The Visible & Invisible Borders of Migration: Journalism Challenged

*This blog post is part of the Jean Monnet Chair of European Media Governance and Integration series

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By Giovanna Dell’Orto*

The unprecedented flow of migrants and refugees into the European Union in the mid-2010s has generated a devastating humanitarian crisis, but also, particularly in the context of terror attacks, polarization and pivotal elections, revealed a profound challenge for political and social integration into liberal democracies. In my research, I have been arguing that the news media help shape not only public opinion but also policy permissibility parameters by turning foreign realities into understandable concepts that then become taken for granted in policy processes. Given that, the study of how international and domestic media have been covering the “refugee crisis” matters far beyond words — although word choice too matters critically, and many political and social battles have been fought over definitions of “undocumented” or “illegal” or even basically migrant versus refugee.

Much of the focus on migration coverage has historically been on borders — the literal meeting point of the sometimes opposing rights to state sovereignty and individual freedom of movement, and one that resonates in the public imaginary with walls, fences, and all too often devastating loss of life. In the last few decades, with security concerns mounting, old cooperation schemes crumbling and new ones tentatively instituted between receiving and sending countries, and the strengthened, often dominating presence of organized crime in the form of smuggling and trafficking cartels, the deadliness of border crossings has become an unmissable facet of migration. To many around the world, the refugee crisis is Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body washed ashore on a Turkish beach.

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Photo: Nicolas Vigier

But there is a second, invisible “border” in the migration story as well, the one that migrants cross (or not) as they settle in a new society with often vastly different customs, mores, and values. It’s the border in the break room, the classroom, the grocery market, even the kitchen as age and gender faultlines open within migrant families. And here the story is not only about migrants but about the inevitable transformation of societies receiving massive influxes of migration, particularly where the phenomenon is relatively new (as in Greece or Italy, which until the 1990s had a history of emigration, not immigration). As political philosopher David Miller wrote recently, the critical dilemma of immigration is not only about human rights and economics, but about membership in a political community –this is a question as critical as what happens along a wall or around inflatable dinghies in the Mediterranean, and one that should not be addressed only by extreme populists, but that remains particularly challenging for journalists to tackle.

Journalists have been trying to cover both “borders” and have faced a multitude of institutional, sociopolitical, technological and professional constraints on reporting, in a new era for journalism when most people get their news from social media, and trust in the news media is at historical lows.

In my last book, Reporting at the Southern Borderstogether with co-editor Vicki Birchfield and a fantastic group of scholars and journalists from five countries, we set out to investigate what are the professional, institutional and technology-driven constraints on journalistic reporting practices on South-to-North migratory flows into the United States, France and Italy. The most surprising finding was the overall similarities in migration journalism across the continents, despite differences both in migratory flows, integration rates, and even genres of journalism, with U.S. media tending to excel in the “human interest” angle to the detriment of more structural contextualization. Journalism tends to focus on what is visible, and that is borders, walls, boats, and certain ethnicities, even though not numerically really representative. In Europe, the majority of migrants are still from other EU countries, despite last year’s extraordinary surge of refugees and asylum seekers, numbering now well over a million in Germany alone.

Given how fleeting audience attention is, though, many journalists in the book discussed not only how to refocus on the more “invisible” issues, but how they can “trick” the audience into looking at any of them – not only with striking narratives and images focused on relatable individuals, but by who they talk to. To attract readers to the story of migration in Arizona, French and Italian correspondents, for example, referenced sheriffs and other tropes of the Wild West.

Unfortunately, the humanitarian focus on the often heartbreaking stories of individuals or the inflammatory yet empty rhetoric of politicians does not always help advance understanding of the complexity of migratory phenomena or the byzantine policy response.

No wonder that according to the 2014 Transatlantic Trends report, majorities both in the US (71%) and Europe (60%) disapprove of their government’s handling of migration; pluralities (around 40%) on both sides believed that policies toward refugees should be stricter, too.

Scholars of migration journalism have argued that migration is hard to cover because it’s a story that oozes, rather than breaks – so the breaking news of a smuggling ship sinking is easier to do than the massive sociopolitical, demographic and economic challenges of the entire phenomenon. In 2016, against the backdrop of astounding death tolls in the Mediterranean, home-grown terrorism in the US and in Europe (where a spring poll showed that in most countries more than half of those surveyed believed the influx of migrants increases the likelihood of terrorism), and the return with a vengeance of populism on both sides, the migration story seems to be breaking all around.

So I am back on the ground — in Greece — to talk with journalists, NGOs and migrants themselves … more next week!

*Giovanna Dell’Orto is an Associate Professor at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Minnesota, USA. She is a panellist at the 17th January 2017 University of Vienna @mediagovlab event: “Europe at what price? Answers beyond silos and post-truths” – held to launch the Jean Monnet chair programme of @mediagovlab head Prof. Katharine Sarikakis.

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