Michal Tkaczyk

Mgr. Michal Tkaczyk, PhD, is a research associate at the Department of Media Studies and Journalism, Faculty of Social Sciences, Masaryk University in Brno. His recent studies deal with representation of irregular migration to Europe in the Czech news media. Apart from that topic, his scholarly and research interests include analysis of news media content, cultural studies and political communication. The interview with him was conducted by Marie Heřmanová, a social anthropologist, researcher, journalist and member of Anthropictures Studio. For the New Neighbours project, she also created the Fact Sheet on Media and Migration in Czech Republic

How do Czech journalist approach the issue of migration? Has it changed significantly in the past five years?

There is no simple answer to this question. For the sake of generalization, we could identify some shared features in the approach of Czech journalists to the issue, but there is no single pattern. Besides that, migration is a very broad topic that encompasses many different types of human mobility. That’s another reason why it might be problematic to talk about a certain pattern or general approach to the issue in Czech media. While irregular migration from Middle East and Africa is covered continuously and extensively since 2015, there’s minimum focus on economic migration from countries like Ukraine, Slovakia or Vietnam – even though citizens of these countries form an ever-growing part of Czech population. Moreover, when we are talking about the approach of journalists to the issue of migration, we can mean several different aspects of their work and its results.

First, it’s their interest in the issue. From the few studies we have available we know that until 2015, migration was a fairly marginal issue for Czech journalists as indicated by low frequency of informing on the issue, the fact that it almost never made it to the front pages or absence of the issue of migration from commentaries and opinion sections of newspapers. The change came in 2015, with the increase of number of people from Middle East and Africa who have tried to enter European Union. Czech editors started to treat the issue with much higher significance. In the last three years however, we have seen another decrease in attention – this could be explained by the decreasing number of migrants from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan in the immediate proximity of Czech territory, unlike in 2015. Based on this observation, we can argue that the main indicator with which Czech journalist evaluate how important the issue of migration is for them is not the total number of migrants or people who have been forced to flee their homes because of war or persecution – the main criteria is proximity and whether it has an impact somewhere close to our borders or not. This approach is in line with the theory of news values and it could also be understood as an ethnocentric perspective, within which the journalists evaluate the significance of events according to their definition of national interest. The decline in interest can also be attributed to the fact that Czech political elites no longer pay so much attention to migration as in 2015.

By “the approach to migration” we can also mean the concrete ways how the issue is covered, both on the level of routine journalistic practices and the resulting media coverage. If we talk about the former, high dependence on agency news and press releases by various institutions dealing with the agenda is symptomatic for Czech media. Only small part of news stories is based on an original reporting of the editorial staff of the given media. It is thus not surprising that the institutional perspective prevails. Moreover, in a situation where journalists do not have access to sources directly in the field, their dependency on routine information sources is of course higher – this way, the government institutions have been given quite a big space in the media to set the agenda and shape the overall coverage of the issue. A good example could be the way how the media we analyzed in our research informed about the so called “migration crisis” in 2015. While there were some media who sent reporters to Greece, Italy or to the Serbian-Hungarian border, the majority of the coverage was based on press releases and reflections of political debates in the Czech Republic and on EU level, because these were easily accessible to the journalists.

The dependence on institutional sources has another consequence – migration is being reported on in connection with a rather narrow spectre of themes and events, for example number of asylum applications, legislative changes or negative phenomena such as criminality or illegal border crossings. All of these fixed practices could be observed in the reporting about “migration crisis.” As it follows from what I’ve said so far, the way in which migration is covered in the media is pretty much formed in the process of habitualization, where certain repeated practices settle into patterns, which are then routinely applied to the given issue.

Lastly, by the approach to the issue we can also mean certain frames of reference through which the editors and journalists interpret events about which they inform. Even though the idea of value-free journalism is one of the premises of objective news reporting, in practice we can reconstruct certain value frameworks that influence how the issue is treated – not only in opinion sections, but in news reporting as well.

From our research on the media representation of the so-called migration crisis follows that in the case of Czech media, these value frameworks were twofold. The predominant perspective was national interest, or ethnocentric perspective respectively. In general, this perspective manifests in the fact that the impact of irregular migration on the host countries is presented as the main problem, while the causes of migratory movements are largely ignored. On the level of actual media content, this perspective creates the representation of irregular migration as a negative phenomenon, migrants are depicted as competition for local workers, trespassers of legal rules (for example territorial integrity of the state) or as security threat for the host society. The debate about so-called refugee quotas, severe border controls, situation in detention centres, fight against smugglers, police controls on the trains or the detaining of people illegally staying in the Czech Republic – all these topics accentuate values such as the integrity of state territory or sovereignty of Czech state regarding migration policies.

The second value framework which was evident in the approach of Czech media to the topic of migration crisis was the humanitarian and human rights perspective. Besides the news representing migration as a burden for Czech Republic, reporting on the humanitarian situation in which migrants have found themselves also occurred, defining the current migration as humanitarian disaster.

If I should point out a change in the media representation of migration over the past 5 years, I’d say that while in 2015 and beginning in 2016, the reporting mostly depicted migration to the EU as an escalating crisis with possible serious consequences for the Czech Republic and there was a lot of attention on the issue, today it is mostly talked about as a lasting crisis with overall impact on the whole EU, which has the potential to escalate again, but there’s less attention on the issue. Other types of migration and groups of migrants, e.g. economic migrants from Ukraine or Vietnam remain invisible.  However, we don’t have enough data for a detailed conclusion on this.

What are the main features or aspects of media coverage of migration – do you observe some trends? What is the prevalent framing, what are the most frequently used stereotypes in the media?

Talking about trends in media coverage is always problematic. When we try to do that, we overlook the real diversity of the coverage that may be observed even on the level of particular media outlet and its content. We also have to take into account that since 2015, basically all of the media coverage focuses on the migration crisis – so if we identify any tendencies here, they might be specific for this topic rather than generally applicable.

On the other hand, it is certainly true that high quality reporting on migration, for example reports or analyses capable of mediating the complexity of the issue or points of view diverging form the consensual approach to migration, form only a fraction of the published content. The rest (the majority) are standardized types of content created either from official sources or press releases from international press agencies. This is true also for the representation of the migration crisis. In capitalist societies, journalism is an industry and thus we are able to identify repeating and standardized practices, resulting in repeating patterns on the level of media content. Migration is no exception in  that regard.

Frequented and prevalent pattern in the representation of migration in Czech media is to talk about migration as a subject of national or European policies and regulations or present it as a source of political conflict – this is the above-mentioned institutional perspective. This type of coverage represents officials and politicians as solvers of the problem, while it prevents the reader from being empathetic with migrants themselves and understanding their motivations.

Another fixed representation of migration, most of all irregular, is securitization or criminalization,  which presents the problem in the context of possible security risks and threats or concrete violations of the legal order. This type of coverage often has ideological impact. If we don’t reflect on it critically, we’ll tend to agree with restrictive migration policy and those who call for it.

On the other hand, victimization is also quite a frequented pattern. In practice, this means that migrants are depicted as people who have found themselves in an unfavourable or outright dangerous situation caused by circumstances beyond their power of self-determination – i.e. as victims of war conflicts or smuggling. This type of coverage can bring on empathy and mercy, but it can also reinforce the idea of migrants as people unable to take care of themselves and consequently unable to contribute anything to the host society.

This is in no way an exhaustive account of the tendencies that we might be able to track. But it is clear from everything that was already said that different ways of representing migration can support or reinforce different opinion and reactions in the media audience. Whichever of these tendencies becomes prevalent is then significant for the general media representation and public attitudes. Our research of the media coverage of migration crisis shows (and this is again a generalization), that in the Czech media the two first mentioned approaches were prevalent. In the media that we analyzed, the policy/administrative framing and security framing were far more frequent and salient than the humanitarian framing.

This type of media representation, one which stresses security concerns related to migration, does great ideological work when it comes to the legitimation of both Czech and European migration policies. It provides audience with an opportunity to make peace with the moral obligations its members might feel when watching people suffering on screen as well as it provides good rationale to produce a consent with our security-oriented migration policies. The core principle of this mechanism works like this – it juxtapose the concepts of national/individual safety and solidarity with the incoming migrants as an alternative or downright opposing.

Who are the main actors who gets the most space in the media, when it comes to migration? Whose voices are lacking?

I would say that the main actors of media messages about migration are politicians. It’s not just their frequent presence in the news, but also how they are pictured there – as the begetters or problem-solvers, i.e. as the ones who are solving the crisis, proposing regulations and explaining how migration works. Migrants are mostly presented as a homogenous group sharing similar characteristics, motivations or socio-economic status. Except for news about tragic events and news about migrants coming to or staying at a certain place, migrants are almost exclusively pointed to as an abstract reference for political proceedings, e.g. as numbers, without even mentioning their country of origin. They are thus represented as a cause for an undesirable situation that needs to be solved by local host society and its political representation. Again, this is a generalization – even among the media content that we analyzed, there were individual stories reflecting individual situation.

When it comes to agents who are able to speak about migration in the media, i.e. sources with access to news reporting, there’s a specifically high percentage of institutional sources in the case of Czech Republic. The preference of government source is however visible also in some other countries, mainly those where there is a consensus on migration policy. Compared to political actors, subjects from the NGO sector or expert sources from academia are rather under-represented. They mostly feature in interviews or specialized content targeted at narrower more demanding audiences.

Concerning experts voices, mostly politicians and government officials are featured as experts commenting on migration development from an expert position – but it is important to note that when doing it they represent rather particular interest group. If we talk about the migration crisis specifically, this tendency to only quote institutional sources necessarily resulted in reinforcing the already established consensus on migration policy. The government presented its own view and thus reinforced the consensus on it via media. Migrant themselves had very little space in the media and their narratives were oftentimes used to reinforce the already established, predominantly negative representation of this group.

To sum up, we can say that the variety of sources commenting on migration in the Czech media was narrow. And we know that the narrower the scale of sources is, the more trivial are the differences among represented opinions and the bigger is thus the influence of the privileged group of sources, consisting mainly of government officials.

From the analysis that you and your colleagues did in 2015 follow, that there were no significant differences between private and public service media when it comes to informing about migration. Is there any difference between various types of media in general then?

As I already mentioned, it is not possible to define one shared approach to the issue of migration among all media, there are of course differences. They are based on the segment of media market in which the given media outlet operates, on the audience that it targets – there are different styles of reporting. Serious newspaper like “Hospodářské noviny” (owned by Economia publishing house – see the fact sheet, note of the interviewer) will treat the issue differently than “pop” newspapers like MF Dnes which targets much broader audience. There will be differences between tabloids like Blesk and political weekly magazines like Respekt. The Czech media market is differentiated – we have the public service media ensuring higher diversity, balanced reporting and critical reflection as well as outlets such as Forum 24 or Deník Referendum, both with very clear ideological leaning.

If we were not able to prove any significant difference in informing about migration between example Události (main evening news on Czech TV, the public broadcaster) and Televizní noviny (main evening news on TV Nova, the biggest private owned TV channel) or between MF Dnes and Právo, it might also be because all of these media represent one specific segment of the media market, the so-called legacy media. They target broad audiences and support dominant and consensual interpretation of events. We only focused on the main news shows, there might have been differences in other content (talk shows, commentaries, etc.).

The high rate of compliance when it comes to the basic parameters of informing might also be explained by a complementarity of a few factors – most importantly, the above-mentioned high rate of dependency on institutional sources and press agencies. All the media that we analyzed paid attention mostly to the political debates – and if you look on the prevalent attitudes among Czech politicians, it is not surprising that negative impacts of migration and security risks were the main topic of basically all news. And both these phenomena are probably also influenced by the specificity of the situation that is being covered. Again, the available research confirms that when informing about topics related to national security or national interests, there is a higher rate of compliance and rather low interest in shaping the issue and agenda setting from the part of the media.  

It also needs to be mentioned that our analyses were concerned with coverage in 2015 and that time the development was really dynamic and from the point of view of Czech newsrooms, this was something they had no previous experience with. It is possible that editorial policies diversified later, when there was more space for critical reflection.

Also media monitoring by the Council of Radio and Television Broadcasting identified several mechanisms of media representation that could be observed on all TV channels across the media spectrum (politicization of the issue, dependence on government sources, widespread use of metaphors such as “wave”, “tide” or “surge”). However, their analyses found that especially one commercial TV channel (TV Prima) published more negative news focused on the problematic issues of migration and more news interpreting migration as security threat compared to public broadcasters. Later on, direct pressure from the owners of TV Prima on the journalists to present the issue rather negatively was proved.

How often is integration reported about in the media and is it in connection with the issue of migration?

It seems that successful integration has less news value than negative phenomena connected to migration. If there’s some space given to integration in the media, it usually takes form of so-called success stories. They inform about individuals who were able to integrate successfully into the host society. However such approach to the topic of integration can implicate that only exceptional, hard-trying or otherwise “predestined” individuals can succeed at integration. Informing about integration as connected to migration also differs between countries – one of our students did an analysis aimed on how the migration crisis was represented in news photography and found out that while in German media the images of people who successfully integrated, for example photos of refugees working in a car factory, where quite frequent, they were practically absent in Czech media. According to him, the explanation of this difference is that Germany literally faced the challenge of integration, while it was not the case of the Czech Republic. It can be said that in this situation German media helped to secure the social order by showing that “We can manage this (Wir schaffen das)”.

Do you think the trends that you described are somehow specific for Czech media environment and if so, why – what are the causes?

I wouldn’t say that these trend is country specific. The tendencies and mechanisms that we identified were described also in various studies abroad. The differences between countries lie mostly in the degree or different stress on certain aspects of migration, respectively patterns in coverage.

Besides practical routines of journalistic work, other explanation why certain fixed ways of informing about migration are widespread across countries and media markets might lie in the character of the described phenomenon and in the context in which we see it. In the context of nation state, civilizational insecurities caused by globalization and capitalist modes of production, in the context of growing social inequalities and declining welfare state, irregular migration is oftentimes seen similarly – as a challenge, a burden or even as a threat for local society and this perspective is thus reflected in the media coverage. Of course, different aspects are accentuated depending on the situation in each country.

There’s one thing that is really interesting and maybe even specific about the way Czech media informed about migration – and that is the fact that the intense attention and focus on negative impacts of migration development including security risks was not in accordance with the actual developments. Even though we expect media to be able to predict developments to a certain degree and to act as warning device in a way, the warnings issued by Czech media were simply disproportional. Czech Republic was not a destination country, not even a transit country and there was no factual basis for expecting any significant negative impact of migration processes on our territory.

Personally, I explain this inadequate reaction of Czech media with their rather un-critical relationships to the centres of political power. Based on our analysis, we could say that Czech media acted as loyal mediators of the attitudes of Czech political elites. We could apply the concept of “priest role” here, where media functions as spreaders of non-disputed opinions of the privileged class, which acts as if it has a monopoly on truth. However, in the liberal democracy the media are supposed to act as watchdogs and so the editors should not have just assumed that political elites are following public interest. The lack of critical approach when it comes to informing about certain topics could be seen as a residuum of the past regime that left its trace in the professional journalistic culture. The modes of functioning sketched above (loyal mediators, priest role) could be seen as a heritage of media system we had here before 1989.

Is the widely shared political consensus on the issue or the fact that significant part of the public shares these views in any way an “extenuating circumstance”? One could say that there’s no wonder media treat the issue in the above described way or that we can’t really judge the media system without taking the societal context in which these media operate into account. Economic conditions are of course an important part of this context. Advertising revenues and direct sales revenues are decreasing, fieldwork and complex coverage cost far more than just the use of routine official sources. And if the media decides to inform about the issue in a way that dissents from the mainstream one, it risks losing parts of the audience.

Can you think of any examples of good quality reporting about migration or interesting media projects – anything that could serve as an example of “how it should be done“?

I’d rather not mention concrete examples. However, if we agree on the definition of good and high quality reporting of migration as diverse, taking into account a wider spectrum of relevant stances and reflective of wider context and also based on original reporting from the field, critical towards the official sources – there are some specialized, high quality media who were able to provide that. The problem is that when it comes to influencing public opinion, these media play a rather marginal role as compared to mainstream media with large audience. There were good and well thought pieces in mainstream media as well, but they only formed a fraction of the produced content.

What role do media play in informing the public attitude towards migration? Are media an important source of information and if so, why?

Media are an important source of information about migration mostly for those who have no personal experience with the phenomenon. It is reasonable to expect that the less is there an opportunity for personal experience, the bigger the role of the media is. Majority of us has some sort of experience with economic migration, mostly from not so distant countries. We meet people who’ve come here for work every day, in shops, in parking places…so we have some sort of understanding of what kind of impact this type of migration has on our lives. Nevertheless, even personal experience can be influenced by media coverage to a certain degree, even if just by providing a framework for interpreting these experiences.

The role of media in shaping the public attitude is much bigger when we speak about types of migration with which we have no direct experience with. The so called “migration crisis“ is a very good example. If we look at the polls done by the Centre for public opinion research, we see that in 2015, despite the low numbers of migrants actually reaching Czech territory, Czech people considered the issue to be very important and relevant for them. The number of people who see migration as security risk spiked. Political subject who used migration as a basis for their agenda were very successful – the SPD party or even the president Miloš Zeman, who used the motto “against migrants and against Drahoš (main opponent, note of the interviewer)” in his campaign for the second round of the election. At the same time, we knew even then that the migration crisis won’t have any significant impact on us. A study realized by Phoenix Research agency in 2016, the only available research we have about the sources of information about migration, shows that media were the main source for the majority of the population. We can thus assume that they played very important role in shaping the public opinion about migration.

The same research also shows that other important source are the “significant others”, i.e. people close to the respondent, from his immediate environment. These people could be seen as opinion leaders. Opinion leaders used to be people we’ve met personally, but nowadays many of them profile online, mostly on social networking sites. They can easily apply their influence there by sharing visual content about migration etc. At the same time, the trust in traditional media is steadily declining, which might further reinforce the role of opinion leaders in online space. When it comes to the opinion-making process, the well described “bubble” mechanism plays an important role, when people do not want to be faced with dissenting opinions and tend to close themselves in echo chambers that reflect their already fixed attitude towards the issue. This results in conforming behaviour and it might lead to a change of attitude. This is however a hypothesis for now, we don’t have enough data to confirm it.

Please note: This text is licensed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.