Media, journalists, and migrants

The current events in the border area of Latvia–Belarus are a reason to create daily news centered on migrants, border crossing, fence, breaking through it, deterring migrants, or allowing migrants into Latvia. The process is justifiably described in the context of the hybrid war by the Belarusian regime. How to write about all this in the media professionally and ethically?

The issue is very complicated because it concerns both human rights and international regulation, international relations, national security risks, political priorities, social and economic processes, fears and threats that create emotional reactions... I have received and evaluated a submission in which I recognized that a story on events in Latvia's border area, created by Latvian Television (LTV), violated the principle of Latvian public media editorial guidelines related to the duty to avoid stereotyping.

Using this experience, I would like to offer a clarification of the decision and discuss the dilemmas to be assessed by journalists, trying to show events involving people from other countries, other races, and different cultures crossing borders without legitimate justification.

The good refugees and the bad migrants

The same people, different words. Words make ones good, empathy-raising, the others – bad, unwanted, left without support. This is concluded in a study by Caroline Wyszynscki (2022), explaining that the terms used in the media define people's attitudes. For example, the term “refugees” is associated with higher public support and paternal attitudes, while people called “economic migrants” are perceived with suspicion and even envy, and society is less willing to give them support.

From a professional ethical point of view, refugees and other migrants belong to a vulnerable group because they are in foreign countries, tired, stressed, faced with language and cultural barriers, are economically and socially vulnerable, an easy target for criminals.

Research has found that media coverage links migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers with social problems, poverty, and crime, but this is not backed by statistics. Thus, it has led to a reassessment of the media practice guidelines.

Ethical rules related to the content of migration draw the attention of media professionals to those factors that would help to show different migrants in such a way that their belonging to a group, even if some occasions include threats, risks, and infringements, is not automatically linked to the whole group.

In this context, words and their meanings are of high importance to avoid the formation of an attitude that justifies discrimination. This happens in media practice where migrants are shown in large groups, as a mass, without going into the fate of certain individuals, because it promotes dehumanization and marginalization of these people, or an unjustified aestheticization of their fate. The inability to discern individual people with their own goals and ambitions in a large group of migrants, refugees or asylum seekers, may lead to a second extreme that migrants appear only as victims. The portrayal of refugees in the media has an impact on their fate and well-being, which influences migration policy and even the voting of the population in elections. Researchers conclude that there is no uniform terminology on how to call different migrants because the same word can denote very different people and statuses.

Therefore, the majority of professional media pays attention to this issue and seeks to use uniform principles for the portrayal of migrants. They are based on recommendations from international organizations such as UNESCO. They offer dozens of terms regarding persons who, for various reasons, are permanently or regularly located outside their home countries. The recommendations state that the term “illegal migrants” we see on a daily basis in the media content is not acceptable, considered inadequate, and should be used with great caution, as it first eliminates the border between a person and their status and, secondly, creates a negative hue. This impression is created by the meaning of the word “illegal”, which associates not only status, whereabouts, behavior and the situation in which the person is, but also the person,  with lawlessness. The word can thus reinforce the alienation of a migrant and promote negative attitudes and discrimination.

A new type of immigration?

Events in Latvia's border area are not a typical refugee crisis that many countries in the world regularly and permanently experience. It also differs from a relatively recent experience when the European Union experienced a serious influx of refugees in 2015. Then, too, migrant-labeling words and the media coverage of migrants were reassessed, creating dictionaries for media professionals writing about refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants. In the Latvian media, which lacked the resources to visit the arrival sites of migrants, this crisis was largely reflected by national and international officials, with much less importance being given to the voices of the migrants themselves (Rožukalne et al., 2020).

The events at the border of Latvia, Poland, Lithuania, and Belarus, which have been covered extensively since autumn 2021, are much more complicated. While people are still trying to cross borders, the story includes both Belarus's involvement in organizing the flow of migrants from Iraq and Iran, the death of migrants, and their violent behavior toward border guards.

I would like to recall that due to the state of emergency, Latvian journalists had limited access to people and events in the border area, risking one-sided representation of them and failure to verify conflicting information. Public media received criticisms from politicians about reflecting the situation on the Polish-Belarusian border.

However, in this situation, there is a discussion about the potential impact of the media on public awareness of these processes and the development of attitudes towards immigrants, even if their arrival is prevented or deemed undesirable.

The use of hybrid warfare by the Belarusian regime, moving mostly Iranian and Iraqi citizens across the borders of EU countries, creates not only a great deal of stress, material damage, and security risks, but also a professional ethical dilemma whether and how to demonstrate the problem of migration on a multilateral basis without losing human values. This means not directly extending the Belarus regime's abuses to people politically exploited by the regime, who have chosen to take advantage of opportunities to enter the EU from Belarus, often in a helpless and life-threatening state.

Public media editorial guidelines include the principle of professional ethics – avoiding stereotyping. This is due to the potential impact of media content and defining an attitude that can cause disgust, risk of discrimination, and promote prejudice towards different groups of society. The project "Development of a responsible, multilateral and high-quality journalism in Latvian national and regional media promoting the integration of third-country nationals" has established guidelines and offers explanations and materials to reflect migration in a balanced and accurate manner. The media rights to a critical assessment of migration processes is acknowledged, it is recommended that statements by political or other officials should not be distributed without review, and that the context of multi-faceted events be offered. These recommendations include examples of good and not-so-good practices.

Words and people

The case referred to at the beginning refers to the story  “Immigrant group succeeds in illegally crossing Latvia's border; 6 persons detained”. The application [to the public media ombud] concerns an infringement of professional ethics related to the language. According to the submission, “where a border guard or a local farmer is consistently referred to using the same descriptive, the six-person group mentioned in the article is referred to as immigrants or illegal invaders”. The applicant writes that the word “illegal” has been used six times in the story, but not once has it been mentioned that, for example, these people could be refugees (legal refugee status) or would potentially like to ask for asylum in Latvia, which is de facto impossible in a legal way under current regulation. International law binding on the Republic of Latvia provides that any third-country national or stateless person has the right to request international protection, including at its borders or in transit zones, even if he or she is illegally present in that territory. Without context and without observing the presumption of innocence, inconsistent categorization of these people with consistent negative connotations should be evaluated in accordance with the Latvian Public Media editorial guidelines.

In the evaluation of the story, communication was made with the editor-in-chief of LTV and public media. LTV agreed to criticism that the story did not provide sufficient context and sent explanatory material to its partner, with a view to further closely following the process of creating such content. Moreover, LTV has “repeatedly developed stories about individuals who are being directed by the Belarusian regime on the territory of Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland in the framework of the hybrid war”, according to the public media response. In this situation, too, it was necessary to address the ethical dilemma, to rely on the clarification of the official and to quote it accurately, or to offer more information and use internationally recognized terms.

The writer is an associate professor of Riga Stradiņš University and serves as the current Latvian public electronic mass media ombud, whose role, according to the law, is to "monitor the conformity of the services provided by public electronic mass media with the objective laid down in Section 1 of this Law and the basic principles for the operation of public electronic mass media laid down in Section 3 of this Law, the code of ethics and editorial guidelines of public electronic mass media and, upon its own initiative or on the basis of the submissions of persons, provide an opinion on the conformity of the programs and services of public electronic mass media with the abovementioned documents, and also perform other functions laid down in this Law." You can read the full laws HERE. As part of Latvian public media, LSM, including this English-language portal, comes within the remit of the ombudsman.

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