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Media coverage of migration in the US and Africa: A critique

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Media coverage of migration in the US and Africa: A critique

Amukelani Matsilele

22 Jun 2021

5min min read
  • Migration

This article is published in partnership with the African Centre for the Study of the United States (ACSUS).

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he media play an important role in society, primarily as communicators of information to citizens and watchdogs who provide political, economic, and societal oversight to hold governments and their officials to account. They wield significant power to shape and influence public perception on key issues, one of which is migration. The 2018 World Migration Report draws attention to the complex relationship between media and migration across the world. It calls on us to unpack the impact of press coverage on migration and how this can influence and change the attitudes of people, including policy makers, and societies towards migration. In both the United States (US) and Africa, the voices of migrants in mainstream media are largely missing. Migrants are rarely given a voice to combat myths and misinformation regarding their motivations and experiences.

The average African and US citizen lacks a good understanding of the multifaceted nature of modern migration both from and within Africa. The media have a responsibility to report on the complex nature of migration, and provide factual information about the drivers, patterns, trends, consequences, and general implications of migration without stigmatising or objectifying migrants. An Afrobarometer report notes that “migration has become a staple of the news in many countries, filled with images of desperate Africans fleeing an impoverished continent, poised to descend on the West.” While such reports are not necessarily false given the volume of Africans seeking irregular paths of migration to Europe and the USA, as well as intra-continental migration in Africa, they do not provide the full picture needed for helpful policy interventions and action. Journalists should challenge simplistic, publicly-held perceptions through stories which enable both communities and policy makers to move past the stereotypical portrayal of migrants in the media. They must develop an understanding of the complex nature of migration (social, economic, cultural, and political), and that understanding should be reflected in their reportage.

The lack of scientific quantitative and qualitative data on the demographic aspects and socio-economic implications of migration also compounds the inability of media practitioners to objectively cover migration issues. While countries like Germany have developed capabilities to record the flow of migrants by capturing demographic characteristics and economic gains from migration, much of the information that is peddled by the media about migration in the USA and some African countries is not backed by data, and is often a regurgitation of right-wing political propaganda, and perceptions. Policymakers interested in addressing the complex issues around migration need good quality data that can help them understand migration issues and therefore develop an appropriate and targeted response on any policy matter of interest.

The media should challenge the dominant mono-dimensional narrative which associates migration with conflict, poverty, diseases and societal ills, and therefore reinforces negative stereotypes about migrants, entrenching their isolation, subjectification, emasculation, statelessness and muting of voices. More importantly, dominant political reportage of migrants in the USA and many parts of Africa follows the partisan ideological divide. Politicians are the most prominent media personalities feeding news media what to report on a regular basis. Some politicians are known to peddle popular anti-immigration opinions, and push myths and half-truths in line with their political agendas.

Anti-immigration, xenophobia

Media in both the US and Africa propagate politicised narratives of migration as a socio-economic burden to their own countries. The rise of hostile anti-immigration sentiment worldwide, especially in the European Union and among US President Donald Trump's supporters, has been widely covered. The US has imposed the most stringent measures ranging from closing borders, building walls on the Mexican border, and separating children from parents, which grossly violate the human rights and self-dignity of immigrants. On the whole, views on migration are polarised in the US: the Republicans would rather close their borders to migrants while the Democrats call for more flexible regulation.

It is also an ongoing concern in South Africa: domestic and international media reportage of xenophobic violence against foreigners in the country blamed the victims without exploring the policy issues underlying patterns and trends of migration. Such reportage overlooks the major socio-economic impacts of migration, both in receiving and in sending countries. Xenophobic attacks have been framed through a narrow-minded lens. Migrants have become the image of everything wrong with the country, from declining economic prospects, lack of access to basic services and violations of rights to growing criminal activities, feeding into hatred and violence against foreigners. The same media overlooks the entrepreneurship and job creation roles that migration creates locally.

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People hold signs during a civil society groups march against the recent rise of xenophobic attacks in South Africa, on September 14, 2019, in Johannesburgs Central Business District. (Michele Spatari / AFP via Getty Images)

The language usually used to describe or identify people from other nations reflect societal attitudes, perceptions and beliefs towards migrants. In the South African context, the term ‘foreigners’ or Makwerekwere portray migrants as "others" who come to the country to grab opportunities from the locals.[1] The media uses these terms when reporting about xenophobic attacks, reinforcing attitudes of hatred associated with such language, making nationals of other nations living in South Africa indiscriminate targets of violence. While the opposition political party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) calls for a borderless Africa, in line with Pan African ideology, the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the African National Congress (ANC) call for tighter regulation of migration, to shield the economy from foreigners. In news coverage in both the US and Africa, migrants are routinely portrayed as stealing jobs from citizens and putting pressure on social amenities and jobs. The media mainly depict migrants as being uneducated, low-skilled and on the margins of the economy, and overlook their social diversity and skills.

Both South Africa and the US employ stringent laws and coercive policing to protect their borders from illegal migrants, including the imprisonment of arrested incoming foreign nationals. While some media houses have reported on the ill treatments of migrants, there is still very little information about conditions in holding prisons, and the protection of their human rights. Regular armed police officers conduct forced physical checks on individual to check if they have not overstayed in the country, including conducting foot patrols in Johannesburg to ask people for documentation.

The way migration is covered in both African and US media is often a reminder to migrants that they do not belong in these countries or are needed only as far as they fulfil labour requirements. Migration is often linked to illegal activities such as terrorism and crime ('undocumented', 'unauthorised'), while journalists describe migrants in dehumanising terms such as ‘illegal aliens’, ‘illegal migrants’, and ‘illegals. Most migrants are already marginalised and discriminated against in the communities they live in. The more negatives messages regarding migrants are repeated, the more they are taken as facts by the public. An example in South Africa is the perception that foreign-owned shops are fronts for illicit drug trade and human trafficking.

The way forward

In responce to the need for improved media coverage on migration, institutions such the International Organization for Migration have developed resources to aid journalists and media practitioners. As the IOM notes, "best practices in migration journalism involve putting the individual first and giving migrants a voice. It also requires the careful and accurate use of terminology, prudent use of images, and care not to contribute to the reinforcement of stereotypes and myths." In addition, introspection by the media on their role in the migration crisis and ongoing migration debates, and a commitment to objective, balanced reporting are crucial steps.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA.

(Main image: An AFP journalists reads a copy of Time magazine with a front cover using a combination of pictures showing a crying child taken at the US Border Mexico and a picture of US President Donald Trump looking down, on 22 June 2018 in Washington DC. - Eric Baradat/AFP via Getty Images)