Migration coverage in Europe’s media: a comparative analysis of seventeen countries

In the last five years, controversies related to migration have deeply affected political landscapes across the EU due to the beginning of European refugee crisis. European Journalism Observatory (EJO) has now published a new study focusing on the media’s role in the migration debate.

EJO’s comparative analysis reveals the differences discerned in media coverage of migrants and refugees across 17 different political systems, media systems and journalistic cultures: clear differences in the quantity and quality of coverage, not only between Western and Central Eastern Europe but even within Western Europe.

This research project – the first international project comparing so many different countries – analyzed media coverage of migrants and refugees by 2,417 articles published during six separate weeks selected between August 2015 and March 2018.

Different patterns in media coverage 

The analysis reveals fundamentally different patterns of coverage between Germany, Italy and Greece and all the other EU countries. Whereas in Germany, Italy and Greece, migrants and refugees are presented as domestic topics, reflecting the fact that these countries tend to be the main destinations of migrants and refugees. The media in all other EU countries analyzed the topic primarily as a foreign affairs issue – as the events related to migration take place far away from home, outside the domestic borders. Media in France, the UK and Hungary emphasize the prominent role of their leaders in international policy-making.

The research found that the German position as the first European country in terms of refugees hosted ( 1.1m refugees, according to UNHCR data for 2019), leads its media to a specific perspective on the issue. The sheer quantity of coverage in Germany far outstrips that of almost all other countries in the study – and is only paralleled by Hungary, whose prime minister Viktor Orbán has positioned himself as the real opponent of German chancellor Angela Merkel on the asylum policy affairs.

The different patterns between countries in media coverage

Media coverage in Central and Eastern Europe focus more on problems experienced with (and protests against) migrants and refugees. In Western European, the coverage emphasizes the situation of migrants and refugees, and the help provided to them, giving voice to many more (non-migrant) speakers with positive attitudes towards migrants and refugees than media in Central and Eastern Europe. An additional pattern emerged when the study compares data for left-liberal media and media with a more conservative profile: liberal-left media quoted more speakers with a positive attitude and reported considerably more on help for and the situation of migrants and refugees.

Media also report on immigration from different parts of the world. Africa is the main point of reference in Italy and to some extent in France. While all other countries in Western Europe focus on immigration from the Middle East. For media in Russia, Poland, Belarus and Ukraine, migration and refugee flows from Ukraine were also an important theme.

The study highlights how media across Europe do not make clear to their audiences the background and legal status of people seeking to enter Europe as a migrant or refugee. Coverage is dominated by political debates and political actors (45%), leaving almost no space (just 4% of the articles) for coverage of economic, cultural, historical and other background information. Only a third of the articles (33%) make a clear distinction between refugees – those having a protected legal status – and migrants – those people leaving their countries of origin for economic, social, educational and other reasons. Most articles (60%) confuse migrants and refugees or remain unclear.

Migrants and refugees tend to be voiceless on media migration coverage. While 26.6% of articles do feature migrants and refugees as main actors, 18% cover them only as large, anonymous groups. Less than 10% of the articles feature migrants and refugees as individuals or families, while citizens and civil society actors in destination countries are the main actors in 18% of the articles. The media quoted just 411 migrant speakers, compared to 4,267 non-migrant speakers. While people offering help tend to be individualised, those receiving help are not.

Giving voice to voiceless: learning from the United State pattern on migration media coverage

The collection of articles also coming from the United States revealed a different pattern for this country than the most of European Union: US articles telling stories of individual migrants and refugees, who were also quoted, featured a particularly high number – probably as a result of Anglo-Saxon reporting traditions and a code of ethics (formulated by the Society of Professional Journalists) that says journalists should seek to “give voice to the voiceless”. Within Europe, the Spanish media come closest to this pattern.

Lastly, the study also shows that public debate around the issue in these countries is often far from being as one-sided as is often assumed: comparing the percentage of speakers quoted with positive attitudes towards migrants and refugees to the percentage of speakers quoted with negative attitudes, in almost all the countries, the media outlets offered contrasting positions. From this evidence, it is clear that in each country coexist different media approaches towards migration issues.

Here, the full study.