Behind the scenes of migration media reporting

May 9, 2018

221 journalists and media sources working on migration across the EU shared their everyday experiences and working practices with REMINDER researchers for a pan-European analysis of EU mobility and migration.

by Barbara Kuznik

The 2015 “refugee crisis” and the 2016 “Brexit” referendum, have placed migration and EU freedom of movement at the heart of media and political debates around the EU.

To address these issues, the REMINDER project, a major international analysis of migration in and around the EU, has brought together researchers from a wide range of disciplines to investigate the social and economic consequences of migration and how they are understood and debated in public.

As a part of this project, the European Journalism Centre — working with the University of Oxford and Budapest Business School — carried out analysis of media practices in nine EU member states. This work explores not only how journalists perceive the national narratives around migration that they themselves help to generate, but also what is hidden behind the scenes — the presumptions, processes, norms and pressures that they face on a daily basis in their work.

The analysis considers how the newsroom practices may differ from country to country, media-type to media-type and also what these different approaches mean for migration debates and democracy within the countries themselves, and also more broadly around Europe. This kind of comparative analysis of media practices is unusual since it builds on both — previous work on the migrants in European news-making practices, and on older analyses of the sociology of the newsroom.

Our research: Exploring media practices across Europe

Together with 22 local partners across the EU we interviewed 221 individuals involved in migration reporting in nine countries: Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and the UK.

This research resulted in two extensive regional reports that clearly showcase a number of institutional, practical, technical and commercial factors influencing the work of journalists and thereby the reporting of migration in media.

By taking a closer look at these factors, we were given an insight into the human side of migration reporting — the practical, everyday challenges that ultimately shape what we read in the news. Here are three of them.


1. Maintaining independence in a challenging work environment

“Toxic, old-fashioned, hierarchical, male-dominated culture where ‘psychopaths’ who work excessively long hours control what appears in paper. Also back bench have excessive power.” (UK)

Journalists are usually pretty positive about what they do for a living and generally describe their working conditions as good. However, there are some striking exceptions. Lay-offs, demanding managers, long working hours, and perceived external influence — these are factors that journalists across European newsrooms have to deal with while trying to keep independence and passion for their work.

For instance, in the EU15 report (REMINDER 11.1), the German and Swedish interviewees acknowledge that the political and business spheres exert some indirect influence on their newsrooms, which is understood as part of the media culture, but demonstrate a high degree of neutrality and moderation in their practices. In the UK, however, journalists claim a high level of personal autonomy but, paradoxically, defer to the political leaning of the outlets — and in some UK newsrooms, an aggressive working culture fosters a very specific set of narrative-building practices.

Our Central-Eastern report (REMINDER 11.2), on the other hand, notes a different gap between reporters’ professed standards and their real-world practices of journalism: the former promoting norms of neutrality, and the latter evincing followership, meaning that in theory they praise independence and neutrality, but in praxis they often consider and even follow external influences — particularly from the government.


2. A sense of mission despite the decline of public’s trust

“I want to change society. It is fun, interesting and important. I want to influence when things are wrong. I have the capacity to write and communicate, it is like a calling.” (Sweden)

Journalists in both the EU 15 sample and the new EU member states sample have idealistic views of their own profession. As the main motivation many mentioned passion, creativity, curiosity or telling the truth, educating people, having an influence on public opinion and thus on reality.

At the same time, almost all feel professionally valued among people whose opinion matters to them, but also perceive a general decline in the public’s trust in their work and the reputation of the news sector as whole.


3. The immigration debate is heated to different degrees across the EU

“I think it is interesting to see how the whole discourse in the media in general has changed when reporting about refugees, how at the beginning emphasis was on the ‘welcome culture’, and today examples of crime committed by people who were already supposed to be deported are making the headlines, and the topic is deportation not integration.” (Germany)

While in Germany and Sweden, Italy and Spain media mainly focus on non-EU migrants, in the UK, intra-EU migration makes the headlines. Romanian and Polish media — representing mainly sending countries of migrants — focus more on people leaving their countries. In public perception, there is, however, less understanding and empathy for people from elsewhere who migrate.

There is also the phenomenon that size doesn’t always matter to media. In some countries sampled with tiny populations of migrants the issue was still seen to be highly polarising and to significantly affect political debate and media reporting on migration.

“We prefer to use the term ‘refugee’ as the word ‘migrant’. In Hungarian, a ‘migrant’ is an enemy who will kill us. We could use the term ‘migrant,’ but it is a delicate one as it is widely used by pro-government propaganda.” (Hungary)

In Hungary and to some extent in Poland, the nature of political discourse has apparently hijacked the media with emotive language and reporting angles; journalists and influencers are taking sides by following the strong ideological cleavages dividing the society.


To read the full report on media practices in the EU-15 member states, click here.

To read the full reports on media practices in the EU-10 member states, click here.

This article is a result of a research on media practices, made in collaboration with Rob McNeil, Eric Karstens, Peter Bajomi-Lazar and Barbara Kuznik.


About the author

Barbara Kuznik is a Project Manager at the EJCnet working on the REMINDER project.

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