Sensational headlines and so-called ‘fake news’ have the power to sway public opinion, so modern media must better balance its coverage of Europe’s migration challenges. This was a conclusion of Friends of Europe’s 7 May Policy Insight debate ‘Migration, fake news and media ethics’ during which participants explored ways to improve migration reporting and make online platforms more accountable.
“Good quality journalism includes honest information and freedom of expression, which are key for democracy and good governance,” said Shada Islam, Director of Europe & Geopolitics at Friends of Europe.
But how can we tackle the avalanche of mis- and disinformation shared by irresponsible media outlets – and through social media channels – especially as regards Europe’s already-heated debate over migration.
Susan Dabbous, freelance journalist and author of the book How would you like to die? Diary of a kidnapping in Syria, warned that while many journalists report constructively on migration, others may be pressured by media outlets to do otherwise. She highlighted examples of inflammatory migration headlines, adding that journalists and photographers are well aware of the power they have when reporting – they must always choose the angle from which they take a photo or write a story. She called for journalists to turn to reporting on personal stories that restore migrants’ humanity, respect and dignity.
Participants agreed that migration reporting should be balanced, going beyond government sources and including the voices of migrants themselves. However, Tom Law, Director of Campaigns and Communications at the Ethical Journalism Network (EJN), also warned that lecturing journalists who are working under difficult circumstances should be avoided. Rather, it is important to work with them and ask them to consider the choices they make.
Social media is often blamed for spreading fake news, but titans like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have now signed up to the EU Code of Practice against disinformation, as well as the EU Code of Conduct on countering illegal hate speech online (#NoPlace4Hate), noted Matthias Oel, Director for Migration, Mobility and Innovation in the European Commission DG HOME. He also said the new EU Action Plan against disinformation is forging a European rapid alert network.
To enhance the migration debate, while tackling disinformation, the Commission wants to empower citizens to make informed political choices. Solutions include better communication and support for quality media. Mr Law reckoned the self-reporting imposed on online players is a good first step, but said online platforms could do more to be transparent and take down fake news or disinformation.
How disinformation threatens lives
“Humanitarian assistance in the Mediterranean has been criminalised by the media, especially our Search and Rescue work,” said Inma Vazquez, Médecins Sans Frontières’ (MSF) Representative to the EU and NATO. It began with an article in one mainstream newspaper in 2016, insinuating that NGOs like MSF were colluding with smugglers and traffickers. Social media amplified this message, which was taken up by other mainstream media outlets, plus several institutions and European governments. Although the original article was amended, the distorted version continued to spread. Having learned from the experience, MSF now focuses on building a positive narrative and anticipating fake news.
Other key recommendations during the debate included:
- Journalists to i) use EJN’s guidelines on migration reporting & trafficking, and ii) explain migrants’ back stories;
- Media to i) do more cross-border reporting (e.g. Europe/North Africa), with migrant perspectives, ii) bring more journalists of refugee/migrant backgrounds into newsrooms, and iii) refer to the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Journalism Trust Initiative;
- EU should support campaigns for more media-literate citizens.
This Policy Insight debate is part of Friends of Europe’s Migration Action programme, which aims to examine the imperative of migration in the context of economic sustainability and demographics, as well as its impact on public services, communities and security. Speakers and participants at this debate will exchange perspectives on what it might take to shift the narrative on migration and integration, as well as how to cope with ‘fake news’ in an ever-more connected world.
This event is also a part of a global debate on disinformation initiated by Friends of Europe ahead of the European elections. During the coming month, disinformation and its implications for democracy are being discussed at events held in Brussels and Buenos Aires, online with our prominent community of security experts on Debating Security Plus and with the 4.5 million citizens engaging on Debating Europe.
- Friends of Europe event report “It’s broke, let’s fix it: rethinking migration management”
- Friends of Europe discussion paper “Real people, true stories: refugees for more inclusive societies”
- “Increased anti-Semitism and xenophobia is a symptom of a weakening European value system, we must repair it” by Elzbieta Bienkowska
- “The fight for liberal democracy can only be won on the offensive” by Janos Amman
Fears of foreign meddling in elections to the European Parliament have put the focus more than ever before on the powerful role of the media in influencing public opinion and shaping the political choices made by voters. But citizen journalism, the 24-hour news cycle and ‘fake news’ are disrupting the traditional media landscape, causing confusion within the sector and among the public. During the so-called migration ‘crisis’, traditional and new media both failed to report on Europe’s migration phenomenon in an objective and ethical manner. Many have deliberately used sensationalist narratives and false information, thereby feeding nationalist and populist sentiments. Hopes that the United Nations Global Compact for Migration would bring some much-needed sanity into the conversation were dashed when journalists were not consulted, driving away even the most responsible reporters. Given the high stakes, demands are increasing for journalists to move away from sensationalism, distinguish between fact and fiction, and report ore accurately on Europe’s migration challenges.
- Do journalists believe they have a responsibility to craft a less hostile and more constructive and respectful narrative on migration and integration?
- Since ‘fake news’ is here to stay, is it time to develop coping strategies for living with it?
- Has the media learned anything from the mistakes made while covering so-called ‘migration crises’?
Freelance Journalist and Author of 'How would you like to die? Diary of a kidnapping in Syria'
Director of Campaigns and Communications at Ethical Journalism Network
Director for Migration, Mobility and Innovation at the European Commission Directorate-General for Migration and Home Affairs
Médecins Sans Frontières’ (MSF) Representative to the EU and NATO
Managing Director at New Horizons Project
Susan Dabbous is an Italian-Syrian journalist covering events in the Middle East – particularly in Syria – for various Italian media outlets. In 2013, she was abducted during a trip to Syria by an Al-Qaeda-affiliated group and held hostage for 11 days. After her release, she chronicled her abduction in the book ‘How would you like to die? Diary of a kidnapping in Syria’. Dabbous was also awarded the International Prize for Press Freedom by the Information Safety and Freedom Association. Before focusing on the Middle East, she wrote numerous reportages on the topics of migration, racism and integration.
Tom Law leads the Ethical Journalism Network’s international media ethics campaigns on hate speech, migration reporting, media literacy, good governance and self-regulation. Prior to this, he worked as the Associate Editor of the Sudan Tribune, a leading regional news website, and in 2005 co-founded the independent newspaper The Juba Post in South Sudan. Law has also worked for UNICEF, women’s right groups and civil society organisations in Sudan, and for two years led the Taught Not Trafficked campaign with SOLD, an award-winning feature film about child trafficking from Nepal to India.
Matthias Oel is responsible for migration, mobility and innovation at the European Commission. Before assuming his current position, he held a number of senior posts in the EU institutions, including in the same Directorate-General as Director for Migration and Security Funds and as Special Advisor in the Cabinet of former European Council President Herman Van Rompuy. With a background in economics and industry policy, Oel has occupied several positions within the German Federal Ministries, including as head of the task force for Germany’s 2007 EU Presidency and subsequently as Director for European Union Affairs in the Federal Ministry of the Interior.
Inma Vazquez’s extensive experience in the field of humanitarian aid includes 15 years of field work occupying management positions in humanitarian organisations like Médecins sans Frontières, Action contre la Faim and the European Commission Directorate-General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations. She has been in charge of large field operations and worked in a variety of contexts ranging from complex emergencies to natural disasters and transition situations. Between 2004 and 2007 Vazquez was MSF’s liaison for the Global Fund to fight against HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.
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