Špela Drnovšek Zorko: Continuing the media debate at a Migrant Voice seminar

GMT 17:16 Wednesday ,09 April 2014

 Migrant Voice - Špela Drnovšek Zorko: Continuing the media debate at a Migrant Voice seminar

Špela Drnovšek Zorko

How do we change the way the migration story is told in the media? And how do we actively work with journalists to get nuanced stories by migrants into the press? Addressing these issues lies at the core of Migrant Voice’s mission, and is reflected in the media seminars organised by the organisation with the aim of encouraging dialogue between media professionals and migrants interested in changing the dominant slant of press coverage on migration. The most recent seminar, held by Migrant Voice in London on the 25 March, was conceived as a forum for these broader discussions, this time with a particular focus on the media representation of migrants from Syria, Romania, and Bulgaria. As Nazek Ramadan, Director of Migrant Voice pointed out in her introduction, most recent stories on migration have covered these two communities: from the largely sympathetic coverage of Syrian refugees fleeing the war, which has nevertheless not been reflected in government policy, to the predominantly negative coverage of Romanian and Bulgarian migrants, who were at the start of the year granted full employment rights in the UK. The issues raised by the disparate media approaches to these two groups seem to me to broadly reflect two key themes which emerged throughout the course of the evening. The first is, naturally, the question of how to counter negative representations with more positive stories of migration, as well as how to challenge the broader media culture of increased hostility toward migration – in other words, the nuts and bolts of journalism and the concrete possibilities of intervening to change the outline of the story. The other, more implicit issue, however, concerns the inherent limitations of media representation as a political strategy: to what extent can journalists affect concrete changes, not only on an institutional political level, but even within the context of internal editorial policies? The seminar began with the screening of a short documentary: Syria: a crisis at Fortress Europe's gates recently produced by John Domokos and Alex Rees for The Guardian. The film which follows the experiences of Syrian refugees trying to get into a Europe determined to keep their borders shut, and the lives of those who have made it to Bulgaria. The first of the invited speakers, Harriet Grant, a freelance journalist, working for the Guardian, the BBC and Channel 4 News, who also had a hand in supporting the production of the documentary, explained that the film was shot as part of an internal Guardian project launched after the Lampedusa tragedy last year, in order to explore the difficulties faced by asylum seekers and migrants trying to reach safety in Europe. The project, she added, was lucky enough to have editorial support, which means receiving sufficient financial means for producing the film as well as a prominent spot on the newspaper’s website. In one sense, this was an example of a migration story done well: a sympathetic treatment of refugees fleeing violence, and strongly implied criticism of a European-wide politics which pumps vast amounts of money into policing external EU borders while doing little to aid people fleeing horrific violence. And yet, as the audience discussion which followed the panel members’ contributions indicated, media coverage can only go so far in influencing action on a political level.  Even when migration is represented in sympathetic terms, the role of the media is only a single cog in the system of British policy toward migrants and migration. This relationship is, however, clearly multi-layered. The second speaker, Ian Dunt from Politics.co.uk, raised the issue of a divide between journalists and their editors’ policies: most journalists, he pointed out, are sympathetic and open to submitting positive migration-related stories, but are limited by the possibilities afforded by the inner workings of their media outlet. It seemed to me that what is implicit in this discussion is that the cycle of media coverage simultaneously influences and is influenced by prevailing public opinion, which in turn affects and is shaped by institutional politics. In a climate where the government’s policies of austerity go hand-in-hand with scapegoating migrants, the media is clearly a crucial, but not the only element responsible for propagating particular types of images of migrants. However, acknowledging the limitations of both individual journalists and the media in general does not mean dismissing the continued importance of supporting a multiplicity of voices on migration. As the third guest of the evening, Dr. Tommy Tomescu of the Alliance against Romanian and Bulgarian Discrimination pointed out, the sheer act of establishing a presence in the media landscape can mean the difference between a one-sided and a more nuanced story. Being willing to “make a fuss”, in other words, can still be an effective strategy, particularly when the strongest voices heard about a given community are those of intolerance. His experiences, and those of others in the Alliance, show that fighting back with level-headed facts and personal human stories is essential at a time when stereotypes about Bulgarians and Romanians are dominating our media. If we do accept that better representation is one vital step toward more effective policy, as I would personally also continue to advocate, then practical strategies for building relationships with journalists and media outlets are essential. All three speakers offered practical advice on getting stories into the press. Harriet Grant and Ian Dunt both stressed the importance of building a long-term working relationship with a journalist. When responding to a question from the audience about what to do when a story just isn't being picked up, Harriet Grant recommended perseverance: it is well worth following up and asking why your story didn't work and how you can re-visit it, as well as emphasising your willingness to be involved in any future coverage on the topic. Ian Dunt advised us to develop personal relationships with a journalist, and also emphasised the importance of knowing the profile of the media outlet you are pitching your story to: what kind of slant will work for the profile of a particular newspaper? Even the more right-wing outlets might publish a positive story on migration if, for instance, it highlights the economic costs of limiting numbers of migrants. It is also always worth knowing the internal workings of a given newspaper. Tommy Tomescu emphasised personal stories as a means of countering negative, de-humanising coverage, and advised that making yourself useful is a key step in helping journalists cover such stories. Show that you can deliver contacts; ask to be included in a database, so that journalists always have someone to go to when a related story pops up. What emerged over and over again in the discussion is that journalists are actively looking for stories – and that despite the limitations of editorial policies which have a limited space for migration-related themes, it can’t hurt to offer them ours. To ensure migrants voices were prominent in the seminar, there were a number of ‘pop-up’ migrant speakers, including several from the Syrian and Romanian and Bulgarian communities, presenting the situation from their perspective and the experiences of their community. I want to end with a brief reflection on the concept of ‘types’ of stories. A member of the audience asked whether given the choice, journalists would pick a ‘tragic’ or a ‘positive’ story on migration. The question prompted thoughtful answers, as the two journalists on the panel had partially conflicting views which they tied to the demands of the media cycle and reader interest. I find it a shame, however, that we must speak in such dichotomies. Clearly the stories of migrants are multi-faceted: what was clear to me throughout the course of the evening, listening to questions and contributions by Migrant Voice members in the audience, was that such stories can be both difficult and hopeful, optimistic and resigned, at the same time. In trying to improve the debate on migration, how do we balance the demands of being strategic in our approach with the need to present stories as multi-faceted as migrants’ experiences themselves? At the end of the session, the journalist guests invited participants to come to them with stories they wished to pitch to the media – let us hope that in the future, we will continue to see more nuanced and layered stories which better represent the lives of migrants featured in the mainstream press. Špela Drnovšek Zorko is a PhD student at the Centre for Migration and Diaspora Studies at SOAS, University of London. She is attached to an EU-funded research project on diasporic constructions of home and belonging, and is currently working on an ethnography of family stories among the former Yugoslav diasporas in Britain.  


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