Six recommendations to promote a balanced migration narrative

A few weeks ago I talked to The MARSA project about recommendations to promote balanced migration narratives. This interview draws on the finding and research carried out by EUROMED Migration V, a programme funded by the EU and implemented by the ICMPD. It supports EU Member States and the European Neighbourhood Instrument Southern Partner Countries (ENI SPCs) in establishing a comprehensive, constructive and operational dialogue and co-operation framework on migration, with a particular focus on reinforcing instruments and capacities to develop and implement evidence-based migration policies.

The issue of migration has over the past years taken centre stage in European, North African and Middle Eastern media. Conflicts in Syria and Libya coupled with political and economic instability in several countries in the Mediterranean, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East have resulted in large scale movement of migrants and refugees throughout the Euro-Mediterranean region.

We have all seen the stark images depicted in the media of migrants and asylum seekers packed aboard vessels of questionable seaworthiness, risking life and limb to make the treacherous journey across the sea in search of a safe haven and a better future.

As well, we have witnessed a range of different approaches to covering migration. Numerous ICMPD reports have drawn to the fact that the migration narrative in the region is characterized by a strong polarization. Such a divided and confrontational public discourse is often devoid of a wider understanding of migration.

In the age of disinformation, it is even harder to achieve a balanced public discussion that is functional rather than antagonistic to effective governance, that reconciles evidence with the need for emotional resonance, and that achieves a greater understanding of migration. An important step needed is for governments, institutions, news sources, civil society and big digital platforms to work together to promote authoritative sources. Otherwise misleading narratives take root and develop a life of their own. That was true before the COVID-19 pandemic and so-called “infodemic”. It is even truer, now as certain categories of migrants, such as irregular migrants in the Mediterranean, are particularly affected by COVID-19-related disinformation and misinformation since they are already subject to overly simplistic media framing.

I believe that a fair and balanced view of migration in the media is an essential stepping stone towards developing a more nuanced understanding of migration among the general public as well as contributing to drafting and implementing migration policies that work.

So what would be the practical recommendations to foster a balanced migration narrative? Among the many let me focus on six.

Reinforcing positive examples and approaches

To promote existing best practice examples and to encourage use of available information and data.

  1. In particular, efforts could be made to examine whether national initiatives, such as the Charter of Rome in Italy and the Greek Charter of Idomeni, can be applied in other countries throughout the region;
  2. Promote exchange of media best practices from countries where the migration crisis is most acute, such as Lebanon and Jordan and other Southern Mediterranean countries;
  3. Encourage journalists, media support groups and media organisations to develop regional and sub-regional initiatives to improve migration reporting;

Training

To develop comprehensive training programmes for media and journalists to encourage ethical reporting with a focus on:

  • Use of correct terminology
  • Understanding international law and legal rights of migrants, refugees and asylum seek­ers
  • Avoiding hate-speech and political bias in reporting of migration concerns
  • Providing balanced coverage from the standpoints of receiving host communi­ties
  • Developing diversity in sources of information.

Media Action

To develop support programmes for media organisa­tions and to strengthen their capacity to report on migration issues. In particular, by:

  • The appointment of specialist migration correspon­dents in all newsrooms
  • Promoting national media partnerships for coverage of migration
  • Providing special information resources for dis­placed people from war-zones to help them keep in touch with their home communities
  • Most importantly, encouraging newsrooms to move beyond coverage of the migration “crisis” and move into coverage of issues of integration that will assist normalisation of migrants in the public sphere.

Supporting policy makers

To encourage policymakers, community and civil society leaders to play a more active role in creating space dialogue about migration. In particular,

  • Policymakers should examine how they can fund and support better journalism without compromis­ing the editorial independence of the media;
  • All officials and agencies providing information to the media should check facts and verify information thereby assisting the media to prepare balanced reports.

Building Dialogues: Understanding Migration and a Culture of Civil Discourse

To promote the sharing of information and experience between countries and regional dialogue frameworks by:

  • Organising national workshops with journalists on the challenges of covering migration, to share experiences and identify possible joint programmes;
  • Organising regional media “summits” to exchange information on the challenges facing journalists and media in different countries;
  • Promoting a common approach to:
  • Combat hate-speech, stereotyping and misinfor­mation in public discourse
  • Understanding migration as a process with historical roots in all com­munities.
  • Valuing independent and inclusive me­dia coverage to creating peace and stability.

Research the role of values in policy communication

Throughout the twentieth century, psychologists made numerous attempts to classify human values. While the importance of values as predictors of human attitudes dates back to the 1960s, the use of values in communication is highly debated, but it remains a very poorly defined and understudied field.

  • Values come from numerous psycological and societal factors, from family upbringing to education, from religious attachment to the history of a person’s territory. One of the biggest mistakes that a recent ICMPD report highlights, is to delegitimize a community’s value (or a value shared by a specific target audience) as not acceptable or illegitimate. 
  • After defining values and demonstrating their relationship with attitudes to immigration, we can deduce that messaging with a value-basis that is concordant with that of its audience is likely to elicit sympathy, whereas that which is discordant with the values of its audience is more likely to elicit antipathy. Given the value-balanced orientations of those with moderate attitudes to immigration, persuasive migration messaging should attempt to mobilise values of its opposition;
  • Specifically to the case of migration, and following on from the review on the relationship between values and attitudes to immigration, when migration messaging is framed in values of self-transcendence (universalism and benevolence) or openness to change (self-direction, stimulation, hedonism) it is more likely to be supported by those already favouring immigration.
  • When migration messaging is framed in values of conservation (security, tradition or conformity) or self-enhancement (power and to a lesser extent achievement) it is more likely to be supported by those already opposing immigration. To be most effective, messaging should use the opposite values of those already associated with its argument.
  • This is a highly debated but poorly known field of sociology and communication that can definitely represent a turning point in reversing a communication trend where polarization and sensationalism are somehow monopolizing the migration debate in a way that does not benefit neither migrants nor hosting communities and make the work of migration policy makers harder than ever.

These are six recommendations on promoting a balanced migration narrative in the Euro-mediterranean region and beyond.

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