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Sensationalism in the Digital Age: The Impact on Refugees

Most of us remember the tragic image of Alan Kurdi, but why did Western mainstream media remain relatively silent about the human interest aspect of the Syrian refugee crisis until his picture was broadcast around the world?


The information age has ushered in a shifting media landscape. Traditional news outlets now have to compete with new media and we can see a steady decline in the size of newsrooms as well as the budgets needed to ensure responsible reporting on international events. Lack of funds in this case means that fewer journalists and photographers are available on the ground to report on humanitarian crises as they actually unfold. In a time when pageview journalism seems to be the new norm, the depth and credibility of a piece too often takes a backseat to the amount of advertising revenue a piece of content can generate.


Reporters who do work on the ground often put their lives on the line to report on conflicts and human rights abuses. They are increasingly targeted, much like humanitarian workers.


A lack of in-depth storytelling, coupled with a media environment that rewards sensationalism over quality and nuanced journalism has created the conditions for hate speech and anti-refugee sentiment to proliferate.


The fact is that Western nations are legally obligated to provide adequate refuge to those who are forcefully displaced. At the same time however, a simple Google search reveals that the media often depicts the crisis as a “flood” of so-called migrants into Europe and elsewhere who pose an imminent threat to the societies they try to enter. This representation is in spite of the fact that refugee resettlement is the least likely route for potential terrorists.  


Often the scope of the crisis, quantified by numbers of fleeing people, is reported on far more frequently than stories of individual suffering and persecution. It’s these stories that have the power to provide context to the crisis.


In 2015 the Ethical Journalism Network published Moving Stories, an extensive 100-page report that reviewed coverage of the worldwide refugee and migrant crisis. It is prefaced with the position that migration is an inevitable aspect of the human experience, and details the many shortcomings of the media covering these events. The report states:


There is a tendency, both among many politicians and in sections of the mainstream media, to lump migrants together and present them as a seemingly endless tide of people who will steal jobs, become a burden on the state and ultimately threaten the native way of life. Such reporting is not only wrong; it is also dishonest. Migrants often bring enormous benefits to their adopted countries.


However, the rise of nationalist politics worldwide—most notably in the recent US election of Donald Trump—has been mirrored by the same transformation in the media. Headlines of major media outlets are hijacked by racist, grossly reductive, and sensationalist remarks. Slanted news about refugees and immigrants has no doubt fueled xenophobia and obscured a well-rounded picture of events. Take, for instance, Trump’s oft-quoted assertion that the United States should “ban all Muslims” coming into the country. Stories of his remarks, whether positive or negative, almost entirely eclipsed the individual stories of refugees and immigrants during the course of the US election. Instead of a balanced, human, and nuanced perspective, media coverage has presented refugees and migrants as imminent threats that exist in a vacuum, unworthy of sympathy or refuge.


The United States is not the only country where populist rhetoric has hijacked media coverage. Anti-refugee sentiment can be seen throughout the European Union as well; Poland and Hungary are two notable examples. In Germany, false accusations regarding refugees have grown so numerous that two people set up a website known as Hoax Map to help dispel absurd rumors about refugees. Some of the debunked rumors ranged from stories of refugees killing and eating horses, to far more disturbing events involving sexual assault. When these unverified rumors hit the headlines, there are real-world consequences, like when protests are sparked in response to false accusations.


The fact is that journalists and news companies need to expand the scope of responsible and in-depth reporting to accurately disseminate information about important global events. While Syria is now dominating the headlines, the media remains relatively silent about other major humanitarian crises. News of the conflicts in Yemen and South Sudan and the famine in Ethiopia are just a few examples of underreported crises.


A greater emphasis on grassroots, individual storytelling is needed to paint an accurate picture of events, and refugees need the space to tell their own stories. Individual stories are powerful. Without them, these crises cannot be fully understood.


In the absence of well-rounded, factual stories, racism and anti-refugee sentiment is bound to continue en masse. The media is perceived as being objective, and as long as unsubstantiated claims about migration continue to spread, anti-refugee sentiment is bound to continue and the world will continue to turn a blind eye to the devastation of humanitarian crises.


Feb 6, 2017
Category: Thematic Issues