How journalism can rid migration of its sour reputation


Migration is often at the centre of the public debate, but how do the media treat this topic? To what extent do the media reflect the public opinion, and to what extent do they shape it? In both cases, the media have a responsibility journalists should not forget about when reporting and writing articles. Inaccuracy should be avoided, as it might build a misleading portrait of the public opinion or, even worse, have a negative influence on it.

Here are some common mistakes and good practices that should be taken into account when writing about migration.

Misuse of words

There is no need to say that, as a general rule, when it comes to writing articles journalists must be very careful in what they say, but also in choosing their words. In the case of migration issues, misuse of words can lead to negative perceptions of migrants. For example, the term "illegal" is very often used to describe undocumented migrants. This negatively connoted word criminalises and marginalises migrants. The Associated Press recently banned the expression "illegal immigrant" and edited its Stylebook in accordance to this decision. EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström commented shortly after on Twitter that the EU should do the same and eradicated the term from all documents.

Negative portrayals

Most stories involving migrants in the media are cases of crimes or tragedies. Very rarely are examples of successful insertion in society portrayed. It goes without saying that migrants do not benefit from such a negative advertisement and that it creates a sense of marginalisation.


In societies where migration is currently a reality and has been increasing in recent times, such as in Italy, there is a general tendency to think that migrants are responsible for almost all crimes. This perception partly derives from the fact that journalists often underline the nationality of criminals when it comes to migrants, even in the early stages of the investigations, before anybody has been indicted. Newspapers' titles never say 'Italian man kills his daughter', but do often say 'Young Maghrebi rapes girl'.

According to a study conducted by the organisation, Caritas, there is a tendency to believe that foreigners commit most crimes. The international organisation has used the fact that migrants are often found in the crime related news stories, to create a campaign poster that sends out a positive message about integration.

“The usual migrant protagonist of a crime related news story”

Facts and figures

Facts and figures need to be used as much as possible, as they outline events and give them a real shape. For example, according to the World Migration Report 2011 "Communicating effectively about migration" published by the International Organisation for Migrations (IOM), people think that migration flows are much more important than they actually are. For instance, the study reports that the general public in Italy perceive that the percentage of migrants corresponds to 25% of the population, when it actually amounts to only 7%. In the United States the perceived figure is 39%, whereas the actual percentage is 14%. The public debate tends to focus more on emotions and politics rather than facts and figures.

Human stories

Readers are going to sympathise much more with a story about young Khaled fleeing from the war in Syria rather than with one about hundreds of migrants who lost their lives while crossing the border, or about the number of Syrian refugees reaching one million. Names and life experiences make a story livelier and capture readers' attention. Interviews bringing out personal experiences are not very common. According to the IOM, civil society organisations should encourage migrants to use the media to make their voice heard.

Limited access to sources

Undocumented migrants' arrival in the European Union is very difficult to report on, due to very restricted – most of the times forbidden – access to reception and detention centres. Therefore, citizens know little to nothing about life conditions in these centres. Consequently they are not particularly concerned by possible human rights abuses. Because of this obstacle, the coverage of migration issues is not complete.

Catchall issue

Migration is a catchall issue. The amount of space that migration occupies in the public debate varies according to the political agenda. For example, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy made wide use of it in his political discourse, as his campaign was strongly based on security.

During periods of crisis the migration issue is often presented as a problem by politicians to distract the public opinion from unemployment and budget cuts, and to put the blame on foreigners rather than on the government in place. This is for example the case in Italy, where, according to the study conducted by Caritas, "foreigners became the scapegoat for Italians' uncertainty typical of a phase of strong cultural changes and economic crisis".

It is often said by right-wing politicians that migrants are a bargain for countries of reception and that they cost a lot of money, but a campaign video, whose data are based on a report presented at the French Parliament, made by the European Greens, proves that through concrete calculations, migrants are actually beneficial to the society welcoming them. The campaign takes the example of France, where, in 2009, migrants produced a wealth worth €12 billion. 

All these aspects need to be taken into consideration when reporting on migration, as, according to the IOM’s report, "there seems to be a relationship between media coverage on migration and the extent of public concern about migration".