When most news consumers think of immigration or refugees, they think of specific geographies — the U.S.-Mexico border or Western Europe receiving people from Africa or the Middle East. But the movement of people is global, and the issues across geographical regions are more similar than different.
Opinion pieces about security and immigration published in a newspaper in Nairobi could be reproduced almost word for word in Washington; Sicilian advocates’ concerns over Frontex are almost identical to what Texas activists say about the Border Patrol; and when businessmen in Greece talk about Islamization and Sharia law, they echo concerns of Southern Arizona ranchers.
Migration has once again jumped to the top of the news agenda on both sides of the Atlantic — fueled by the Trump administration in the United States and by the arrival of more than a million people seeking refuge in Europe — but is the media giving this issue the right coverage?
I have focused on the topic of diversity and migration for the last 10 years and every election cycle, as politicians trot out immigration to motivate voters, we hear about the importance of reporting on this issue. That enthusiasm is almost always short-lived, though, and we find ourselves back where we began. Ideally, immigration should be treated to constant coverage that captures the nuance in the issues, much like education or health care. Instead, the media in general seems to cover it like a natural disaster.
One could argue that coverage in the last decade or so has been hampered across the board, as newsrooms in North America and Europe face shrinking resources while expectations to be faster and do more with less continue to rise. But the use of stereotypes, and the focus on crime and terrorism in immigration coverage by some media outlets, is hardly novel.
While in Germany the media is largely credited with the overwhelmingly positive reaction seen in the beginning of the so-called refugee crisis, earlier (and subsequent) coverage has been problematic. In the United States, coverage on immigration, according to researchers, has contributed to polarization on the issue.
If anything is different in this new wave of coverage, it is the climate in which news is being received. Now, on top of immigration being a hot-button and highly-politicized issue, we are living in an era when everything some people don’t like gets called “fake news” and where the term “lügenpresse,” the lying press, has come back in use. The distrust of the mainstream media is high and growing — especially in the United States. Among President Donald Trump’s supporters, nearly nine in 10 respondents to a new University of Virginia Center for Politics poll said that media criticism of the president reinforces that he is on the right track. The same percentage agreed with Trump’s assertion that the press is “the enemy of the American people.” In Germany, a poll conducted by the Allensbach Institute found 40 percent of respondents described the reporting on refugees as “one-sided.”
Immigration touches on issues of identity, human rights, justice and fairness — all against a backdrop of real and perceived economic impact. And based on the current picture researchers paint of how we in the media are doing, there’s plenty of room for improvement.
The stories we cover or don’t cover, the language we use, the voices we choose to represent, play a major role in shaping the public policy debate on immigration.