Disinformation in covering migration — the need for better journalism

Read this post and more on medium.com/@laurathejourno

With a record 258 million people moving to a new country in 2017, the complexities of migration make it a difficult story to tell without misinforming the public. From 2015, the “migrant crisis” has dominated UK and European news and political agendas, with little indication that the narrative has progressed beyond the Calais Jungle. How can we, as fact-checkers and media producers informing the masses, do a better job of covering migration? Firstly, we need to know the problems with it.

At this year’s International Journalism Festival(IJF) in Perugia, disinformation in covering migration was a hot topic amongst journalists and media analysts.

Freelance journalist Donata Columbro identifies the two dominant narratives in news coverage of migration:

‘“In general, the stories of refugees coming to Europe have been told in two ways: one that “tries to instil fear in people with unverified and unfactual reporting”, and the other aimed at “shaking the public awake through sorrow and shock”, This is how easy it is for misinformation to spread.” ‘ 

quoted from journalism.co.uk

“A single tragic event”

Watch: HuffPost Reports UK | Calais: life after the jungle

This is an example of a news story that dwells on what Jacopo Ottaviani cites as “a single tragic event, be that a shipwreck or something else in Europe on the borders and people think that all migration is about is blood and tragedies”.

“Shaking the public awake through sorrow and shock”

Aylan Kurdi is the famous Syrian child refugee, who washed up on the shore dead.

The death of Aylan Kurdi “shaking the public awake through sorrow and shock” | Source: Flickr

#Hoax — the spread of misinformation on social media is far too easy

In 2018, a hoax image supposedly of “thousands of migrants leaving Libya to go to Italy” went viral. As you can see in the tweet below, this photo was actually taken in Venice in 1989 at a Pink Floyd concert.


Jacopo Ottaviani is Chief Data Officer at Code For Africa. He spoke at this year’s IJF about the importance of data literacy in reporting migration.

Disinformation in covering migration at IJF19

Panel speakers at the IJF in March cited the following as causes for the spread of disinformation about migration and migrants:

  • Lack of data literacy in journalists and readers
  • Politicians using migration as a “wedge issue” for extreme policies
  • Widespread confusion about terminology such as “migrant”, “asylum seeker”, “refugee” and the differences between them.
From the left: Joan Donnovan, Joyce Barnathan, Jacopo Ottaviani & Abubakar Ibrahim who says “journalists need to be more empathetic and understand the situation more”. | Photo: IJF/Alessandro Migliardi

The facts don’t automatically follow the figures

By “data literacy”, data journalist Jacopo Ottaviani means more than simply backing your facts by throwing in some numbers.

Knowing how to correctly interpret data and make it accessible and understandable for your audience is something quite different, and basic data literacy is becoming increasingly expected of all journalists.

Bad versus good data literacy in reporting migration

In 2015, the BBCpublished Million migrants enter Europe in 2015…

Million migrants enter Europe in 2015
The number of migrants and refugees crossing into Europe by land and sea this year illegally has passed one million…www.bbc.co.uk

Lots of figures in this article—

  • “ 972,500 people have arrived by sea,
  • 34,000 people have crossed from Turkey into Bulgaria and Greece by land,
  • 942,400 new asylum claims in the EU Jan-Nov 2015…”

Although not wrong, the numbers aren’t necessarily establishingany facts or meaning for the reader.

“Sometimes this isn’t on purpose, but it’s misrepresented either because of ignorance or because of malicious intent of the journalist who wants to create an emotional impact on the readers.” 

Jacopo Ottaviani, IJF19

Whilst readers of the BBC article try to get their head around 972,500 arrivals by sea and what this actually means, they could instead be looking at a map with percentages worked out and data effectively made “user friendly”…

Borderline: A journey across the borders of Europe

This interactive data visualisation on Internazionale is the creation of Ottaviani and two of his colleagues.

Users can click on different areas of the map and learn about migratory patterns in Europe.

Users can click on different areas of the map and learn about migratory patterns in Europe. This does not look half as scary as the “swarm” of migrants David Cameron referred to back in 2015. Source: https://www.internazionale.it/webdoc/borderline-en/map.html

It’s about debunking and de-escalating the story with better data literacy…

The public are underserved by this form of advanced data literacy in the mainstream media.

This is partly because lots of journalists who work in broadcast are intimidated by data, yet this it is such an important part of the story to get right. Time is another issue for journalists. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither is a well-researched and beautifully presented data story.

Not trying to be punny here, but when you see the story being told this way, migration into Europe is like a pin drop in the ocean… 😉

“According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), over 1.8 million migrants have reached Europe by sea between 2008 and September 2016. If they were all still in Europe, these persons would be 0.36 percent of the European population. If, paradoxically, we imagine that all inhabitants of Syria and Eritrea should move to Europe, they would be approximately 5 percent of the population.”’ Source: The arrivals in numbers.

Migration as a political “wedge issue” to inform American and UK politics

Joan Donnovanis director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project (TSCRP) at the Harvard Kennedy’s Shorenstein Center . She spoke at the IJF about her research into reporting migration and right-wing US politics.

“What is the evidence basis of what is really happening at the border? One of the things I look out for in my research is — ‘Am I seeing the same clip over and over again of people clinging to a fence waiting for something?’ — The answer is yes. We don’t see the crisis daily… These images we see of waves and waves of people rattling fences and climbing border walls is just not true.” — Joan Donnovan

Watch: The moment Donald Trump made that speech about Mexican migrants…

“When Mexicans cross the border, they do not bring their best people…” — Donald Trump accuses Mexican migrants of bringing drugs, crime and rapists.

“Time and time again,” says Donnovan, “immigration is used as a wedge issue to polarise people”.

She continues,

“…right-wing populist groups in the US use the ‘immigration issue’ as a wedge issue for extremist policies [and] without using the words ‘white supremacy’ or ‘white nationalism’, you can still talk about immigration and achieve the same result.” 

IJF 2019

Migration is equally high up on the political agenda in the UK too

Speaking to ITV News in 2015, David Cameron who was the UK Prime Minister at the time, was criticised for using the term “swarm” to describe the influx of migrants upon Europe’s shores.

“a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean” 

David Cameron, 2015

Although no extremist policies were adopted by the tory leader, Cameron’s word choice was said to be de-humanising.

The issue with generalisations like this being made by political figures, much like media organisations, is it only reinforces the misinformation circulating the public.

Cameron: ‘Swarm’ of migrants crossing sea
Prime Minister David Cameron has come under criticism for his description of migrants trying to reach Britain as a…www.bbc.co.u

A “security crisis” — incoming migrants could be jihadists…

Nigel Farage, 2015

Going a step further, former UKIP leader Nigel Farage raises concerns over terrorism with the influx of migrants in Europe

.UKIP on migrant ‘security crisis’
UKIP leader Nigel Farage has said the situation in Calais was becoming a ‘’growing crisis’’ in terms of the numbers of…www.bbc.co.uk

And at it’s most extreme…

Again, this shows just how easy it is for misinformation to spread and fuel extremism.

A hostile environment

The UK’s immigration system has adopted an increasingly hostile environment in recent years. This is no doubt partly down to misinformation on migration from the media and politicians who continue to feed off the fear of the public and peg their policies on fixing the “problem”.

What can be done?

“…even in debunking stories [journalists] tend to bring a lot of attention to it and those efforts of debunking can be turned back around and turned into political fodder…

“Being embedded is an important aspect to journalists telling these stories and it does crack through eventually, [though] they aren’t always able to override public opinion.” — Joan Donnovan, IJF19

“ ‘Human interest reporting’ balanced with ‘broader analytic reporting’ ”

— Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN) | Migration Reporting: Guidelines and Assessment

Channel 4 Dispatches: Is Britain really full?

This is a good example of investigating the wider picture of migration and looks at migration in its many forms — internal as well as external migration — rather than focussing on “a single tragic event” as Ottaviani puts it.

“In this episode from 2017, Michael Buerk investigates just how full Britain really is and looks at the impact of internal migration across the country.” — Channel 4 Dispatches

Watch it here: Dispatches: Dispatches – On Demand
Channel 4’s award-winning investigative current affairs programmewww.channel4.com

And a recent documentary by BBC Two attempts to look at the immigration system from multiple perspectives.

BBC Two: Who should get to stay in the UK?

Watch it here: Who Should Get to Stay in the UK? – Series 1: Episode 1
The stories of immigrants desperate to stay in the UK and the lawyers helping them.www.bbc.co.uk

“Last year, nearly 700,000 people from outside the EU applied to live in the UK — but not everyone was successful. With our immigration system coming under increasing scrutiny, this series follows the stories of those desperately trying to stay in the UK and the lawyers tasked with helping them. While some immigrants bring with them the prospect of investment and job creation, others come for asylum and sanctuary. All are determined to make Britain their home — but it will be up to their lawyers to convince the Home Office to let them stay.” 


Are you a reporter/academic or NGO and have something to add to this discussion?

Comment below or get in touch: contactlaurasanders@gmail.com.

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Freelance multimedia journalist, mojo & radio presenter / datajournalism dabbler / 🌏 travel enthusiast & canine lover 🐶// 📩contactlaurasanders@gmail.com

Published by Laura Sanders

Freelance multimedia journalist, presenter & producer |

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