Why Mainstream Migration Journalism in Italy and Spain Is Failing

A new study reveals a dangerous gap between journalists’ desire to report in a fair and balanced way and the deteriorating media. Political interference in newsrooms is distorting refugee coverage.

Written by Eric Karstens Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Spokesperson for UNHCR SouthEurope Carlotta Sami speaks to journalists as CasaPound far-right activists protest against the arrival of migrants at the Catholic Church center Mondo Migliore in Rocca di Papa, near Rome, on August 29, 2018. Some 100 refugees and migrants arrived at the reception center after disembarking from the Italian coast-guard ship Diciotti following a ten-day standoff. ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images

Talk to Spanish and Italian journalists about reporting on refugees and migration and a single common sentiment emerges.

“I wish to give a voice to the voiceless and record the unrecorded,” an Italian journalist told us. It echoed what a Spanish colleague had said: “It is necessary to give a voice to people who don’t have it.”

These statements reflect the self-image of many reporters in the two Mediterranean countries where many migrants first arrive in Europe. Across the political spectrum, Spanish journalists and, to an even greater extent, Italian journalists, tend to identify with the disadvantaged and powerless. But a new academic analysis suggests that when it comes to reporting on migration, their noble intentions conflict with everyday practice.

The authors of a joint study by the European Journalism Centre, the University of Oxford and Budapest Business School spoke with journalists, public relations officers and other media practitioners, delving into their motivations and methods, as well as the challenges they face.

In both Spain and Italy, journalists expressed a keen awareness of dominant migration-related narratives and terminology. They also acknowledged the values with which these terms can be loaded. Spanish participants explained that “migrants” or “immigrants” were considered to be persons who came to Spain mainly for economic reasons – to escape poverty in their countries of origin. Meanwhile, refugees were seen as people fleeing war and human rights violations. One remarked, “If you call some of them ‘refugees’ and you call others ‘economic immigrants,’ it is like sending the message that we have to accept some of them, but not the others.”

There was a widespread perception among Spanish respondents that “migrants” were usually considered to be people engaging in a problematic activity. However, several journalists also mentioned that the use of the word “illegal” had effectively been banned and replaced with “sin papeles” (undocumented).

The majority of respondents claimed that they were using terminology with great care – many of them referring to the Charter of Rome, or even expressing the intention of avoiding ostracizing the people concerned: “I refuse to use the word ‘migrants’ and prefer to use ‘people’ or ‘guests.’ Especially for long-term migrants.”

The perception in Italy was similar. The majority of respondents claimed that they were using terminology with great care – many of them referring to the Charter of Rome, or even expressing the intention of avoiding ostracizing the people concerned: “I refuse to use the word ‘migrants’ and prefer to use ‘people’ or ‘guests.’ Especially for long-term migrants.”

Several participants noted the trend in recent years to move away from the use of the term “clandestines” to the more neutral “migrants.”

Despite the apparent caution over terminology, another Italian journalist admitted that “the colour of one’s skin is still important in perception.”

Another noted that the definition of a migrant was frequently dictated by situational circumstances: “In the 90s it was about migrants from the east [of Europe]; in this political phase, the migrants are those who come from Africa.”

An exemplary summary of the Italian media’s framing of migration was: “On one side the poor, derelict migrant. On the other side the migrant who has been here for a while and stands out for having achieved something excellent (a positive example). Finally, the crime-committing migrant.”

The Italian and Spanish research is part of the REMINDER research project, which covered reporting practices in Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, the U.K., Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovenia and consulted more than 200 media professionals. It examines the social and economic consequences of migration into and around the E.U., as well as how public debates are triggered. The majority of interviewees specialize in migration, or at least cover the topic on a regular basis.

So where does the disconnect between the intention to report fairly on migration and the resulting media coverage – which reporters themselves often characterized as prejudiced and unfair – come from?

The majority of Italians conceded that there was external influence on newsrooms and outlets. “[Political influence] is obvious and taken for granted, but it’s like this in Italy,” said one respondent. Another participant said, “In general, Italian media never challenge the version of authorities. There is maybe a problem of self-censorship.”

The majority of Italians conceded that there was external influence on newsrooms and outlets. “[Political influence] is obvious and taken for granted, but it’s like this in Italy,” said one respondent. Another participant said, “In general, Italian media never challenge the version of authorities. There is maybe a problem of self-censorship.”

Most Spanish journalists, particularly those working for well-established media, said that there was substantial external pressure, if not necessarily on them as individual reporters, then on their outlets as a whole. Typical of the responses was this explanation: “There are pressures. We should care for advertisers and the political party in government.”

Communications and press releases from the government were not viewed as trustworthy in either country.

This differed strongly to REMINDER’s findings in Sweden and Germany, where journalists broadly considered public authorities as inherently trustworthy. Instead, Italian journalists felt that next to migrants themselves, NGOs and think-tanks were the most credible sources; while their Spanish colleagues afforded greater trust to academics.

It was striking that in both Spain and Italy, participants expressed a palpable disenchantment and pessimism about the future of their national news media. Practically everyone had chosen their job for idealistic reasons – to change the world, to speak truth to power, to take sides with society’s underdogs, and to experience the thrill of an investigation. And yet, participants perceived a gradual loss of reputation and felt that journalism as a whole was bleeding credibility, trust and public support. One Italian even went so far as to claim that, “Journalism is involved in the decline of our culture,” while another added, “I am the last survivor of a defunct idea of journalism.”

The feeling in Spain was perhaps even worse. One respondent described journalism as a “discredited profession,” while others felt that the sector had lost credibility. Many participants thought that journalism was “too politicized; people have the feeling that we lie,” because, in particular, “public media has often become a sort of transmission belt for governments.”

The feeling in Spain was perhaps even worse. One respondent described journalism as a “discredited profession,” while others felt that the sector had lost credibility.

Many Italian migration journalists actually felt that their particular beat put them into a difficult professional spot. “Compared to the past, there is less solidarity with the issue of migration. The journalists seem to be perceived as ‘agents of migration.’”

But the politicization of the media sphere is not the only challenge to quality journalism – working conditions and financial pressures were also causes for concern. About one-third of the Spanish respondents reported a climate of fear and insecurity created by changes in management and editorial policy. This ranged from a “total disconnection of the company, mistrust, drifting, lurches in ideology,” to the statement that “affinity with the management [is more important] than professionalism and experience.”

Strikes, mass firings and conflicts with editors, however, seemed to foster increased solidarity among journalists in both countries. “I often argue with managers who have no experience,” said an Italian journalist, while another added, “Sometimes I get requests that are far from reality.”

Across the nine-country sample, Spain and Italy stood out among the “old E.U.” member states for the confluence of two key factors: an entrenched culture of political influence on the media coinciding with a landscape of financially weakened news outlets. The result has been an erosion of society’s trust in journalism as a whole. The topic of migration is a case in point: The efforts of well-meaning and conscientious journalists to cover migration fairly and openly were stymied, and political interests were able to dominate the public narrative.

The two Mediterranean countries stand apart from the U.K., Sweden and Germany, where economically stable media of record are still able to operate on more even terms within the political sphere.

Spain, along with some of its Eastern European counterparts, also produced examples of how journalism might gain autonomy from the powers that be. A handful of fledgling, independently funded news organizations run by journalists are setting out to regain public trust. Their coverage of migration, among other topics, is less saturated with the particular preoccupations of the national public sphere.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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