‘Migrants’, ‘refugees’, ‘asylum seekers’, ‘newcomers’, ‘racialized people’. Despite having different meanings, these terms are at the heart of the most prolific media coverage in Europe in the last years: the ‘migrant crisis’. But who and where are the protagonists of the human stories? Amid a mediatic and political cacophony, are their voices being heard? Lost in Media: Migrant Perspectives and the Public Sphere answers these questions and aims to challenge the displacement of voices in European Media.
News of the week: European heatwave. Records fall, as temperatures skyrocket in France. On 28th June, thermometers read 45.9o Celsius in Gallargues-le-Montueux. This news would have made more sense if it were about California’s Death Valley in July. Let’s call it a red alert to climate change naysayers…
In Amsterdam, at least 20 degrees cooler, a small group of people gathered at De Balie’s salon, for a book launch. The discussion was not about the scorching weather, but on a prolonged hot topic in European media and politics: the ‘migrant crisis’. First idea to be challenged: one of a ´crisis´. Based on the numbers, has the European Union really gone through a crisis? This is one of the issues raised in Lost in Media: Migrant Perspectives and the Public Sphere, a book published by Valiz, in partnership with the European Cultural Foundation (ECF).
According to The UN Refugee Agency, there are 70.8 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, and the top three refugee-hosting countries are not EU members. Turkey is the number one hosting country (3.7 million), followed by Pakistan (1.4 million) and Uganda (1.2 million). Germany shows up in the fourth place, paired up with Sudan. Again, based on statistics, the economic brunt of global displacement is not being borne by the most developed countries on earth.
Giving voice to invisible faces: a step towards an inclusive Public sphere
Lost in Media: Migrant Perspectives and the Public Sphere resulted from the ECF’s two-year-long project, Displaced in Media. Main goal: to question the discourses around migration. Through nine essays, distinguished writers, journalists, artists, and thinkers discuss the problematic portrayal of migrants in the European media and the absence of their voices in the public sphere.
Vivian Paulissen, Programme Manager Demos Europe, highlighted EFC’s efforts towards a more inclusive public sphere, through media activism. There is no inclusive public sphere without media, Paulissen phrased in her introduction to the event.
On stage, three journalists: Daniel Trilling, Moha Gerehou, and Chrystal Genesis. The latter was the moderator of the event. Trilling and Gerehou wrote two of the essays in the book. The first is the editor of the New Humanist Magazine and writes on migration, borders, and nationalism for renowned publications such as The Guardian and The New York Times. Gerehou works at eldiario.es and is an activist at Federación SOS Racismo, in Spain.
The displacement of migrant voices in European media
First topic: the complexity of the terms ‘migrant’, ‘refugee’, ‘economic migrant’ ‘asylum seeker’ and so forth. According to Trilling, these words “have become rather politicised. It’s important to get the terms right”. The journalist talked about a shift during the ‘migrant crisis’: “before 2015, the word migrant was not quite used”. The dominant words would be ‘immigrant’ or ‘expat’ for people who crossed the border to another country. ‘Migrant’, however, came to carry a pejorative meaning, it dehumanises the individual.
Trilling goes even further and says that the notion of a ‘refugee crisis’ is misleading. In his view, what happened in 2015 was a “border crisis”, reflected on the failure of the political mechanisms to process the people who were arriving. The journalist also called attention to “a hierarchy of suffering” in media reporting: refugees are above economic migrants, and the latter is mainly associated with Sub-Saharan Africans. Within this hierarchy, European media tend to represent migrants in extreme binaries: as either vulnerable aliens (women, children and elderly people) or as dangerous outsiders.
As to Gerehou, his essay reflects his experience as a black citizen, journalist and anti-racism activist in Spain. Through his work and activism, Gerehou tries to challenge the underrepresentation and misrepresentation of migrants and racialized people. In the media space, they are often “subjects of research”, but not owners of their political identity.
The Spanish journalist also talked about his experience at eldiario.es and heralded its mission to bring forward topics that have not drawn the attention of other media. Example: racist behaviour in football stadiums. Besides journalism, he delved into advertising, showing a video of campaigns with problematic representations and messages. Heineken’s ‘Lighter Is Better’ was one of the clips.
To wrap up, Gerehou made an observation to media professionals. Quite too often, migrant stories are reported in lengthy and dense text, which discourages many people from reading them. “Even I don’t always have time go through them”, he said. “If there’re only four lines available, journalists have to make it work. It’s important to pay attention to this. It’s a problem that concerns the whole society and not the migrants exclusively”.
Trilling shares a similar view. As he sees it, the intermittent way of reporting migrant issues does not help to create a context that people can clearly understand. “Media organisations are constantly framing things in a way that has a political effect”. For Trilling, gathering a range of perspectives on an issue is the ideal. It also implies hiring people who are representative of the reality they are reporting.
Publications such as Lost in Media help us think about our own cities, professional environment, social connections, and the public sphere as a whole. Where are the migrant voices? Can we hear them? Do we know their personal stories? If not, why are their muted? Why aren’t media championing a more inclusive public sphere? A moment of reflection.
This article was published by Amsterdam correspondent Carla Vicente
All imagery to the courtesy of European Cultural Foundation.