Disinformation in covering migration — the need for better journalism

With a record 258 million people moving to a new country in 2017, the complexities of migration make it a difficult story to tell without misinforming the public. From 2015, the “migrant crisis” has dominated UK and European news and political agendas, with little indication that the narrative has progressed beyond the Calais Jungle. How can we, as fact-checkers and media producers informing the masses, do a better job of covering migration? Firstly, we need to know what the problems are.

Jun 24 · 8 min read

“Fear”, “sorrow and shock”

At this year’s International Journalism Festival (IJF) in Perugia, migration was a hot topic amongst journalists and media analysts.

Freelance journalist Donata Columbro says:

‘“In general, the stories of refugees coming to Europe have been told in two ways: one that “tries to instil fear in people with unverified and unfactual reporting”, and the other aimed at “shaking the public awake through sorrow and shock”, This is how easy it is for misinformation to spread.” ‘ — quoted from journalism.co.uk

This photograph of dead Syrian child migrant Aylan Kurdi took the world by storm in September 2015.

More recently, two migrants — a father and daughter from El Salvador — were found drowned in their attempt to reach the US border.

I personally feel uncomfortable re-sharing these images.

But in order to make my point, here they are. Take note of how they make you feel and the way these images inform your understanding of migration: something to simultaneously fear and pity.

Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi was found washed up on shore in September 2015 | Source: Flickr
The same shocking images mirrored in the US migrant narrative this month — drowned migrant father & daughter found washed up on shore | Source: CNN

“A single tragic event”

Watch: HuffPost Reports UK |Calais: life after the jungle

Jacopo Ottaviani, another speaker at this year’s IJF says journalists report on “a single tragic event, be that a shipwreck or something else in Europe on the borders and people think that all migration is about is blood and tragedies”.

“Over 2 years since the demolition of the ‘Jungle’ camp in Calais there are still over 3000 refugees dispersed and living around Northern France and Belgium. Deteriorating conditions have lead refugees to try increasingly risky methods of reaching the UK.”

#Hoax — the spread of misinformation on social media is far too easy

In 2018, a hoax image supposedly of “thousands of migrants leaving Libya to go to Italy” went viral. As you can see in the tweet below, this photo was actually taken in Venice in 1989 at a Pink Floyd concert.

Jacopo Ottaviani is Chief Data Officer at Code For Africa. He stresses the importance of data literacy in reporting migration.


Disinformation in covering migration at IJF19

Panel speakers at the IJF in March cited the following as causes for the spread of disinformation about migration and migrants:

  • Lack of data literacy in journalists and readers
  • Politicians using migration as a “wedge issue” for extreme policies
  • Widespread confusion about terminology such as “migrant”, “asylum seeker”, “refugee” and the differences between them.
From the left: Joan Donovan, Joyce Barnathan, Jacopo Ottaviani & Abubakar Ibrahim who says “journalists need to be more empathetic and understand the situation more”. | Photo: IJF/Alessandro Migliardi

The facts don’t automatically follow the figures

By “data literacy”, Jacopo Ottaviani means more than simply backing your facts by throwing in some numbers.

Knowing how to correctly interpret data and make it accessible and understandable for your audience is something quite different, and basic data literacy is becoming increasingly expected of all journalists.

Bad versus good data literacy in reporting migration

Lots of figures in this 2015 article from the BBC—

  • “34,000 people have crossed from Turkey into Bulgaria and Greece by land,
  • 942,400 new asylum claims in the EU Jan-Nov 2015…”

How many of you skipped most of that?

Although not wrong, the numbers aren’t necessarily establishing any facts or meaning for the reader.

“Sometimes this isn’t on purpose, but it’s misrepresented either because of ignorance or because of malicious intent of the journalist who wants to create an emotional impact on the readers.” — Jacopo Ottaviani, IJF19

Whilst readers of the BBC article try to get their head around 972,500 arrivals and what this actually means, they could instead be looking at a map with percentages worked out and data effectively made “user friendly”…

Borderline: A journey across the borders of Europe

This interactive data visualisation on Internazionale is the creation of Ottaviani and two of his colleagues.

Users can click on different areas of the map and learn about migratory patterns in Europe.

Source: https://www.internazionale.it/webdoc/borderline-en/map.html

It’s about debunking and de-escalating the story with better data literacy…

The public are underserved by this form of advanced data literacy in the mainstream media.

This is partly because lots of journalists who work in broadcast are intimidated by data, yet this it is such an important part of the story to get right. Time is another issue for journalists. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither is a well-researched and beautifully presented data story.

Not trying to be punny here, but when you see the story being told this way, migration into Europe is like a pin drop in the ocean... ;)

“According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), over 1.8 million migrants have reached Europe by sea between 2008 and September 2016. If they were all still in Europe, these persons would be 0.36 percent of the European population. If, paradoxically, we imagine that all inhabitants of Syria and Eritrea should move to Europe, they would be approximately 5 percent of the population.”’ Source: The arrivals in numbers.


Migration as a political “wedge issue” to inform American and UK politics

Joan Donovan is director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project (TSCRP) at the Harvard Kennedy’s Shorenstein Center . She spoke at the IJF about her research into reporting migration and right-wing US politics.

“What is the evidence basis of what is really happening at the border? One of the things I look out for in my research is — ‘Am I seeing the same clip over and over again of people clinging to a fence waiting for something?’ — The answer is yes. We don’t see the crisis daily… These images we see of waves and waves of people rattling fences and climbing border walls is just not true.” — Joan Donovan

Watch: The moment Donald Trump made that speech about Mexican migrants…

“When Mexicans cross the border, they do not bring their best people…” — Donald Trump accuses Mexican migrants of bringing drugs, crime and rapists.

“Time and time again,” says Donovan, “immigration is used as a wedge issue to polarise people”.

She continues,

“…right-wing populist groups in the US use the ‘immigration issue’ as a wedge issue for extremist policies [and] without using the words ‘white supremacy’ or ‘white nationalism’, you can still talk about immigration and achieve the same result.” — IJF 2019


Read: Abandoned by the U.S. Media, the Migrant Caravan Rolls Into Mexico City

“For towns and cities in Mexico, the issue of how to manage Central American migrants didn’t disappear after the midterm election.”

Martha Pskowski — CityLab

Image featured in article // Photo credit: Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

Migration is equally high up on the political agenda in the UK too

Speaking to ITV News in 2015, David Cameron who was the UK Prime Minister at the time, was criticised for using the term “swarm” to describe the influx of migrants upon Europe’s shores.

“a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean” — David Cameron.

Although no extremist policies were adopted by the tory leader, Cameron’s word choice was said to be de-humanising.

The issue with generalisations like this being made by political figures, much like media organisations, is it only reinforces the misinformation circulating the public.

A “security crisis” — incoming migrants could be jihadists…

Going a step further, former UKIP leader Nigel Farage raises concerns over terrorism with the influx of migrants in Europe.

And at it’s most extreme…

A hostile environment

The UK’s immigration system has adopted an increasingly hostile environment in recent years.

This is no doubt partly down to misinformation on migration from the media and politicians who continue to feed off the fear of the public and peg their policies on fixing the “problem”.

Boris Johnson promises Australian-style points system for immigration

“Boris Johnson has pledged to introduce an Australian-style points-based system for migrants to restore “public faith” in immigration control.”

The Telegraph

How could a UK points-based immigration system work?

“Boris Johnson, one of the candidates to replace Theresa May as Conservative Party leader and prime minister, has been talking about his plans for immigration.

BBC Reality Check

Boris Johnson is one of the lead candidates for the Tory leadership after Teresa May steps down as PM | Photo:Creative Commons/nottheviewsofmyemployer

What can be done?

“…even in debunking stories [journalists] tend to bring a lot of attention to it and those efforts of debunking can be turned back around and turned into political fodder…

“Being embedded is an important aspect to journalists telling these stories and it does crack through eventually, [though] they aren’t always able to override public opinion.” — Joan Donovan, IJF19


“ ‘Human interest reporting’ balanced with ‘broader analytic reporting’ ”

Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN) | Migration Reporting: Guidelines and Assessment

Channel 4 Dispatches: Is Britain really full?

This is a good example of investigating the wider picture of migration and looks at migration in its many forms — internal as well as external migration — rather than focussing on “a single tragic event” as Ottaviani puts it.

“In this episode from 2017, Michael Buerk investigates just how full Britain really is and looks at the impact of internal migration across the country.” — Channel 4 Dispatches

And a recent documentary by BBC Two attempts to look at the immigration system from multiple perspectives.

BBC Two: Who should get to stay in the UK?

“Last year, nearly 700,000 people from outside the EU applied to live in the UK — but not everyone was successful. With our immigration system coming under increasing scrutiny, this series follows the stories of those desperately trying to stay in the UK and the lawyers tasked with helping them. While some immigrants bring with them the prospect of investment and job creation, others come for asylum and sanctuary. All are determined to make Britain their home — but it will be up to their lawyers to convince the Home Office to let them stay.” — BBC Two


I believe in knowledge sharing and collaboration…

If you are reporter/academic or NGO and have something to add to this discussion, comment below or get in touch: contactlaurasanders@gmail.com.

Laura Sanders

Written by

Freelance multimedia journalist, mojo & radio presenter / datajournalism dabbler / 🌏 travel enthusiast & canine lover 🐶// 📩contactlaurasanders@gmail.com

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