Migration should be covered from angles that help destigmatize people on the move, said experts in webinar

When Donald Trump came into power in the United States, his anti-immigrant policies and his xenophobic discourse that portrayed migrants as criminals made the issue of migration a priority in media agendas that it did not have before.

The same happens when large-scale migratory movements take place due to political conflicts, security crises or wars, and also when migration intersects with tragedy.

However, migration should not only be a relevant topic for journalism when dealing with a crisis or when massive caravans of people move from one place to another. It should be a topic covered on a daily basis, from various angles and with a human rights approach, according to Mexican investigative journalists specializing in migration issues Perla Trevizo and Nadia Sanders. They participated as speakers in the webinar "Racism and discrimination in migration coverage, and how to address them," which was moderated by Mariana Alvarado, member of the Network for Diversity in Latin American Journalism.

Migrants walking on train tracks.

According to Nadia Sanders, migration has been a fundamental part of human history and therefore should be a more relevant topic in the media. (Photo: Pixelshot via Canva)

The webinar, held virtually on Thursday, Feb. 23, was the third of four organized by the Network, founded in 2022 with support from the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas and the Google News Initiative.

According to the most recent U.N. World Migration Report, as of 2020 there were approximately 281 million people considered international migrants worldwide. That figure represents 3.6 percent of the world's population, yet migration is not an issue that has been given enough visibility in the media, Alvarado said at the start of the discussion.

For Sanders, who was one of the winners of the Roche Award in the category of Digital Journalism for the feature story "Migrant networks during the pandemic," published in the digital news outlet Conexión Migrante, migration is not a new phenomenon. Rather, it is a fundamental part of the history of humanity and therefore should be as relevant a topic in the media as politics or the economy.

"I think that if we were to leave out migration coverage, we would be reflecting a much more limited and narrow reality of what is happening in our countries, in our states, especially in the region," Alvarado said. "The great risk is when we visualize it and begin to see it as a problem, something that is not so. And then from that point on, we can develop an increasingly negative perception of people who are in a situation of mobility."

It is just as important not to leave migration out of the media agenda as it is to understand it and reflect it in a fair and comprehensive manner, added Sanders. And with a vision focused on understanding and explaining to the audience why migratory movements take place.

The negative perception of migration phenomena in Latin America is due in part to the fact that the media have contributed with their coverage to the construction of a stereotype and a generalized image of migrants, the speakers agreed.

"It’d seem that there is only one type of immigrant, who represents a problem, a risk for the country [in which they arrive], and this is constructed by the media," Sanders said.

That is the main prejudice that journalists must break down when covering migration, she said. And journalists must also recognize that there is a whole mosaic of profiles among people who are on the move: Women, children, people displaced for political reasons or due to violence, and so on.

"It's not just the guy with a backpack, with his cap, walking from Tapachula [Chiapas, in Mexico] to the north of the country," Sanders said. “It's not just that image that, yes, is a symbol, definitely. But [migration] is not just that image that we see in some agency photos when we see caravans of migrants.”

The language that media outlets choose in their stories about migration is key to building or breaking down stereotypes around populations on the move, said Trevizo, who covers migration issues for news outlets such as the Texas Tribune and ProPublica.

Context, he said, is fundamental to offer audiences a more accurate view of the facts and avoid disseminating misleading information that could lead to feelings of rejection towards migrants.

"It's the kind of language we use that sometimes helps form these misconceptions," Trevizo said. "Not putting it in the proper context creates this vision where people who don't know the border imagine a whole city with thousands and thousands and thousands of people walking around."

One of the first good practices a journalist can carry out to improve his or her coverage of migration is to recognize that these prejudices exist in order to avoid continuing to disseminate them, Sanders said.

Alvarado added that special care should be taken when mentioning nationalities in articles or headlines, especially in crime stories, because this also strengthens the stigmatization of the inhabitants of each country.

Mexican journalist Perla Trevizo

Perla Trevizo said that when journalists interview migrants, they should explain to them what they are going to use their information for and where their story is going to end up. (Photo: Perla Trevizo's Twitter).

"[One recommendation would be] To avoid linking them with any negative aspects related to insecurity, crime, trafficking crimes, and so on. Of course, not to hide it. I don't mean romanticize it, far from it, but to avoid stigmatizing the migration phenomenon with a negative stance," Sanders said. "If we were more open and disposed of our prejudices, I think there are many more benefits and more to be gained for society than negative aspects."

The use of terms such as "waves" or "avalanches" of migrants, or "migration crisis" contributes to the construction of a narrative of rejection of migrants. Likewise, we should avoid using concepts such as "refugee," "displaced" or "asylum seeker" interchangeably, if we do not know the legal status of the people we are talking about. In such cases, the panelists recommended using more open terms such as "persons on the move" or “displaced person.”

"I can't put the 'refugee' label on someone because in this sense it has a legal connotation, the same with 'asylum seeker,'" Trevizo said. "I know that sometimes we are talking about a group of people, but the more you can go into depth about a person, the better it would be. It's complicated, there's no perfect term for it."

A good example of how a news story can delve into an individual case to give a more accurate overall perspective on migration is the story "Divided by the Law," written by Trevizo and Fernanda Echavarri and published in the Arizona Daily Star.

It is the story of a mother who was stranded in Mexico and separated from her children, who remained in the United States. The authors followed the family for nearly six months to produce the story, which narrates how U.S. immigration policy affected these four young people.

"I feel that as journalists we are often the eyes, the ears, and that through our stories we can, not tell people what to think or what opinion to have, but provide them with information. And through our work, they can learn more about the subject," Trevizo said.

Special care should also be taken when approaching an individual on the move during coverage, the speakers agreed. This includes taking into account that in migration issues, these sources are often people in vulnerable situations and the information journalists handle about them could put them at risk.

"You have to always remember the power you have as [a member of the] media, the power dynamics, especially when you are interviewing vulnerable populations, especially children," Trevizo said. "Talking about children, women and other vulnerable populations, it's important to maintain that sensitivity and not get carried away with the story. But it’s also our responsibility to keep them safe to a certain extent."

Trevizo added that journalists should explain in detail to sources what their information will be used for and make sure people understand where their story will travel.

The challenge of finding new narratives

To find more constructive angles from which to cover migration, one must begin by identifying the structural violence that exists in each country and understanding how these structures are limiting migrants' access to rights, Sanders said.

This includes identifying the laws and the way in which the institutions of each country are designed and criticizing them through journalism.

"Questioning and making that visible I think can help point out what mostly needs to be changed socially," he said.

Solutions journalism and stories that narrate migration taking into account the resilience of these populations are constructive ways of approaching the issue, according to the speakers.

"It is to point out the problem. Yes, we can address it, not only as something negative and terrible, but to contribute towards a solution. But without leaving behind the criticism, leaving behind the pointing out and the lack of action of governments that in this particular case there was, but that continues to exist," Sanders said.

The focus on corruption and accountability are other angles that can be taken into account to constructively address migration from journalism, said Trevizo.

"Migrants and people in transit [are phenomena that] don't happen in a vacuum. All these policies and governments, from the federal to the municipal level, play a role in what we are seeing," he said. "How are people affected, how did these policies come about, who was behind them? [...] It seems to me that we could focus a little more on these issues and not let the federal or local governments wash their hands of the situation we are reporting."

Alvarado added that when approaching these alternative angles, the context of where the migrants come from should be reviewed in order to tell their stories in a fairer and more accurate way.

Mexican journalist Nadia Sanders.

Coverage of migration must begin by identifying the structural violence that exists in each country and understanding how it limits migrants' access to rights, Sanders said. (Photo: Nadia Sanders' Twitter)

For readers to be drawn to these new approaches to covering migration, journalists face the challenge of creating new narratives, Sanders said.

"I'm sure as journalists we can retrace it and we can rebuild it and recreate it. It's not just about telling romantic stories, but it's about putting aside the stigma of the migrant person because any one of us could become a migrant at any time," she said.

The fourth and final webinar in the series organized by the Diversity in Latin American Journalism Network will be held on March 9 at 5:00 pm (Central Daylight Time). It is titled "Gender Perspective and How to Achieve Intersectional Coverage" and will be moderated by María Teresa Juárez, a Mexican screenwriter and journalist who is a member of the Network. Guest panelists will be Aminetth Sánchez, investigative journalist and director of La Lista, and Alexa Castillo Nájera, journalist and sexologist.

Participants in the four webinars in the series will be eligible to receive a certificate of participation from the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas and the Network for Diversity in Latin American Journalism. Recordings of the discussions will be posted on the Knight Center's website following the conclusion of the four webinars.