Council of Europe report: Media coverage of the “refugee crisis”: A cross-European perspective

Media have played an important role in framing the public debate on the “refugee crisis” that peaked in autumn of 2015. This report examines the narratives developed by print media in eight European countries and how they contributed to the public perception of the “crisis”, shifting from careful tolerance over the summer, to an outpouring of solidarity and humanitarianism in September 2015, and to a securitisation of the debate and a narrative of fear in November 2015.

Overall, there has been limited opportunity in mainstream media coverage for refugees and migrants to give their views on events, and little attention paid to the individuals’ plight or the global and historical context of their displacement. Refugees and migrants are often portrayed as an undistinguishable group of anonymous and unskilled outsiders who are either vulnerable or dangerous. The dissemination of biased or ill-founded information contributes to perpetuating stereotypes and creating an unfavourable environment not only for the reception of refugees but also for the longer-term perspectives of societal integration.

The report is organised in three main sections:

1. The policy and media context of the media coverage;

2. The key elements of press coverage across Europe in eight countries (Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Serbia and the United Kingdom);

3. Challenges of media practices and recommendations.

Executive Summary

  1. European press played a central role in framing refugees’ and migrants’ arrival to European shores in 2015 as a crisis for Europe. While coverage of “the crisis” is characterised by significant diversity, overall, new arrivals were seen as outsiders and different to Europeans: either as vulnerable outsiders or as dangerous outsiders.
  2. Regional trends: There are significant differences in the coverage across European regions. Especially at the beginning of “the crisis”, and to an extent throughout it, there was a stark contrast between media coverage on the West and the East and especially, between media in the receiving and non-receiving countries.
  3. Temporal trends: the narratives of the coverage changed across Europe during 2015. The sympathetic and empathetic response of a large proportion of the European press in the summer and especially early autumn of 2015 was gradually replaced by suspicion and, in some cases, hostility towards refugees and migrants.
  4. Media trends: Press coverage that promoted hate speech and hostility towards migrants and refugees was systematic and persistent in a proportion of the press. This was especially the case in some parts of Eastern Europe (esp. Hungary), throughout “the crisis” and in a significant section of some countries’ right-leaning press in the East and West Europe alike.
  5. Voice: Refugees and migrants were given limited opportunities to speak directly of their experiences and suffering. Most often they were spoken about and represented in images as silent actors and victims. There were some significant exceptions, but these were time and place specific.
  6. Gender: Female refugees’ and migrants’ voices were hardly ever heard. In some countries, they were never given the opportunity to speak (e.g. Hungary) while in other cases (e.g. Germany) they were only occasionally given this opportunity.
  7. Context: Overall, media paid little and scattered attention to the context of refugee and migrant plight. There was little connection between stories on new arrivals and war reporting or between stories on refugee plight and international news stories from their countries of origins. In addition, little and scattered information was made available to the public about migrants’ and refugees’ individual stories, their lives and cultures; thus information about who these people actually are was absent or marginal in much of the press coverage in most European countries.
  8. As the “refugee/migration crisis” is entering a new phase, media continue to face significant challenges in safeguarding the values of independent and fair journalism, while respecting freedom of expression for all and tackling hate speech in Europe. Self-regulatory and international bodies and organisations need to support media in these efforts.

Download the report ‘Media coverage of the “refugee crisis”: A cross-European perspective