From Nazek Ramadan
In a society where two-thirds of migrants say the media and political discourse have an impact on their sense of belonging, it is important that the media landscape is constantly reviewed, including who is allowed to speak.
This becomes even more important in unprecedented situations like the Covid-19 pandemic, when social inequalities – many of which affect migrants disproportionately – are exacerbated.
Back in March 2020, when the first lockdown kicked in and we all stuck to the news on our phones, we at Migrant Voice decided to monitor media coverage of migration.
We analyzed nearly 900 articles on migration published in nine of the UK’s most popular online news outlets between March 1st and May 31st, 2020. It covered most of the initial lockdown, including the first peak in Covid-19 infections and deaths.
We have found that the UK media still has a long way to go before coverage of migration embodies the accuracy, variety and nuance it should be.
While 21% of the articles we examined had the voice of a person affected by the topic being reported – a significant improvement over the 12% found in our 2014 study – there were large and worrying differences between the news agencies. Around a third of the stories in The Guardian had a migrant voice, but only one in 25 in The Express.
Our research also found a tendency in the media to divide migrants into very specific categories and sub-categories (such as “Channel Crossers”, “Frontline NHS Workers”, “Asylum Seekers”) and to portray these groups in a simplified way as heroes or threats, for example.
This widespread use of framing reflects stereotypical views about migrants and a troubling narrative suggesting that some migrants deserve rights and respect more than others. By reaffirming the idea that one must have a particular job or behave and behave like it in order to be considered worthy of a place and fair treatment in the UK, the concept of shared humanity that was so common during this initial lockdown becomes was touted, undermined.
We saw the consequences of this game in the two major changes to migration-related policy that took place during the initial lockdown and that were widely reported – the exemption from international health surcharges and the extension of visas for some NHS workers. We welcome these changes, but are concerned that only a small fraction of migrants – those who have been identified and hailed as heroes – have benefited from significant policy changes and, in the case of visa renewals, only temporarily.
Policy changes should take place because it is the right thing to do, not because of front page headlines, not because those who benefit are themselves beneficial to the UK (saving lives or choosing the foods that feed the country), not because this is in the interests of the government.
But our results were also positive. First, it is encouraging to see that extensive media coverage of an issue can help change the government’s position (even if that shift is also selfish).
Second, because of the unprecedented situation this year, journalists, policymakers and the general public are much better informed about issues such as the ‘no resort to public funds’ condition that prevent many migrants from gaining access to government assistance, asylum assistance and immigrant detention. and we hope this can form the basis for major policy changes in the future.
Finally, we saw how big events can create opportunities for conversation and change that cannot be made at any other time.
It is important that the monitoring of UK media coverage of migration does not stop there.
As of May 2020, we’ve seen the global resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, reaching churches across the UK like never before. We have seen report after report uncover the inequalities faced by many migrant and BAME communities that were uncovered by Covid-19. and we have seen an increase in hostility towards asylum seekers in the UK, with vigilantes patrolling south coast beaches and right-wing groups targeting asylum seekers’ shelters.
And of course we saw a severe second wave of Covid-19 with further bans and restrictions.
Perhaps 2020 has shown like no other year how much the media can influence and educate the public. It is therefore more important than ever that the media be scrutinized and held accountable.
And as we continue to live through this pandemic and look to more normal times, we encourage all journalists to look beyond the stereotypes at the people behind their stories and try to include the voices of those affected by the issues that concern them write about.
The result will be fairer, more accurate, and more engaging coverage – something we all want to see.
Nazek Ramadan is the director of Migrant Voice. You can download the full report here and follow Migrant Voice on Twitter.
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