Media Coverage, IT/New Media/’Ethnic Media’, Science Communication and Terminological Issues in Migration Studies.

In this eight blog post, I will examine the key-role played by media coverage, not only while shaping general attitudes towards migrants, but also while broadcasting and conveying notions associated with particular competing moral economies. I will discuss terminological issues and the specificity of some of the results achieved on the field of migration studies, including some of my own results on IT/new media usage by specific groups of migrants. 

© Alexandra Pereira, CECC, UCP, 2022


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Highlights:

  • I argue that media coverage can play a key role in shaping public attitudes towards migrants. Media coverage also introduces and conveys notions and representations associated with certain competing moral economies in mainstream discourses and social debates (e.g. the way how migrations were portrayed in the mainstream media in South Europe during the Covid-19 pandemic and journalistic responsibility issues).
  • I summarize some of my own results on IT/new media usage by specific groups of migrants, while underlining the role of the so-called “ethnic media” or community media. 
  • Furthermore, I make notes on science communication, terminological issues on the field of migration studies and the counterintuitive and specific nature of some of the scientific evidence it produced. 

We live in a fast-paced world where breaking news are commonplace and information is disposable. I argue that media coverage can play a key role by introducing and conveying notions and representations associated with certain competing moral economies in mainstream discourses and social debates. Although we know that migrations and, in general, human lives and experiences, are complex realities, the use of categories becomes convenient because they help us, firstly, to turn the world more intelligible. However, journalistic language, unless it is produced by journalists specialized in certain topics, does not commonly convey a very high level of specificity nor is it addressed to a specialized audience (instead, it has the responsibility to communicate to and make itself understood by the wider society).

Despite this fact, it also becomes the responsibility of journalists to research beyond the surface, play a pedagogical role, listen and collaborate with experts in different fields before succumbing to the temptation of omniscience. And to try to explain in simple terms, understandable by a layperson, the terminological and conceptual differences which exist between distinct scientific and juridical categories. It is equally important that journalists do some inner work and “throw out” prejudices, stereotypes and judgements that are not based on research results (but on their own perceptions and preconceived ideas) before starting a news piece, otherwise they will convey and spread restrictive versions of moral economy.

Simultaneously, the promotion of broad collaborations, either with media outlets in other latitudes and continents, such as the migrants’ countries of origin, or with the so-called “ethnic media”, minority and community media in the countries of destination, would allow journalists of the mainstream media to come up with a broader picture of the realities they report on – while at the same time it would inoculate them, partially, against journalistic ethnocentrism. Reporters should have a notion of what constitutes a scientific body, with more or less established and consolidated results, distinguishing it clearly from the “cherry-picking” of punctual results, found during casual research carried out through online search engines (although the latter can, reassuringly, confirm the prejudices and preconceptions of the writer). UNESCO and the Erich Brost Institute for International Journalism published recently “Reporting on Migrants and Refugees” (2021), a very useful pedagogical manual including specific guidelines and case studies[1]. It includes graphs showing the selected main topics of migration coverage by percentage (%) in African and European media outlets:

Selected main topics of migration coverage by percentage (%) in African and European media outlets, “Reporting on Migrants and Refugees” (UNESCO, 2021, pp. 58).

We can observe that accident/disaster/rescue, integration and other problems after migration correspond to a large percentage of the total coverage, while other topics are neglected. Besides the need to diversify their coverage, journalists must know how to navigate the sea of ​​information at their disposal and rely on a connection with scientists who are, concurrently, good science communicators. Notwithstanding the fact that we can already find specific cases of journalists specialized in science who have themselves become fine science communicators, with a very deep level of specialized knowledge in certain domains (sometimes due to their personal academic paths, inquisitive, research-prone minds, or their very close personal relationships with scientists[2]).

The media coverage during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, especially in certain Southern European countries, turned evident a delimitation of borders between “us” and the “others” (“othering processes”) in many news pieces: the “foreigners” first affected by the consecutive waves of respiratory infections were often seen as “disease receptacles” and forced to comply with extraordinary sanitary measures. That is, those immigrant workers who were the most exposed, as they performed essential jobs, such as caring for the elderly, staff of supermarkets, restaurants and take out deliveries, and those producing food in the agriculture sector. Even though, as it was scientifically demonstrated in the UK later on[3], South Asian populations could, in fact, be more susceptible to the disease.

I Congreso Internacional de Periodismo UFV, Madrid, 2022

From my own qualitative research (continuing my previous research on migrations and new media, which dates back to 2018 and a paper later presented at Oxford’s IMISCOE Spring Conference, 2021), including online ethnography, 50 online questionnaires to Nepali migrants during the Autumn 2020 lockdown (N=50) and 20 semi-structured interviews to Nepali migrants living in Spain and Portugal (N=20), I could extract results concerning:

  • IT/new platforms, online media and independent journalism initiatives;
  • The nature of the different roles played by ethnic and institutional media and independent journalism for the Nepali diaspora in particular;
  • Media and IT effects on migrants (on their attitudes, perceptions & understandings about mobility and on their integration, migration or re-migration plans & forced stillness);
  • The sudden visibility of certain groups of otherwise invisible migrants;
  • Processes of symbolic bordering, securitization and exclusion;
  • Racist undertones and prejudices present in several Portuguese newspaper reports (e.g. they mentioned often the “smell of curry” when describing accommodations of Nepali migrant workers).

I concluded that Nepali migrants contribute to, challenge and reshape both media messages’ content and their delivery forms. I could also examine media platforms associated with decision-making and communications of all kinds exchanged amongst this diaspora – personal, social and news, as well as informations on employment/jobs, documentation or public health infos. These results were briefly presented during the First International Congress of Journalism – I Congreso Internacional de Periodismo UFV in Madrid, in October 2022[4].

However, media coverage is challenging: explaining terminological differences to a layperson can become a long and complex process, and to some extent an unproductive one – even more so if the recipient has a rather general and superficial interest in the reported subject. For example, within the field of migration research, as it can be easily understood by specialized scientists, an international business, organization, group or family will not have the same characteristics as a transnational business, organization, group or family, just as the processes of transnationalism have specific characteristics, conceptually distinct from international dynamics, trans-statism, long-distance nationalism or long-distance vilageness.

Here, the notions of transnational social fields, the type, magnitude, nature and intensity of the exchanges established, the transposition (or not) of hybrid institutional arrangements between countries (among other hybridization processes), the circulation of goods, values, norms and understandings, the relatively precise definition of what constitutes (or not) a diaspora, among other basic concepts, come into play. The mapping of migration studies based on empirical analysis[5] can, together with co-citations by authors in migration research (e.g. Levy, Pisarevskaya and Scholten, 2020), help us to define more concrete research themes: 

Co-citation map of authors with 10+ citations in migration research in the period 2005-2014. From Levy, Pisarevskaya and Scholten, 2020, p. 17, figure 10.

As Levy, Pisarevskaya and Scholten (2020) note: «Sociology was regarded as either the founding or a prominent discipline in migration studies by nearly all our interviewees. Our findings confirm this, showing that sociology has been one of the three core disciplines in the field since the 1970s. In Fig. 11 the readers can see that many clusters have a sociological orientation throughout the whole period of analysis. Moreover, since the 1990s, sociologists such as Bourdieu and Foucault – among the most-cited authors by migration scholars (Figs. 9 and 10) indicate sociology’s dominance in the field.» (Levy, Pisarevskaya and Scholten, 2020: 18). These authors also mention clear indicators of the so-called “cultural turn” in migration studies, with a clearly higher prevalence of qualitative studies and approaches in recent times. The Figure 11 below shows the co-citation clusters of migration studies literature between 1975-2018 and it is a visualisation of the genesis of migration studies as a research field:

Visualisation of the genesis of Migration Studies as a research field (1974–2018). Co-citation clusters of migration studies literature 1975–2018. From Levy, Pisarevskaya and Scholten, 2020, p. 18, figure 11.

In the domain of ​​migration studies, and leaving aside the classic Simmel (1908[6]) among other essential authors, vital distinctions for the communication between researchers have been established with greater or lesser rigor for at least 60 years, such as the fundamental conceptual distinctions between migrants, emigrants, immigrants, internal migrants, displaced persons, refugees, forced and impelled and involuntary migrations, seasonal, pendular and circular migrations, flows, inflows, outflows, net migration, temporary and permanent migration, remigration, mygratory routes, etc. (e.g. by J. A. Jackson, 1968/9[7], by Lee, 1966, or by Petersen, 1958). Many researchers of migration and mobilities still tend to recognize that these classifications, while useful from an operational, political and legal-juridical perspective, become more problematic and complex in social terms, and can in practice be placed on a spectrum – with some overlaps and gray areas where the border between one category and another, depending on the specific circumstances, populations and temporalities approached, may not be clear or may even be questioned. In more anthropological terms, as Cristina Santinho stated already in 2016[8]:

«It is the normativities produced in the legal field (Habermas 1997), which begin (…), particularly in Portugal, to be questioned by academic research in the social and human sciences, but also and more precisely by the militant activism of grassroots social organizations.» (Santinho, 2016: 58)

From a legal-juridical standpoint, there is also little debate around the distinction between statuses such as those of refugees[9], asylees[10] and beneficiaries of subsidiary protection[11][12] however, there are other definitions of refugees besides the one provided by the 1951 Convention[13] and benefits offered to asylum seekers vary considerably across EU member states. All these categories of migrants were subjected to an unplanned and, in many cases, more or less forced migration (in the case of refugees, beyond the existential precariousness and dispossession of their living conditions, there is a total impossibility of, or a serious threat to one’s life, in case of return, although many internally displaced persons-IDPs[14] later become refugees, and temporary displacement often leads to exile[15], and in many cases, refugees remain stateless – e.g. Myanmar’s Rohingyas in Bangladesh).

Besides terminology, another important issue is that scientific evidence can often be counterintuitive to common sense and elude simplistic explanations of observed phenomena. One example: contrary to what common sense might dictate, research shows (Czymara, 2021[16]) that european attitudes towards refugees do not simply follow trends in asylum applications (e.g. significantly lowering refugee numbers did not counter anti-refugee sentiments in the european public). There was an increase in negative attitudes during times of considerable demographic shifts (and this effect was stronger for conservative europeans as well as for those who distrust EU-politics). Moreover, while a general willingness to help was associated with more openness toward refugees, actually experiencing foreigner inflow diminished this link, suggesting limitations of humanitarian concerns. Temporal dynamics thus seems crucial for the formation of attitudes towards refugees in contemporary Europe (more so than influx size) and points to potentially polarizing effects of immigration along ideological lines, together with the importance of the type of media culture prevailing in each european country[17].

Researchers have also demonstrated[18][19][20] that, even if refugees are a subset within the total population of immigrants, these two groups of foreigners have been, indeed, viewed as distinct by europeans[21] and differences emerge because attitudes towards refugees are more often related to macro-level factors, while immigrants are more frequently associated with micro-level economic concerns. Back in 2016, Ramos, Louceiro and Graça showed that the attitude towards the reception of refugees in European countries was, in 2014/15, more positive than in 2002/03, and also more positive than the attitude towards the reception of immigrants in general[22], although the association between one category and the other had increased. Yantseva (2021) adopts a different perspective, in the context of her recent research with Facebook users, specifically in Sweden:

«Although some of the existing studies highlight the difference between the deserving refugees and undeserving migrants[23], I find that the idea of deservingness is more typical for the immigrant label. The concepts of criminality or threat, as well as costs and benefits, seem to be typically activated in the construction of deserving versus undeserving immigrants. Criminal record, type of entry, level of education and ability to pay taxes are the factors that seem to play the key role in this bordering process that, according to the Facebook users [in Sweden], defines whether particular groups of immigrants are to be tolerated or not. Open racism, in this case, is covered and rationalised by the argumentative character of the messages and extensive appeals to numbers and statistics, as well as references to external resources, which is argued to be one of the most basic discursive strategies [2, p.35].» (Yantseva, 2021: 14-15)

In Portugal, it was shown that the use of different linguistic labels can influence the attitudes and perceptions of the portuguese: the label “migrants” is evaluated significantly more negatively than the labels “refugees” or “asylum seekers” (Vinhais, 2018)[24]. Although this has been a general tendency in West Europe, in Slovakia, a very particular context, Findor et al. (2021)[25] found results among university students which contradict the previous findings from Western European countries and they argue for the importance of showing a greater sensitivity to variable contextual factors (cultural, institutional, and normative) in the future. Their results also confirmed the role of positive, frequent, direct and extended intergroup contact in shaping the evaluations of different migrant categorizations.

Attitudes towards immigrants are generally more determined by perceptions than by actual data and real immigration size, although there is a correlation between immigration size and perceptions. For example, Gorodzeisky and Semyonov (2019)[26] have shown that misperceptions of the size of immigrant population play a more important role than factual reality in shaping public views and attitudes towards immigration. Although perceived size is not totally detached from actual size, the discrepancy between actual and perceived size is found to be a more powerful predictor of opposition to immigration than actual size. The more inflated is the misperception, the more pronounced is the opposition to immigration. The impact of misperceptions, when measured as a discrepancy or a ratio, on anti-immigrant attitudes was also more pronounced in countries with, proportionally, a larger foreign-born population.

As many of our perceptions are shaped by the media (e.g. number of news focusing on a particular migrant group, positive or negative images and representations conveyed and general content of the news pieces targeting migrants), once again it is shown that besides influencing general public attitudes, perceptions and cognitive biases, the media can, in a given, specific socio-historic context widely disseminate concepts, ideas and representations associated preferentially with one competing moral economy over the others.

Here are, in my opinion, some exemplary cases of good quality reports covering migration by journalists Corinne Redfern and Ajay Makan. And an insightful debate by the International Journalism Festival (2022) – “Covering migration on European media in the age of populism”:

*Please find the portuguese translation on the next page

*Para a tradução portuguesa da publicação, por favor aceda à próxima página


[1] Reporting on migrants and refugees: handbook for journalism educators – UNESCO Digital Library.

[2] The case of Brazilian science journalist and science communicator Carlos Orsi and his companion, the microbiologist and science communicator Natalia Pasternak, is one that comes to mind (among others, namely in the anglo saxon world).

[3] Researchers uncover gene that doubles risk of death from COVID-19 | University of Oxford.

[4] Roles Played by Institutional Media and Independent Journalism Among the Nepali Diaspora Living in Spain & Portugal.

[5] Between fragmentation and institutionalisation: the rise of migration studies as a research field | Comparative Migration Studies | Full Text (springeropen.com). Also refer to: On uneven internationalisation, disciplinary diversity and interpretation of co-citation analysis | Comparative Migration Studies | Full Text (springeropen.com) and Mapping migration studies: An empirical analysis of the coming of age of a research field | Migration Studies | Oxford Academic (oup.com).

[6] Simmel, G. (1908), Soziologie. Untersuchungen über die Formen der Vergesellschaftung, Berlim, Duncker e Humblot Editores, pp. 509-512, [trad. por Mauro P. Koury in RBSE, Vol. 4, nº 12, Dezembro de 2005] and (1950), The sociology of Georg Simmel (KH Wolff, Trans.), Glencoe, IL: The Free Press.(Original work published in 1908).

[7] Jackson, J. A. (Ed) (1968, 1969), MigrationSociological Studies No. 2, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

[8] Santinho, M. C. (2016). Refugiados e requerentes de asilo em Portugal: contornos políticos no campo da saúde (Vol. 48). Observatório das Migrações, ACM, IP.

[9] The 1951 Refugee Convention, as amended by the 1967 Protocol, defines a refugee as a person who, “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his/her nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail him-/herself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his/her former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it”. As already noted by Kuhlman (1991) 21 years ago there are, however, other definitions available.

[10] An asylum-seeker is a person “who seeks safety from persecution or serious harm in a country other than their own [and who] has made an application for protection under the Geneva Convention in respect of which a final decision has not yet been taken” (Article 2(c) of Council Directive 2003/9/EC).

[11] European legislation (Directive 2004/83/EC and Directive 2011/95/EU) defines subsidiary protection status as “a third-country national or stateless person who would face a real risk of suffering serious harm if he/she were to return to his/her country of origin”. Beneficiaries of subsidiary protection tend to hold this renewable status for a year.

[12] Schenner, J. K., & Neergaard, A. (2019). Asylum-seekers and refugees within Europe and labour market integration. Transfer: European Review of Labour and Research25(1), 13-24.

[13] Kuhlman, T. (1991). Towards a definition of refugees. Refugee Studies Centre.

[14] Internally displaced persons, or IDPs, are the fastest growing category of displaced people in the world. There were an estimated 59.1 million internally displaced persons in the world in 2021 (+38 million), a larger number than that of refugees (IDCM Global Report, 2022).

[15] Commentary: Refugees Need Protection in Their Own Countries (usnews.com) (Sharma, 2022).

[16] Czymara, C. S. (2021). Attitudes toward refugees in contemporary Europe: A longitudinal perspective on cross-national differences. Social Forces99(3), 1306-1333.

[17] Press coverage of the refugee and migrant crisis in the EU: a content analysis of five European countries -ORCA (cardiff.ac.uk).

[18] Abdelaaty, L., & Steele, L. G. (2022). Explaining attitudes toward refugees and immigrants in Europe. Political Studies70(1), 110-130.

[19] Refugee or Migrant Crisis? Labels, Perceived Agency, and Sentiment Polarity in Online Discussions – Ju-Sung Lee, Adina Nerghes, 2018 (sagepub.com).

[20] A Text Mining Approach to Determinants of Attitude Towards Syrian Immigration in the Turkish Twittersphere – Huseyin Zeyd Koytak, Muhammed Hasan Celik, 2022 (sagepub.com).

[21] Yantseva, V. (2021). The discursive construction of migrant otherness on Facebook: A distributional semantics approach. SocArXiv. June2.

[22] Repositório da Universidade de Lisboa: Migrações e Refugiados: Atitudes e percepções dos europeus (ul.pt).

[23] S. M. Holmes and H. Castañeda, “Representing the ‘European refugee crisis´ in Germany and beyond: Deservingness and difference, life and death,” American Ethnologist, vol. 43, no. 1, pp. 12–24, 2016.

[24] Repositório do Iscte – Instituto Universitário de Lisboa: Migrantes, refugiados, e requerentes de asilo: como diferentes rótulos linguísticos podem influenciar nas atitudes dos portugueses (iscte-iul.pt). Also refer to: Vala, J. & C. R. Pereira (2018). “Racisms and normative pressures: a new outbreak of biological racism?”. In Changing Societies: Legacies and Challenges. Vol. ii. Citizenship in Crisis, eds. M. C. Lobo, F. C. da Silva and J. P. Zúquete. Lisbon: Imprensa de Ciências Sociais, 217-248. https://doi.org/10.31447/ics9789726715047.09 . These authors affirm: «Using data from ess7 (2014/15), Ramos, Pereira and Vala (in press) showed that biological and cultural racism not only predict the preference for ethnicist criteria in the selection of immigrants, but also that both biological and cultural racism predict the perception that migrants from poorer countries outside Europe and migrants perceived to belong to a different race or ethnic groups represent an economic threat and a threat to the cultural identity of host European countries. Importantly, these threat perceptions legitimise the association between racism and the preference for ethnicist criteria for selecting immigrants. The preference for those criteria are psychologically dissociated from racism and associated with threat perceptions and, therefore, the self-image of individuals is protected from the censure of the anti-racism norm and self-esteem is maintained (Pereira, Álvaro and Vala 2018).» (Vala and Pereira, 2018: 238).

[25] Re-examining public opinion preferences for migrant categorizations: “Refugees” are evaluated more negatively than “migrants” and “foreigners” related to participants’ direct, extended, and mass-mediated intergroup contact experiences – ScienceDirect. For possible explanations, please refer (among other sources) to: Ten Important Facts to Know About Refugees in Slovakia (borgenproject.org).

[26] Gorodzeisky, A., & Semyonov, M. (2020). Perceptions and misperceptions: actual size, perceived size and opposition to immigration in European societies. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies46(3), 612-630.


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