Media Reporting of Migrants and Migration: A Global Perspective

Published 30 November 2017 / By William Allen, Rob McNeil

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Today, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) published its 2018 World Migration Report, which brings together a range of data and analysis to provide a global view of current migration trends and issues. As part of that report, we have contributed a chapter on ‘Media Reporting of Migrants and Migration’.

By examining what researchers and practitioners know about media and migration—as well as highlighting cutting-edge studies—we aimed to provide a wide-angled and international view of this timely issue. Specifically, we address several key aspects of how media and migration are related: how media portray migrants and migration; how this coverage relates to the wider world, including what people think; and what factors may contribute to these patterns.

Understanding Media Coverage about Migration

First, what do media around the world say about migrants and migration? Although a great deal of coverage tends to be negative, we found some exceptions (such as New Zealand) where national media have slowly produced more positive content, even if the overall balance still trends towards negative.

Furthermore, many studies have documented the specific techniques used to portray migrants. Sometimes, media link asylum-seekers and immigrants with insecurity, sociocultural threat, or economic impacts, or dehumanise migrants through metaphors of insects and natural disasters. Other times, they may use humanitarian language that emphasises migrants’ vulnerability and status as victims. It’s also important to highlight how migrants themselves produce and share content alongside conventional media, as seen in studies about immigrant journalism.

How Media Coverage Relates to the Public, Policy, and Migrants

Second, how do media relate to what members of the public, policymakers, or migrants themselves think and do? Media are potential sources and channels of information about migration. But there are often gaps between actual migration flows and what people perceive—either in terms of how many migrants there are, or where and why they are arriving.

Addressing these gaps matters because people who perceive there to be larger migrant populations that come from different (and less privileged) groups tend to have more negative views on immigration. Although media can widen these gaps by emphasising some aspects of migration over others, other studies also show that providing real data can sometimes correct misperceptions.

Meanwhile, media also relate to policymakers and legislative decisions by setting their agendas. But, research shows that this depends on the issue at hand, the type of media, and the extent to which a party ‘owns’ the topic and sees more coverage as politically advantageous. Moreover, these effects may differ at other levels of government, such as the city level.

Media also can influence migrants in several ways. On the one hand, media serves as a source of information about current affairs that may—either directly or indirectly—impact on individuals’ decisions to move. Even after moving, migrants often use media to both learn about their new location and keep in touch with their national or ethnic identities.

On the other hand, media act in more diffuse, subtle ways by shaping migrants’ aspirations, expectations, and perceptions of belonging. Images about what a ‘good life’ looks like, for example, can influence people to seek out different opportunities abroad.

Factors that Contribute to Media Coverage about Migration

The third aspect we considered was identifying why coverage about migration might look the ways it does. In commercial media environments, there are economic motivations to produce content that will attract readers. So, reinforcing (or at least not actively going against) an audience’s pre-existing views may partly explain why coverage tends to be negative.

But there are other possible reasons, too. Social and cultural dimensions in journalism also shape the kinds of content produced. Implicit or day-to-day practices and norms—such as selecting newsworthy items on short timelines, or keeping to an editorial line— may contribute to decisions about what gets published in the first place. Within these wider institutional contexts, journalists’ own backgrounds can shape the kinds of stories and language they regularly draw upon.

Implications and Future Research

While writing this chapter for the 2018 World Migration Report, we realised there were several important limitations that partly stemmed from what scholars have studied, notably an emphasis on traditional media in Western or developed country contexts, and less work on the ways that migrants themselves use newer digital media.

So, we propose four key areas for future research and action:

  • The role of media in transit and sending country contexts, particularly migrants’ own preferences and practices
  • How different types of messages and emotions contribute to public perceptions and policy action or communication interventions
  • How different media systems and environments may (or may not) give rise to different kinds of content around migration issues
  • How to promote greater and more meaningful public debate about the appropriate roles for media in different contexts, taking into account the presence of highly differentiated experiences around the world

Altogether, the 2018 World Migration Report sets down an important marker for migration scholars, practitioners, and policymakers on a range of topics. Our contribution on media and migration, we hope, provides a valuable resource about the state of the subject for anyone working in this area.

Access the whole 2018 World Migration Report here.

About the Authors

William Allen is a Research Officer at COMPAS and The Migration Observatory, working on attitudes to migration, as well as the use of evidence and data visualisations in political and scientific communication.

Scott Blinder is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, a COMPAS Senior Researcher, and former Director of The Migration Observatory. His research focuses on public opinion and media coverage on immigration and other issues relating to political identities.

Rob McNeil is Head of Media and Communications at The Migration Observatory, and a Researcher at COMPAS whose work examines the social environments in which news about migration is produced and shared.