In 2014, more than 200,000 refugees and migrants fled for safety across the Mediterranean Sea. Crammed into overcrowded, unsafe boats, thousands drowned, prompting the Pope to warn that the sea was becoming a mass graveyard. The early months of 2015 saw no respite. In April alone more than 1,300 people drowned. This led to a large public outcry to increase rescue operations.
Throughout this period, UNHCR and other humanitarian organisations, engaged in a series of largescale media advocacy exercises, aiming at convincing European countries to do more to help. It was crucial work, setting the tone for the dramatic rise in attention to the refugee crisis that followed in the second half of 2015.
But the media was far from united in its response. While some outlets joined the call for more assistance, others were unsympathetic, arguing against increasing rescue operations. To learn why, UNHCR commissioned a report by the Cardiff School of Journalism to explore what was driving media coverage in five different European countries: Spain, Italy, Germany, the UK and Sweden.
Researchers combed through thousands of articles written in 2014 and early 2015, revealing a number of important findings for future media advocacy campaigns.
Most importantly, they found major differences between countries, in terms of the sources journalists used (domestic politicians, foreign politicians, citizens, or NGOs), the language they employed, the reasons they gave for the rise in refugee flows, and the solutions they suggested. Germany and Sweden, for example, overwhelmingly used the terms ‘refugee’ or ‘asylum seeker’, while Italy and the UK press preferred the word ‘migrant’. In Spain, the dominant term was ‘immigrant’. These terms had an important impact on the tenor of each country’s debate.
Media also differed widely in terms of the predominant themes to their coverage. For instance, humanitarian themes were more common in Italian coverage than in British, German or Spanish press. Threat themes (such as to the welfare system, or cultural threats) were the most prevalent in Italy, Spain and Britain.
Overall, the Swedish press was the most positive towards refugees and migrants, while coverage in the United Kingdom was the most negative, and the most polarised. Amongst those countries surveyed, Britain’s right-wing media was uniquely aggressively in its campaigns against refugees and migrants.
This report provides important insights into each country’s press culture during a crucial period of agenda-setting for today’s refugee and migrant crisis. It also offers invaluable insights into historical trends. What emerges is a clear message that for media work on refugees, one size does not fit all. Effective media advocacy in different European nations requires targeted, tailored campaigns, which takes into account their unique cultures and political context.