Almost a year and a half has passed since the haunting image of Alan Kurdi, a Syrian boy lying drowned on a Turkish beach, was published and shared more than 20 million times on social media. Although it seems the public attention has shifted from the refugee crisis to other hot topics in society, the story is far from over. In retrospect, this story of the so-called worst humanitarian crisis in history has a dark theme of fear and intolerance.
The UN human rights chief attacked Europe's 'chilling indifference’ to refugees. Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that although “heroic efforts” are underway to save lives in the Mediterranean, governments are turning their backs on those who survive the treacherous journey:. “I am particularly disturbed by lurid public narratives which appear deliberately aimed at stirring up public fear and panic, by depicting these vulnerable people as criminal invading hordes.” This takes us back to the moment when David Cameron used words such as a “swarm” and “bunch of” to describe migrants in public speech.
In mainstream media reports, asylum seekers were constantly presented as a seemingly endless tide of people who will steal jobs, become a burden on the state and ultimately threaten the native way of life.
This is understandable when politicians seek to get free publicity by using obviously derogatory words. However, they couldn’t achieve their intentions without the help of the media. As agenda-setting theories pointed out, politicians can promote their policy through the agenda-setting of mass media (McCombs & Shaw, 1993). The question is: do the media have to follow their rhetoric even when they concede to racism and xenophobia?
From an ethical perspective, the media should not just report whatever politicians say, but take the responsibility to select their own story. The problem with media reports about refugees is that they tend to provide an over-simplistic presentation of the asylum seekers. They lump them together and asylum seekers’ personal stories were seldom told. In addition, in mainstream media reports, asylum seekers were constantly presented as a seemingly endless tide of people who will steal jobs, become a burden on the state and ultimately threaten the native way of life (EJN, 2015). As scholars have demonstrated decades ago, story details shape people’s judgment about the matters under consideration, especially those issues remote from their personal experiences and concerns (McCombs & Shaw, 1993). Such portrayal in main-stream media can incorrectly and unfairly put groups of asylum seekers in a negative light.
What is also worthwhile to mention about the recent speech by the UN human rights chief is that he believed “many ordinary people in Europe have welcomed and supported migrants”. Is this indeed the case? Surveys show that three people out of ten are now opposed to any form of immigration, even from other EU countries (Cluskey, 2015). Take an example from a Dutch newspaper article, a local resident of Waalwijk states: “I am not against asylum-seekers, I just want to know how to prevent that they won't end up hanging around on the streets.”
Surveys show that three people out of ten are now opposed to any form of immigration, even from other EU countries.
With national governments pushing anti-refugee sentiments and media portrayals of the current EU refugee crisis, this sort of xenophobia towards asylum seekers is almost impossible to vanish into thin air.
"The Photo of my dead son has changed nothing." This is the voice of the father of Alan Kurdi, accusing the world of turning its back on Syria. Did the picture of Alan Kurdi really change anything? It seems many Syrians continued to board boats and many borders remained closed. To put an end to such tragedies behind the stories of aslyum seekers, it takes more than animage gone viral. The world leaders need to sit down at the table and talk, for a start - how can we end the war in Syria?
AD Nieuws (2015, September 18). Angst voor vluchtelingen groeit: 'Kan ik m'n rokje nog wel aan?'
Cluskey, P. (2015, September 17). Attitudes harden among Dutch as ever more migrants arrive. The Irish Times, The Hague.
Ethical Journalist Network (2015). Moving Stories
McCombs, M. E., & Shaw, D. L. (1993). The evolution of agenda‐setting research: twenty‐five years in the marketplace of ideas. Journal of communication, 43(2), 58-67.
Smith, J. B. (1998). Buyer–seller relationships: similarity, relationship management, and quality. Psychology & Marketing, 15(1), 3-21.