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.