If you want to spoil a movie for yourself, wait for a nice dramatic moment and then imagine what it was like to shoot it: the cameras, sound and lighting crews all around; the portable toilets round the back; the half-finished bowl of crisps on the catering table. If a film is to succeed, it needs us to suspend our disbelief and not think about the process.
But when we consume news media, we need to do the opposite – and think carefully about how and why these products were made. When it comes to reporting on polarising and contentious issues such as migration, what happens behind the scenes in media organisations can affect not only how we think about the issue, but even policy itself.
Our team of researchers from the University of Oxford’s Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS), the Budapest Business School and the European Journalism Centre based at Maastricht in the Netherlands, has been working to turn the camera around on news production in Europe. Our objective was to understand why different themes and narratives about migration have taken hold in different countries – and what factors contributed to the people creating these stories operating so differently.
We interviewed more than 200 journalists and key media sources (such as government migration spokespeople, NGOs and think tanks) in nine EU countries, looking at their personal reasons for working the way they did and the institutional, social and political norms that shaped their outputs.
For example – compare this Swedish newspaper reporter who is very positive about the role of journalism: “I enjoy great respect. People listen to what I say and want to hear my opinion”, with this UK newspaper journalist: “Even my own friends hate the fact that I work here and think I’m a disgrace, but I’ve just learned to ignore it and I just get on with my work.”
The same two journalists articulate very different ways of reporting migration. The Swedish journalist describes their approach to reporting on non-EU migrants who are not fleeing persecution or seeking asylum:
Globalisation is a positive force. We rarely write something negative. Labour force migration is positive.
Contrast with this the UK journalist’s explanation of how they would use the term “migrant”, in general:
To be brutally honest, it’s more likely to be people who are a burden on society than those who are a benefit to society, because there is more newsworthiness in a foreign criminal or a teenager who’s being looked after by the council than, say, a brilliant academic who’s come here to further their career … so from our perspective it’s more newsworthy if people are abusing the system or exploiting loopholes or abusing the hospitality being extended to them by British society … because that triggers a reaction in readers.
Both reporters work for newspapers and both cover the issue of migration, but they describe very differently both the place they occupy in society, and the subject they report on.
Matter of perception
Reporting is a fundamentally human process – ideas, data, and anecdotes all pass through reporters, whose perceptions of the world, areas of interest and biases are all affected by various national, social, institutional and political factors. Some are obvious and affect their immediate working experience – such as what they imagine their proprietor or editor might want to read or see. Others are more abstract – such as their sense of responsibility to help people, or to “tell it like it is, warts and all”. This can have a big impact on the reporting of a sensitive issue such as immigration.
These sometimes competing pressures affect everything from what a reporter perceives will actually constitute a valid story, to the words they will use to tell that story. For example, here is a Hungarian broadcast journalist talking about the importance of terminology to the immigration debate:
We prefer to use the term ‘refugee’, as the word ‘migrant’ might sound correct in English, but in Hungarian a ‘migrant’ is an enemy who will kill us. Therefore, we call them ‘refugees’ … We could use the term ‘migrant’, but it is a delicate one as it is widely used by pro-government propaganda.
This national context is critical. Different media traditions are contingent on national history: experiences of migration differ from country to country and even norms of the role of journalism can be fundamentally different.
In Spain and Italy we found it common for reporters to highlight the expectation that they should make an emotional connection with the reader. In Germany and Sweden there was more focus on technical reporting. In some states with a recent history of autocratic government – such as Hungary – there was a more obvious effort by governments to try to influence reporting than in more established democracies.
But government influence was also felt in more nebulous and indirect ways in some countries where the ideal of press freedom was highly prized. Personal connections between politicians and powerful individuals within media organisations are known and understood by reporters, who consider this when they choose how to report issues. One UK newspaper journalist said the owner of the paper was always in their mind when reporting on a story: “There is an awareness of the owner’s circle of friends – he knows lots of influential people – and [awareness of] his enemies.”
Perhaps the most important takeaway is that journalists both shape – and are shaped by – their national policy discourse on migration. Reporters consider, of course, the factual question of “what has happened?”, but other variables also shape the world in which they operate: including what their audiences expect, how the story has been reported by other media, what may get the reporter into trouble, what the editor thinks of the issue and what sells.
The way different national media report migration both emerges from cultural practices within media organisations, but also reinforces them. This can have profound impacts on policy outcomes. For example, the culture within UK media – particularly within newspapers – is particularly focused on winning political victories. Would the Brexit referendum result have been the same if it was more moderate?
German journalists, on the other hand, were particularly focused on moderation and social justice. The country may have reacted differently to receiving a million asylum seekers if the nation’s media had been less homogenous in this approach.
Finally, Hungary has developed a “patron and client” model of government relations with media. Would the administration of Victor Orban, the prime minister, have been able to implement its radical anti-immigration policies if the media were less dependent on government and had a greater degree of editorial freedom?
These questions are hypothetical, of course. But by drawing attention to the process of media production, rather than just content, we highlight the need for thoughtful scrutiny of media practices, that may, in turn help lead to better understanding of media and its role within policy-making in the future.