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Five ways global media should shift its representation of people of colour on the move

By Woopi Takarasima | Issue 24

Photo by Johnny Cohen on Unsplash

Global mass media plays a vital role in shaping attitudes that contribute to safe and accepting environments for those on the move. From (im)migrants to refugees and asylum seekers, media narratives can build understanding and social cohesion or fuel prejudicial narratives and conflict. Racial stereotypes perpetuated in global media negatively impact people of colour's (POC) mobility and ability to integrate and exist peacefully. Addressing existing negative representation is crucial to shaping more positive experiences for those on the move.

From social media to radio to television and news outlets, global media informs public discourse on a wide range of key issues, influences public perceptions, and informs attitudes and behaviours. When people are not well-versed on specific issues that affect them and the world around them, they rely on the information they receive from the media to form opinions and make decisions. This includes media outlets they believe are credible and trustworthy and thought leaders who are knowledgeable and well-informed. Mass media is particularly influential in its ability to guide audiences' decision-making processes through the information they share (agenda-setting) and how it is framed. While the media does not force people to think a certain way, influential outlets can shape conversations on vital global issues through decisions on what information on which issue is published, what angle it is published from and how it aims to shape public discourse. 

When it comes to (im)migration, media representation of POC on the move continues to be mired by prejudice and negative stereotypes, which do not invoke empathy but rather fuel the general portrayal of POC as ill-intending and dangerous in their pursuit of mobility. From reporters going unchallenged in their glaringly differing coverage of the scale of urgency tied to crises involving POC to the dehumanisation of POC through narratives that frame the displacement of indigenous people as beneficial, global media is rife with narratives that reflect POC on the move as immune to the impacts of mass conflict and less deserving of safe and smooth channels of mobility. With the level of influence and power that global media key players have, they also should bear the responsibility of reporting on (im)migration issues in a manner that is humanising and true to the experiences of POC. 

Global media should aspire to coverage that humanises POC, language and images that tell accurate stories and do not perpetuate stereotypes, to non-sensationalised narratives of how and why POC move and most importantly, to the adequate representation of POC in the voices covering stories of mobility.

Humanising people of colour on the move through narratives that accurately reflect their experiences is critical to shaping positive reception in host countries. The framing of POC on the move as alien, 'other' and as threats rather than fellow human beings with families and hopes and dreams not only encourages aggressive behaviour towards POC (im)migrants, refugees and asylum seekers but also informs hostile policies that complicate integration. Instead, global media should aim to tell human-centred stories that promote empathy, tolerance and understanding. 

Language choice in the media impacts how POC (im)migrants are perceived in comparison to non-POC populations on the move. This is influenced by factors such as the choice of terms used to describe those on the move, such as the use of "migrants" vs "expats", the description of (im)migrants, refugees and asylum seekers as "illegal", "thieves", "terrorists" and "criminals". The repeated use of such language concerning POC on the move perpetuates negative stereotypes and assumptions that encourage harmful behaviour towards them. Instead, the media should be more critical of one-sided language that repeatedly frames POC on the move as dangerous and embrace language that tells more complete stories of the invaluable contributions of (im)migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in host countries.

Controlling images refer to images constructed to advance the interests of an often powerful group of people and subordinate those who are marginalised. The repeated use of images in global media that portray POC as helpless, suspicious and criminal fuels fear and the perception of POC (im)migrants as risks to host countries and incapable of contributing meaningfully to society. Instead, the media should strive beyond lazy stereotypical images and capture images that perhaps tell different stories from the ones often assumed to be true. 

People move for different reasons, and narratives surrounding why and how POC move are often portrayed in global media as being purely for economic reasons and to place heavy "burdens" on host countries whose own populations are already struggling. This can also be seen through the generalisation of (im)migrants to include refugees and asylum seekers and the failure to articulate the differing circumstances in which POC move. Media can better narrate stories of why POC move and counter inaccurate representations by investing more effort in research and conversations that seek understanding.

The representation of POC on the move in the voices that are writing and reporting on (im)migration is vital in telling accurate and humanising stories that do not perpetuate the same negative stereotypes the media has repeated over time. Journalists such as Motaz Azaiza, who has offered the world unfiltered alternative perspectives to global media reports on the harrowing atrocities inflicted on the people of Gaza for over 100 days, play an essential role in reframing narratives of victim blaming and dehumanisation for POC. 

Global media has the power to shape meaningful public discourse on mobility. Through humanising coverage of POC, non-divisive language and images, fair narratives of how and why POC move and the representation of POC in the voices covering stories of mobility, better experiences can be shaped for (im)migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.

Woopi Takarasima is a creative communications strategist who completed her studies at the African Leadership University with a B.A. (Hons) in Global Challenges, focusing on governance and education accessibility for refugee students. With a mission to use strategic communications, storytelling and advocacy to advance the impact of organisations initiating sustainable solutions to global challenges, she is currently exploring the role of media and strategic communications in reshaping attitudes towards forcibly displaced individuals for improved integration systems.


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