Media Portrayal of Displaced Persons

Original Editor - Naomi O'Reilly

Top Contributors - Naomi O'Reilly, Kim Jackson, Jess Bell and Carin Hunter  

Introduction[edit | edit source]

Mass media provide the information we use to make sense of the world and our place within it and often plays a central role for framing debates, influencing the political agenda, and turning the public's focus onto specific happenings or events in the world. According to Pandir, media portrayal of displaced persons can produce both prejudice toward them, as well as understanding and acceptance, which shows that the media have the potential to be part of the problem or part of the solution in issues of conflict and cohesion between host and displaced communities.[1]

During 2014 and 2015, more than 200,000 refugees and migrants fled for safety across the Mediterranean Sea. Throughout this period, UNHCR and other humanitarian organisations, tried to convince European countries to do more to help. During this time, they found that the media was far from united in its response with some calling for more assistance, while others were unsympathetic, arguing against increasing rescue operations. To understand why this happened, UNHCR commissioned a report by the Cardiff School of Journalism to explore what was driving media coverage across five different European countries: Spain, Italy, Germany, the UK and Sweden.[2]

Only 21% of news items on asylum and migration reference a refugee or migrant.[2]

In the research, the voice and personal experience of the displaced persons are not included in over three-quarters of the stories analysed, with the focus of discussion generally on law, legislation and policy at a political level, rather than addressing the impact of these policies on the individual person.

"Certain groups of people are even more invisible."[2]

Women in particular are disproportionately absent in media portrayal of displaced persons, and only mentioned in one-quarter (27%) of articles that discuss displacement. Similarly some communities e.g. Afghans and Venezuelans are also widely absent from the media representation despite being two of the largest groups applying for asylum.

Of the 21% of the news that reference displaced persons, less than half (40%) of the articles quote them directly.[2]

The direct voices of displaced persons are rarely heard in the media, instead pointing to a trend of indirect representation of displaced persons in the news. Inaccuracy of representation can easily lead to misunderstanding, and misunderstanding can in turn lead to poor tolerance.

Refugees and migrants are most often only identified by their displacement.[2]

Generally displaced persons are the subject of stories (67% of the overall sample), and rarely presented as the expert (3% of overall sample), with little mention of their occupation beyond being displaced, which speaks to broader trend of marginalisation. This can lend itself to the public perception of "refugee as an occupation", and not seeing displaced persons as a whole person but only identifying them in relation to their displacement. This can deprive people of their humanity and dignity.

Overall the study found that there are several reasons why EU leaders did not take the responsibility that UNHCR was seeking. One key reason was a high level of public anxiety about displacement, immigration and asylum seekers. It became clear from thus report that the role of the mass media in influencing public and political attitudes cannot be ignored and found a clear national difference in how the media contextualised and described displaced persons.[2]

Below we explore some of the challenges currently found with media portrayal of migration and displacement that can significantly impact the public perception of displaced persons.

Xenophobia and Racism[edit | edit source]

According to the UNESCO Glossary of Migration Terms, xenophobia comes from the Greek words 'xénos', meaning 'the stranger' and 'the guest' and 'phóbos, meaning 'fear', and is recognised as a fear or even hatred of the stranger that includes attitudes, prejudices and behaviour that reject, exclude and often vilify persons, based on the perception that they are outsiders or foreigners to the community, society or national identity[3]. Racism on the other hand, is focused more on “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race,” which can “assign a certain race and/or ethnic group to a position of power over others purely on the basis of physical and cultural attributes, as well as economic wealth, involving hierarchical relations where the “superior” race exercises domination and control over others”[3]. In many cases globally, political or social systems in some countries have been founded on racism and racist policies.

While xenophobia and racism are often seen to overlap and difficult to separate from each other, they each are a distinct phenomenon that can exist in isolation or combined. [4] Generally, xenophobia leads to civic exclusion of others based on cultural or national identity as foreign from that of the host country, whereas racism concerns differences in appearance and skin colour, related to power and privilege. Anti-migrant rhetoric, often founded on racism and xenophobia, is occurring more frequently at a global level. This is reflected within what we see in mainstream media outlets, but more evident within social media platforms where there is the ability for anonymity, and sharing of information that can very quickly become viral.[2]

Dehumanisation[edit | edit source]

Research demonstrates that media representation of displaced persons tends to dehumanise them, which is to deprive (someone or something) of human qualities, personality, or dignity, that can significantly impact on the public view of displaced persons. Wilmott[5], Blieker et al.[6] and Batziou[7] found that the photography used in online newspaper publications in the UK, Australia, Spain and Greece generally focused on men, in large groups, that typically were shot at a distance and often included interactions with the military, police or coast guard, rather than the local public. These types of photographs can dehumanise and promote categorisation of displaced persons; with long-distance shots creating separation or a 'them and us' scenario, large groups of men appear threatening or posing a security risk, further reinforced when photographs or videos create association with law enforcement or military organisations.[5][8]

Stereotyping[edit | edit source]

It is not uncommon, and not so strange that we end up describing stereotypes. We can all think of stereotypic descriptions of people from the country where we live, which at times can be funny, and we can laugh at it, but in very many cases it can be a burden and it can do damage to how certain groups of individuals are portrayed. If the media only pushes a stereotypic view of populations, groups or individuals it can have a significant impact on how we view that specific group, whether that be in a positive or negative way. The media frequently contextualises displaced persons into stereotypes. It has been shown that established narratives of security threat and economisation are prominent and that humanitarian frames and background information on displaced person situations are provided to a lesser extent.[9]

Marginalisation[edit | edit source]

Marginalisation is “the presentation of social groups as outside of society, as sitting on the edge and disconnected from the cohesive centre.” [10] It often attributes certain values or morals to the group and raises doubt about their ability to integrate within society, which can position them as a threat to the culture, norms and values of the society, and can impact any newcomer or minority group within society.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

The role of media in how displaced persons are portrayed is more important than ever before given the increasing level of displacement globally. Even when the media present and explain the existing challenges, with provision of accurate information on issues and events, these can become inflammatory or be misunderstood. Media can play a critical role in influencing public perception of migrants and/or in facilitating their integration. They can be a firewall against racism and xenophobia, or a catalyser of instinctive and emotional hostile reactions towards migrant people.

There continues to be a need to provide a provide a platform for the voices of displaced persons themselves, to tell their story and to be seen as the experts on their own stories, rather than relying on indirect representation, which enables the audience to move beyond a label to a real person with experience and expertise.

Resources[edit | edit source]

Media Coverage of the “Refugee Crisis”: A Cross-European Perspective - Council of Europe Support 2017

Refugees are not the crisis. It’s the narratives we tell about them. - UNHCR

Migration, Hate Speech and Media Ethics - UNICEF

Attitudes Towards Refugees, Immigrants, and Identity in France - More in Common

Attitudes Towards National Identity, Immigration, and Refugees in Greece - More in Common

Media Portrayals of Refugees and their Effects on Social Conflict and Social Cohesion - Müzeyyen PANDIR

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words - Shabnam Nasrollahi, Karlstad Univeritet

8 Stereotypes about migrants that we broke with data at #ddjcamp

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Pandir M. Media portrayals of refugees and their effects on social conflict and social cohesion. PERCEPTIONS: Journal of International Affairs. 2020 Mar 1;25(1):99-120.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 Pierigh F, Speicher S. Changing the narrative: Media representation of refugees and migrants in Europe. World Association for Christian Communciation. Retrieved March. 2017;7:2020.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Meyer A, editor. People on the Move: Handbook of selected terms and concepts. Hague Process on Refugees and Migration; 2008.
  4. Crush J, Ramachandran S. Xenophobia, international migration and development. Journal of Human Development and Capabilities. 2010 May 1;11(2):209-28.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Wilmott, A. C. (2017). The politics of photography: Visual depictions of Syrian Refugees in U.K. online media. Visual Communication Quarterly, 24, 67–82. doi:10.1080/15551393.2017.1307113
  6. Bleiker, R., Campbell, D., Hutchinson, E., & Nicholson, X. (2013). The visual dehumanization of refugees. Australian Journal of Political Science, 48, 398–416. doi:10.1080/10361146.2013.840769
  7. Batziou, A. (2011). Framing “otherness” in press photographs: The case of immigrants in Greece and Spain. Journal of Media Practice, 12, 41–60. doi:10.1386/jmpr.12.1.41_1
  8. The Arithmetic of Compassion. The Effects of Dehumanizing Visual Portrayals of Refugees. Available from [Last Accessed on 15 May 2022]
  9. Cooper G, Blumell L, Bunce M. Beyond the ‘refugee crisis’: How the UK news media represent asylum seekers across national boundaries. International Communication Gazette. 2021 Apr;83(3):195-216.
  10. Jakubowicz A. The media and social cohesion. Social cohesion in Australia. 2007 Jan 1.
  11. Western University. Media's Role in the Dehumanization of Immigrants and Refugees. Available from:[last accessed 30/06/22]