Migrants and refugees in the news: Prevalence, representation and framing in international media coverage
The reporter leans over to the little child and asks, ‘Why are you such a good girl?’ The Syrian girl explains that she is thankful to be in the US and wants to make America better. Pictures from refugee camps follow and tell us her family’s flight story.
It is scenes like these that the media convey to us and that are framed in one or the other way. Sometimes the message is clear, sometimes it is only a subtle feeling of distant suffering that is promoted. We therefore ask: How are migrants and refugees portrayed in international news outlets? Which groups of migrants and refugees are prevalent in the media? And which narratives or frames prevail?
In order to answer these questions, we present an overview of the state of research on coverage in Europe as well as the United States. We will outline some prevailing findings and point out the importance of journalistic guidelines for reporting on migrants and refugees.
First of all, it is important to acknowledge that there is no one coherent or mainstream refugee or migration coverage. We find various shadings and tonalities over the whole spectrum of media. For the following results regarding Europe, we refer to two studies, one by Jakob Moritz Eberl and others, which is a literature review of the European media discourse on immigration, and a comparative analysis of coverage in 17 European countries by Susanne Fengler and Marcus Kreutler.
In general, migrants and refugees are under-represented in the media when compared to the share they hold in the respective population. Additionally, the media often report about migrants and refugees without giving them a voice, leading to a representation bias of their issues. This is particularly true for female migrants and refugees, who are even less represented than men. Further, they are often not the main actors in the reports, whereas, for example, politicians are often placed as the focus of an article. In addition, when migrants are represented, they are predominantly described as ‘hordes’ or ‘masses’ instead of as individuals, thus placing them in anonymity. Regarding topics addressed in the media, the studies assert that liberal or more leftist media emphasise basic needs and human wants of the people whereas media that tend more to the conservative side bring problems and protests to the fore. Media often report in a so-called ‘threat frame’, i.e. they talk about migrants in connection with increasing competition in the labour market (economic threat) or increasing insecurity and violence/crimes in society (security threat), or present them even as a danger to everyday life and habits (cultural threat). In general, news about migrants is often negative in overall tonality. This becomes clear when considering that coverage often centres on negative single events or conflicts. One of the problems here is that such coverage can lead to out-group hostility in the host country's audience.
Looking at the migration and refugee news content in the United States, one broader, long-term analysis of the framing of migrants and refugees during election years found that a conflict frame predominates, and that the frames have changed relatively little over the years. In terms of religious framing, Rita Nassar identified more mentions of Muslim compared to Christian refugees across three cable news outlets, with a significantly higher degree of framing them as a threat on the conservative Fox News Channel.
Words, visuals or story sourcing all factor into such framing. For instance, research from the Pew Research Center indicates that the terms ‘illegal immigrant’ and ‘illegal alien’ appear less frequently than in past decades, although they certainly have not vanished entirely (these labels are now generally considered dehumanising). Umberto Famulari examined visual framings of immigrants and found that most immigrants were depicted expressing negative emotions (e.g. crying or grieving). Another study indicates that government officials comprise most sources in reporting on migrants and refugees, followed by other journalists and representatives from law enforcement. Migrants or refugees were only heard from in a small minority of cases, if at all. Such research suggests that migrants and refugees in the US, similar to the coverage in Europe, are rarely equal participants in news coverage about themselves.
Media organisations and audiences do not consistently pay attention to migration and refugee issues. These two factors are intertwined, as news outlets cater to audience interests, and audiences in turn receive cues to story importance from coverage patterns of the news outlets. One longitudinal study highlights the fluctuation in coverage of immigration over time. For example, immigration stories broadcast on the CBS Evening News increased significantly during years in which immigration legislation prompted an emotional public reaction. Similarly, during the ‘long summer of migration’ in 2015 news coverage in Europe increased significantly. Such episodic news attention often neglects larger policy questions or migration contexts.
Despite existing differences and variations, studies on the media coverage of migrants and refugees in Europe as well as the US show some recurring frames and narratives. Although some journalists are already working to counter news routines that result in potential dehumanisation, invisibility and negativity, it is important to raise awareness about the consequences news reporting on migrants and refugees can have. Therefore, guidelines like Reporting on Migrants and Refugees should be implemented in media coverage processes more generally.
Kevin Grieves is an Associate Professor at the Department of Communication Studies at Whitworth University Spokane, Washington. His areas of expertise include video and audio (broadcast) journalism as well as international media and media history. He teaches video and audio journalism and media ethics, among other topics.
Liane Rothenberger is a Professor of Media and the Public with a specialisation in migration at the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt. Her areas of expertise include research on journalism, migration, crisis communication, and intercultural communication. She teaches at the School of Journalism as well as courses on flight and migration related to the media.
Melanie Schmitt, MA, is a Research Assistant in the School of Journalism at the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt. Her areas of expertise include migration, gender, sexuality, and media coverage of migration. She is currently conducting research on media coverage of female refugees on international news channels.