Media Interest in Refugees May Have Peaked … the Influx Hasn’t
Children are still paying with their lives trying to get to the EU, but it’s no longer front page news.
Since the beginning of last month when the photograph of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach shocked Europeans – public and politicians alike – into grasping the plight of the thousands of refugees on the move from Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan and elsewhere in Africa, more than 40 more children have died.
Men and women are also continuing to lose their lives.
In total, the International Organisation for Migration estimates 3,000 people have died so far this year and the influx is not expected to slow any time soon despite the onset of winter, which will make the trek even more dangerous.
But much of the media has moved on to other stories and the refugees have slipped out of the headlines and down running orders as journalists focus on what they see as fresher news.
The issue briefly returned to the headlines as EU leaders met to agree a grand bargain with Turkey of more aid and visa liberalisation for Turks in exchange for better control of the refugee flow, but the reporting was focused more on the political deal-making than the continuing plight of the refugees.
When challenged, the argument you’ll hear in newsrooms will be that the refugee flows aren’t really news anymore.
It is a common failing. Unable to come up with fresh angles on a story, editors tend to move on and forget to follow up on stories only a few weeks before they couldn’t seem to get enough of.
With the direct intervention of Russia in the war in Syria at the end of September catching many off guard, including most journalists and commentators, the media returned its attention to what is happening on the battlefield.
The people fleeing the conflict have been of less interest, which is an odd omission given the fact that Russia’s military action backing a new government offensive and the response of the US and Saudi Arabia of increasing support for the rebels only makes it likely even more people will flee and add to the refugee flow.
Missing the obvious, with a few exceptions, media outlets are failing to draw their readers’ and audiences’ attention to the link between the man-made humanitarian catastrophe that is the Syrian civil war, the failure of many European states to contribute adequately to the aid operations for refugees in the neighbouring countries, and people making the decision to leave their life and livelihoods behind to seek refuge away from the bombs and bullets.
So should more of the media have stayed with the story?
While most journalists insist they are not campaigners and they are neutral reporters of events, editors in western countries make much of their role as the fourth estate; the guardians of democracy.
But a democracy can only be healthy when citizens – the voters – are well informed about the key issues their political representatives are grappling with.
The refugee influx is one such issue. The numbers are unprecedented in most Europeans’ lifetimes – not since the aftermath of World War Two has the continent seen so many people on the move.
And although many ordinary Europeans, aid organisations and governments have been trying to help the people arriving by road and by sea, we have also witnessed the less noble side of many on the continent who have resorted to spreading rumour and misinformation for their own ends.
The Hungarian government went as far as to stir up anti-refugee sentiment by stuffing scaremongering leaflets through their citizens’ letterboxes. British tabloids have conflated the people seeking asylum with economic migrants to burnish their attacks on the government over immigration. Even in Germany, which along with Sweden has stood out as one of the most sympathetic countries, far right extremists have attacked refugee reception centres.
If European publics are ill-informed about who the refugees are and why they are coming – that they are ordinary people like themselves who’ve been forced to flee their homes – they are less likely to support decisions made by politicians to share the burden of offering asylum and to increase aid to the chronically underfunded relief operation supporting people displaced by conflict.
Charities and NGOs will also find it harder to raise money for the same cause and that in turn could well mean more people attempting the journey to Europe.
Given the refugees are going to keep on coming for the foreseeable future and governments are already struggling to cope with the numbers, the media will be failing in their role as the fourth estate and failing their readers and audiences if they continue to let their interest in the story fade.
If they think their readers and audiences are zoning out, journalists need to find fresh ways to report and explain the whys and wherefores of the influx and to hold politicians to account for the way they have dealt with both the refugees arriving and the reasons they are fleeing their homes.