Monday, January 16, 2017

Media and Refugees

Photo Credit: Daily Mail
The Power of Words and Images: The Role of Media in the Refugee Crisis

By Julie Brown

People around the world rely heavily on news from various sources, ranging from television to newspapers, Facebook to Twitter, to receive information about current events. How these various media outlets report on a topic can set the tone for the public’s response to it; bringing awareness and support to the topic or discrediting it, all in a matter of moments. The media’s approach to the refugee crisis in Europe clearly illustrates how words and images can influence public opinion.

During my first day of the AGI-Rome experience, I was quickly confronted with this reality. Despite my thoughts that I was an “informed person” about the crisis, I soon realized that the information I had consumed yielded few facts about the real issues at hand and were based on the sensationalism or “if it bleeds it leads” approach to journalism. I was yet another countless victim to how the media was reporting on the crisis and I didn’t even realize it. As I explored how the media was reporting on the crisis, I quickly learned that I wasn’t alone. Others were also looking at how the media’s reporting of the crisis was being handled. The Huffington Post called into question the media’s reporting of the crisis back in October 2015 in its article “How the Media Are Reporting on Europe’s Refugee Crisis” and how journalists are called to be objective and to provide context for their readers. As The Huffington Post article identified, some were doing well while others not so well. The goal for all journalists is to remind the public that the problem still isn’t solved, but not sensationalize it.

Exploring this topic further, I quickly found a stark example of the power of words and images in the headlines of the Daily Mail, a newspaper in the United Kingdom’s (U.K.). On Friday, August 28, 2015, the Daily Mail’s headline read, in all capital letters, "As numbers break all records… Migrants: How Many More Can We Take?" This article focused on the staggering statistics of migrants flooding into Europe and the U.K. and the stress they were placing on the various systems. A few days later, the Daily Mail’s tone drastically shifted. On Thursday, September 3, 2015, the Daily Mail’s front page read, “The victim of a human catastrophe” and was accompanied by a full-page photograph of a Turkish policeman carrying the lifeless body of a child. These two vastly different titles and images not only illustrated the power the media has to evoke emotions, but also highlighted the complexity of the refugee crisis and how the media attempts to keep it relevant without fatiguing the public. 

Headlines and images are just one way to evoke emotion. Another is the words and terminology used to describe the crisis and those affected by it. During the AGI-Rome experience, each organization that I visited was clear in explaining how they serviced people based on their classification status of refugee or migrant. Throughout my reading of the news, the distinction between refugees and migrants isn’t clear and the terms are often used interchangeably or incorrectly. These two terms are vastly different according to a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) article published in July 2016 (, July 2016). According to the article, the UNHCR defines refugees as people fleeing conflict or persecution and are protected by international law; therefore they may not be expelled or forced to return to their homeland if their life and freedom is at risk. In contrast, a migrant chooses to move to improve their lives by finding work, pursuing education or uniting with other family members. Also, a migrant is able to choose to return home and is protected by their government. These two terms are vastly different. By using these different terms, correctly or incorrectly, the media plays a significant role in determining whether or not the public or government officials are willing to provide support or financial aid (, 2015).

Finally, after meeting with the various organizations throughout the AGI experience, I realized that hearing the personal stories of refugees shifted how I viewed the crisis. I looked into various news articles and realized that many of the articles did not focus on individual stories or bring a human perspective to the crisis and the plight of the refugee; rather the stories focused on the economic impact to a country. Articles trying to dispel the theory that refugees were making a negative impact on the economies, fell into this trap too of using numbers rather then personal stories. In January 2016, The Economist attempted to dispel the notion that the refugees were hurting the European economies in its article, “The Economic Impact of Refugees: For Good or Ill.” Unfortunately, people often get overwhelmed with large numbers and can’t truly understand millions; however, they can understand smaller numbers such as a family unit of five. If The Economist had utilized the example of a family, not only would it have put the expenses associated with the family in perspective, it would have made it more relatable to the average person. By making the refugees relatable, it’s an attempt at minimizing the fears often associated with the refugees.

With refugees continuing to head to Europe and other countries with no foreseeable end in sight or solution to the crisis, the media will continue to play a critical role in how the people and the governments perceive and respond to the crisis. Being in the United States doesn’t make us immune to these media issues either. The aforementioned examples are extreme illustrations about how the media is able to use words and images to evoke specific emotions and responses from the public and governments. The point of this blog post is not to say that the news should be sugar coated; rather that the news should be cautious about how they cover the entire story, how they refer to the various people involved, etc. It also serves as a reminder to myself and others that it’s extremely important to research issues on my own, drawing from multiple sources to get a better understanding of the entire issue and to help put the issue into context. It also is a reminder to make sure when discussing an issue to be mindful and careful about using correct and appropriate terminology and language, not just catchy terms or sensationalism.