Turning the camera around: who watches the watchers?
March 28, 2019
By Rob McNeil
Nothing breaks the spell of a movie quite like imagining the cameras around the actors and the mundane process of making the film — the lunch trolley at the back of the studio, the Portaloos on location. Movies rely on the willing suspension of our analytical capabilities, but in the consumption of news media, we need to do the opposite.
When we accept the social and political narratives that we are presented with through mass media without thinking about the process of their construction, we risk allowing our view of the real world to be shaped by a storyteller, without considering how and why it is happening.
Putting a spotlight on migration reporting
The Media Practices component of the REMINDER project aims, in effect, to turn the camera around on the news production process and reveal how reporting about migration into and within Europe happens. Specifically, it attempts to understand why different stories, narratives and themes about migration have taken hold in different countries, and what led the people creating these stories to operate so differently.
Our analysis looks at how and why media practices differ across different locations and media types, and then examines how these different practices impact the way that the reporters consider the issue of migration when they report on it.
Different perceptions, different approaches
Will this reporter, who thinks that they are perceived to do an extremely important job, for example…
“I enjoy great respect. People listen to what I say and want to hear my opinion” (newspaper journalist, Sweden).
…present information about migration in the same way as this journalist, who sees their role as a source of disdain from others:
“Even my own friends hate the fact that I work here and think I’m a disgrace, but I’ve just learned to ignore it and I just get on with my work.” (newspaper journalist, UK)
The answer, in this particular case, seems to be “no”. Here are the same two journalists describing significantly different approaches to dealing with the issue of migration:
First, the Swedish newspaper journalist describes how they deal with the issue of non-EU migrants who are not refugees/asylum seekers:
“Globalisation is a positive force. We rarely write something negative. Labour force migration is positive”
Then, the UK newspaper reporter describes how they would expect to use the term ‘migrant’, in general:
“To be brutally honest, it’s more likely to be people who are a burden on society than those who are a benefit to society, because there is more newsworthiness in a foreign criminal or a teenager who’s being looked after by the council than, say, a brilliant academic who’s come here to further their career… so from our perspective it’s more newsworthy if people are abusing the system or exploiting loopholes or abusing the hospitality being extended to them by British society… because that triggers a reaction in readers.”
These two reporters represent something important. Both cover migration and both work for newspapers, but they exhibit radically different perceptions of both the place they occupy in society, and the subject they cover. Our analysis worked to try to unpick what factors would shape that.
Not a mechanical process
The team interviewed more than 200 journalists and key media sources (such as government migration spokespeople, NGOs and think tanks) in 9 countries around the EU and looked at both their personal reasons for undertaking their work in the ways that they did it, and the institutional, social and political norms that shaped their outputs.
At the most basic level, our analysis showed that migration reporting is fundamentally human: it is not a mechanical process in which information is inserted at one end and a story pops out at the other.
Instead, ideas, information and anecdotes pass through a reporter whose biases and perceptions of the world are affected by a suite of national, social, institutional and political factors. Some of them are immediate and obvious, like their imagined version of what their proprietor might want to hear, others more abstract or distant — such as a sense that they have a responsibility to help people, or to tell hard truths as part of their job. These can impact everything from the things they think actually constitute a valid story, to the language they will choose to articulate that story.
“We prefer to use the term ‘refugee’, as the word ‘migrant’ might sound correct in English, but in Hungarian a ‘migrant’ is an enemy who will kill us. Therefore, we call them ‘refugees’. […] We could use the term ‘migrant’, but it is a delicate one as it is widely used by pro-government propaganda” (Hungarian broadcast journalist)
The national context is also fundamental. Specific national history, experiences of migration and even norms relating to whether journalists feel they are expected to make an emotional connection with the reader or focus more on technical reporting are also fundamental.
Perhaps most critical in some countries — particularly states with a recent history of autocratic government — is the degree to which governments would try to intervene in and influence reporting. But even in several states where the ideal of press freedom was highly prized, governmental influence was often a significant factor — though often felt in more nebulous and indirect ways.
“There is an awareness of the owner’s circle of friends — he knows lots of influential people — and [awareness of] his enemies.” (UK, newspaper journalist)
We see that journalists are both affected by and affect their national policy discourse around migration. Journalists exist in roles where they are expected, for commercial, social and political reasons, to report on migration in particular ways. Of course, they consider the factual question of “what has happened?”, but they also operate in a world shaped by other variables: what do audiences expect from this sort of media? How has the story been framed by other reporters? What stories does the editor want to see? What will sell? What will get me into trouble?
The role of cultural practices within media organisations
The outcome of this, in total, is that national media traditions emerge from and are reinforced by cultural practices within media organisations. These shape reporting on migration fundamentally, and can have profound impacts on policy outcomes.
Would Germany have accepted a million asylum seekers if the culture within media organisations was less focussed on moderation and social justice? Would the Brexit referendum result have been the same if the culture within UK media — particularly within newspapers — was more moderate and less focused on winning political victories? Would Hungary have been able to implement radical anti-migration policies without a “patron and client” model of government relations with media?
These hypothetical questions are, of course, unanswerable. But, by turning the camera around, we hope that our analysis introduces new scrutiny of media practices, one that can in turn help lead to better understanding of media and its role within policymaking in the future.
Rob McNeil is a researcher and Head of Media and Communications for the REMINDER project, and Deputy Director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford.