Panel Discussion: In what way has the media Influenced our understanding of the current refugee crisis?

On Monday, four professionals in the media industry joined Amnesty International members and other human rights enthusiasts at a panel discussion held at the LSE. This panel was organised by LSESU’s Amnesty International Society to address the important role of the media in the current refugee crisis.

LSE’s own Tim Hochstrasser, a professor of International History, chaired the event and opened the debate with a brief speech about migration across the ages. He discussed the importance of images displaying atrocities in the media and their substantial effect on the local population. He also spoke about the use of media as a political tool by refugees themselves, such as the creation of their own newspapers to better voice humanitarian messages.

The first speaker was Professor Lilie Chouliaraki, a professor at of Media and Communication at the LSE, who gave a fascinating talk entitled “Refugees in the Media: Failures of representation, failures of reality?” She focused on the visual form of stories in the media and held a discussion about how the BBC uses images showing the refugees’ stories to engender feelings of responsibility amongst readers.

Credit: Guy de Launey/BBC
Credit: Guy de Launey/BBC

Chouliaraki introduced the idea of vulnerability as pity, claiming that this form of framing appeals most to the charitable public. The focus on individual stories better represents refugees because it allows for humanisation and direct connection, ultimately generating empathy.

She then summarized vulnerability as hospitality, likening this process to the act of welcoming refugees without expecting reciprocation. We can see this in public places where Europeans hold banners exclaiming, “Refugees Welcome.” However, this could evoke a politicised form of responsibility rather than genuine responsibility, which implies that the act of reporting these protests is merely descriptive but lacks depth and action.

Finally, Chouliaraki discussed vulnerability as self-reflexivity. This sentiment is due to the idea of solidarity in post-humanitarian projects. She stressed that in order to generate self-reflexivity, the media should aim to humanise the refugees and to historicise and contextualise the accounts of refugees rather than simply posting arbitrary images.

Our second speaker, freelance journalist Judith Vonberg, delivered a fascinating speech about the linguistic aspect of the media, focusing on the distinction between the terms ‘migrant’ and ‘refugee’. This relates to Al Jazeera’s article on 20 August, which explained why the word ‘migrant’ should be replaced with ‘refugee’.1 The former is generally recognised in the short term for ‘economic migrant’ and has been associated with several negative connotations in the press. For example, the Daily Mail claimed, “It is time to end this migrant madness!”2

This change initially had a positive impact. However, Vonberg stressed that the term ‘refugee’ can also carry negative connotations. She was more in favour of the BBC’s solution3: using the term ‘migrant’ as an umbrella term to refer to any foreign citizen attempting to make a life in a different country, even prior to being granted the status of ‘refugee’ or ‘asylum seeker.’

Don Flynn, Director of Migrants’ Rights Network, was the third speaker who expressed an interesting view. He argued that not everyone is affected by the bias and misrepresentation of certain media outlets. For example, Flynn’s upbringing in the 1950s and 1960s meant he was exposed the intense racism of the time, yet he still secured his current position as the director of a humanitarian organisation. Although his parents read the Daily Mail and Daily Express, they did not gain right-wing or racist views despite the racist terminologies used. They were able to form their own opinions, expressing different views from those in the newspapers they read everyday. When asked why, Flynn claimed that there is no current ‘emotional spasm’ in the British response to the crisis. He does not believe there is such a thing as a true ‘emotional spasm,’ as these are also motivated by material and social conditions.

The final speaker was Julio Alejandro, the US and UK Foreign Affairs Correspondent for Excelsior TV. Alejandro expressed the difficulties the media faces in humanizing the current crisis. He stressed the need to define people by giving them a label that the whole population can understand. For example, the wider public may not be familiar with a specific name, but instead they would recognize the terms ‘refugee’ and ‘asylum seeker.’

He then presented some alternatives and solutions to the refugee crisis. Shockingly, these solutions are barely broadcasted through current media platforms. The use of Bitcoin credit cards or TDV Global passports as forms of identification have been proposed as short-term solutions. The latter is currently being used in the US. Another solution is the creation of ‘sanctuary cities’ as a safe place where the refugees are welcome as we work to contain the crisis.

An Imagined “Water World” Credit: The Seasteading institute
An Imagined “Water World”
Credit: The Seasteading institute

Long-term solutions include plans for open borders. Alejandro spoke at length about the Seasteading Institute’s plan for a “Water World” by 2024, where refugees could be housed. However, this is not necessarily a solution so much as a relapse to the segregation of the past. He also mentioned the idea of “Bitnation” — a virtual nation that could aid the refugees in obtaining insurance, contracts, and legal documents.

Discussion topics at the end of the debate included whether media representation is gendered. Vonberg believes media representation is indeed gendered, noting that there are more images of young men in articles reporting a ‘migrant crisis’ and more images of women in articles mentioning a ‘refugee crisis.’ Don added that the number of female migrants has increased from 20% to 50% of the total number of refugees, implying that there should in fact be more representation of women overall.

Finally, social media’s importance in the crisis was discussed. All seem to agree that social media cannot replace authentic media because of its lack of controls in proving facts. Those looking for the truth turn to authentic media sources.

Thank you for our speakers for the evening! We look forward to the rest of the week as we continue to promote awareness of refugee rights!

Nina Webb, Staff Writer

1http://www.aljazeera.com/blogs/editors-blog/2015/08/al-jazeera-mediterranean-migrants-150820082226309.html

2 http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3179339/DAILY-MAIL-COMMENT-time-end-migrant-madness.html

3 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-34061097

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