs and social benefits to incoming refugees is their greatest worry. But should it be? The truth is Europe's population is aging fast. One UN report estimated that Germany alone needs more than 300,000 migrants a year just to maintain its population and, even then, the ratio of working age people to the elderly would fall. But there is fear, huge fear, and there are a ton of myths, one of which is that the movement of large numbers of people is breaking news. Actually, it’s constant but it plays as breaking news. So to help you cope, we offer yet another Breaking News Consumer's Handbook: Migration Edition.
Heaven Crawley is Chair in International Migration at Coventry University. She’s found that stories about migrants invariably are framed in one of two ways. The first, not surprisingly, is as a threat.
HEAVEN CRAWLEY: The threat to security through the frame of terrorism or crime, the threat to economic assets, in particular, employment, to social housing and health, but also a sort of cultural threat, if you like, what it means to be British, often not defined or fairly ill-defined.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And then you've got the counter narrative, and that's the victim frame.
HEAVEN CRAWLEY: Yeah, I mean, the victim frame is less prevalent than the villain frame.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Three-quarters of the stories fell roughly into the villain frame and the last quarter in the victim one.
HEAVEN CRAWLEY: We’re talking about the beginning of 2015 culminates in a way with the story of Aylan Kurdi, the small Syrian child who was washed up on a Turkish beach.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
HEAVEN CRAWLEY: So what we saw was the reporting of death in the Mediterranean Sea, of boats that had sunk but also of individuals who’d had very traumatic or difficult journeys. But if this kind of story of the refugee as a victim is one that’s dominated by their needs and the fact that they are lacking, then it, again, loses sight of the fact that many of them have come from very skilled backgrounds – they may be engineers, they may be doctors – they’ve brought all sorts of capabilities, in terms of contributing economically and socially, that’s lost in this very singular narrative of the victim.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One thing that’s bothered us is that stories of immigration tend to be reported as breaking news, and we know that this is an ongoing and context-rich situation. You know, back in 2014, we saw heaps of headlines about children pouring over the border, and there’s no way that came out of nowhere.
HEAVEN CRAWLEY: No. Migration is a feature of our society for what - I've been working in this area for 25 years but, of course, actually, much, much longer. What’s interesting about the current time is the way in which these stories about migration are so tightly tied to numbers, as if numbers were all that mattered.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I mean, if you've got 1,000 and then suddenly it's 100,000, I mean, that has implications.
HEAVEN CRAWLEY: Sure, but I can tell you that even economic migrants are much, much larger in number than refugees, but because they’ve traveled legally and because they don’t get washed up on beaches, they don’t hit the headlines. It’s not about the numbers. It’s about the nature of the movement. And for refugees, in particular, there is no way to legally enter a country. There is no way of claiming asylum, until you get to that place. And it’s that illegal form of movement that’s really capturing the public's attention.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Could you talk to me about the lexicon of reporting these stories, particular words that news consumers should regard as red flags?
HEAVEN CRAWLEY: We see words like “flood” and “swarm.” Even our ex-Prime Minister David Cameron used the word “swarm” to discuss a few hundred refugees and migrants who were trying to find a way out of France to the UK. So this word “swarm” or “flood” gives the impression of something that’s much larger than the reality.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And what about pictures?
HEAVEN CRAWLEY: Well, the images are highly gendered but they’re also highly racialized. Particularly in the context of boat movements from, for example, Libya to Italy, we see large numbers of young black, African usually, men. The flows are actually much more complicated than that. There are probably 20, even more now, percent of children. And there are also similar sorts of numbers of women. But those images are very much framed as young single men because they are feeding into the villain frame, essentially, as a potential threat. Of course, there are people who are arriving in that way, but you, you lose the individual stories of those people and what their contribution and their capability potentially is.
The other image, and we saw it very much in relation to the Eastern Mediterranean route from Turkey to Greece, is, of course, the image of, of the victim, the body washing up on the shore, women, children huddled in the cold and the damp. It’s a very particular image. And, again, it is not the whole picture of that particular flow.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The frame that’s used least and the one that I assume you would most prefer is the contributor frame, that is, that people can come in and really make a contribution to the nation that they land in. But even this frame you see two principal problems with.
HEAVEN CRAWLEY: One is that it tends to be very abstract. It tends to be framed in terms of, for example, GDP, which, for most people, doesn't really mean anything to them when they’re thinking about what's going on in their immediate neighborhood, And the other is that when the media does talk about the potential contribution of migrants, what’s interesting, and including in our piece of research looking at the media representation of these issues, is that they no longer get defined as a migrant. They just become an entrepreneur, a businessperson.
Their identity as a migrant almost sort of slips away. It becomes a non-issue. The point is that it really demonstrates the strength of the victim or villain frame. If the migrant isn’t a victim or a villain, then we don't know what to do with them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Heaven, thank you very much.
HEAVEN CRAWLEY: You’re very welcome.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Heaven Crawley is Chair in International Migration at Coventry University.