Migration, hate speech and media ethics

Migration is not a crime. It is a practice as old as human civilization and a human right recognized in many international treaties. Since 2013 European media have intensively reported on the daily arrivals on Mediterranean shores, and the tone of much reporting has inflated the idea of migration as an emergency issue and a potential threat to the security of European citizens.

Why does this matter? There are two facts that cannot be ignored: migration into developed countries will remain a steady component of societies for many years to come, and media play a critical role in framing public opinion and policy in those societies. Drawing attention to both issues is critical for a sustainable peaceful coexistence in a multicultural environment.

According to the United Nations’ latest report on world population growth and migration flows, between 2015 and 2050 half of the world’s population growth is expected to be concentrated in nine countries, mainly in Africa and Asia. In the same time span the top net receivers of international migrants (more than 100,000 annually) are projected to be the United States of America, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, the Russian Federation and Italy. Net migration gain is projected to account for 82 per cent of population growth in the high-income countries.

Media can play a critical role in influencing public perception of migrants and/or in facilitating their integration. They can be a firewall against racism and xenophobia, or a catalyser of instinctive and emotional hostile reactions towards migrant people.

In Europe this has become particularly evident. As noted a report from by the EU project Bricks against Hate Speech, a significant increase of the use of hate speech, often blaming immigrants and minorities for the difficulties of their own countries, has spread in most countries. The report highlights that even harmless editorial opinions – if read one by one – can fuel a continuous flow of hate speech that does not stop. Small news, stories, reportage, or even single words can damage the image of migrants and create barriers towards understanding the entire phenomenon. And we are only just beginning to understand how massive social media platforms can dramatically accelerate such speech in Europe and North America.

According to a recent Italian report the three main migration issues filling the headlines of the principal newspapers in 2016 include: the impact on European countries receiving large numbers of migrants; narration of the sea passage; and socio-cultural issues such as race and manifestations of xenophobia – a topic which increased three fold in comparison to 2015 data from the same report.

In May 2016 the Italian Parliament set up the Jo Cox Commission on Intolerance, Xenophobia, Racism and Hate with the intent of exploring the phenomenon of hate speech in Italy. The final report shows the existence of a pyramid of hate (see below) which goes from apparently ‘non-harmful’ attitudes like stereotypes, false or misleading representations, insults, normal and banal hostile language to discrimination, hate language and hate crimes.

The pyramid of hate revealed in the final report prepared by the Committee on hate, intolerance, xenophobia and racism set up by the Italian Chamber of Deputies, after 14 months of work, 31 people hearings and collation of 187 documents (studies, research papers, monographs, data records, position papers).

Depicting migrants as a mass of people fleeing their countries – with no distinction between refugees, asylum seekers, economic migrants or those simply fleeing harsh conditions – will only drive collective imagination progressively towards dehumanising them. Migrant people are transformed into hordes of terrorists, criminals and victims, ready to threaten European security. As a result, even the most extreme act against them might ultimately be tolerated as “legitimate defence”, and any discrimination accepted, if not justified.

Peace Journalism is when editors and reporters are aware of their contribution to the construction of reality and of their responsibility to give peace a chance. – Wilhelm Kempf 2012

Combating hatred, intolerance and xenophobia; being sensitive to the language used in the narrative; and challenging the notion of permanent emergency by humanizing the stories behind each migrant, especially children, is an objective that the UNICEF Innocenti study Forced Displacement and Child Responsive Communication  aims to pursue. The study will look at how the media has influenced Italian public opinion and policy towards thousands of migrant children who have arrived in Italy over the last two years. The research asks why media’s current role in Italy is almost completely unaware of child rights sensitive reporting.

How can journalism more quickly overcome a seemingly unmindful descent into jingoism with regard to the flow of the “wretched other” arriving on foreign shores? How can international norms and ethical standards, especially in relation to child rights, be factored into one of the most important news stories of our time? Movement toward an ethic of responsibility in media could be a good way to start.

Patrizia Faustini is Senior Communication Assistant with UNICEF Innocenti. Explore the UNICEF Innocenti research catalogue for new publications. Follow UNICEF Innocenti on Twitter and sign up for e-newsletters on any page of the UNICEF Innocenti website

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