Syrian children march in the refugee camp in Jordan. The number of Children in this camp exceeds 60% of the total number of refugees hence the name "Children's camp". Some of them lost their relatives, but others lost their parents.
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Opinion: The media cannot hide from its role in negative attitudes towards asylum seekers

7 mins read

As an aspiring professional journalist and equality, diversity, and inclusion devotee, I spend a lot of time thinking about the responsibility of the press and the real-world effects journalists have with their words. Often this is a kind of theoretical debate I hold internally – why was that article framed that way, what sources did they not ask for comment, etc. I find that interrogating the news media in this way helps me to understand perspectives and improves my own journalistic process.

Today I want to shine a light on something that is deeply troubling me as I introspect – the media coverage of the terrorist attack on a refugee facility in Dover on October 30. In fact, the coverage has been so particular in phrasing the attack that you might not know to what I am referring.

The BBC’s headline: “Dover migrant centre: ‘Horror’ over fire attack”.

The Guardian’s: “Petrol bombs thrown at immigration centre in Dover”.

Reuters’: “Man attacks UK migrant processing centre, kills himself”.

There are two specific wording choices that really highlight to me the subtle and insidious media biases that have become clear after nearly a decade of Tory rule: the presence of the word ‘migrant’, and the absence of the word ‘terrorism’.

In the Terrorism Act (2000), terrorism is defined as the use or threat of a range of actions including serious violence and property damage, where these actions are designed to influence the government or intimidate the public, for the purposes of advancing an agenda (political, religious, racial, or ideological). It goes on to state that any of the noted actions which are carried out or threatened using firearms or explosives are considered terrorism whether or not they are intended to influence the government or intimidate the public.

It seems to me that it’s quite clear-cut. Although we can currently only speculate about the suspect’s motivations and whether he was attempting to intimidate or influence anyone, he certainly did use an explosive device with the purpose of causing property damage and endangering lives, and thus carried out a terrorist attack.

However, the BBC reports that Kent police are not treating this as a terrorist incident. They also stated that the suspects had a history of mental illness.

Asylum Seekers risk a dangerous sea voyage on a flimsy vessel. Image Credit: Human Rights at Sea

The Washington Post published a piece on just this subject seven years ago after Dylan Roof murdered nine African Americans at a historically Black church. The Centre for Media Monitoring found in a study that the word “terrorist” was used alongside words such as “Muslim” and “Islamic” nine times more than “neo-Nazi” or “white supremacy”.

This inconsistent application of a word with a solid definition – the refusal to call white people terrorists by the mainstream media and state operations such as police forces – is nothing more than the inherent and systemic racist biases of the media. And that brings us to my second concern.

The word ‘migrant’ refers unquestioningly to a person leaving their place of origin and traveling elsewhere, often for better opportunities for themselves and their family. So, technically, yes – refugees and asylum seekers are migrants. But asylum seekers are fleeing danger or persecution, seeking safety and protection from human rights violations. They are, quite literally, seeking asylum. After an asylum seeker has been processed by the state, they might be granted the designation of refugee, someone with the legal right to remain. Seeking asylum is a human right and refugees are internationally protected.  This is not the same as leaving your home country to get a better job – the distinction between these groups of people is clear and important and completely ignored by the press in most cases.

Nearly forty thousand people have crossed the English Channel in small boats to seek British aid. This is a dangerous endeavour – the Guardian found that over two thirds of a group making this crossing arrived with hypothermia, while many had burns and broken bones. This is not a trip you undertake because you want a better job. This is something a person does when their life is in danger. There is no official count of the crossing’s death toll, but the Guardian reported that over 300 people died trying to cross between 1999 and 2020.

These two points are opposite sides of the same coin. The media’s deliberate softening and excusing of the crimes of white people, and the hardening of attitudes and stripping of empathy for vulnerable asylum seekers, are done through choice of words and language.

One person cutting down one tree doesn’t lead to global warming, but huge corporations razing forests is another story. Every journalist must be aware of the effects their words have. While on an individual level, it might not feel like saying ‘migrant’ instead of ‘refugee’ has much of an effect on the bigger picture, when it’s writer after writer in publication after publication, year after year, the cumulative effects are clear – there have been several studies that find as much. 

The power wielded by the mainstream media is undeniable – it’s time we started taking responsibility for that.

Featured Image Credit: Project Ploughshares

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