VIEWPOINT: Lost in Media: Migrant Perspectives and the Public Sphere.

VIEWPOINT: Lost in Media: Migrant Perspectives and the Public Sphere.

Ismail Einashe, Sara de Jong, Simon Parker and Daniel Trilling

While ‘migrants have entered European countries, […] they haven’t entered the public sphere‘ and if they do, ‘it is as characters in other people’s stories as something other’. This is the starting point of Lost in Media: Migrant Perspectives and the Public Sphere, a recently published collection of critical responses to the representations of migrants in the media in Europe by prominent writers, artists and journalists, including Guardian columnist Nesrine Malik and Cuban artist and activist Tania Bruguera, whose work was recently displayed in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall.

As the editors Ismail Einashe and Thomas Roueché argue in the introduction to the book, ‘the European media […] have systematically failed in their coverage of [migration and displacement]. Migrants are represented in the European media in extreme binaries, as either vulnerable or as dangerous outsiders. If they are present in media coverage, they are merely seen as statistics or represented as silent actors, never as authors of their own stories. […] Frustratingly often, the media give little context as to why migrants have been coming to Europe, or how situations in their countries play into these movements, or indeed how European foreign policies play a role in creating these movements. Neither is there a great deal of reflection on the media’s own role in worsening the discourses and debates that poison so much of our politics (2019: 13).

We talked to the book’s editor, journalist and writer Ismail Einashe and one of the contributors, journalist Daniel Trilling, about the politics of representation in times of a so-called migration crisis, or in Daniel’s own words ‘a disaster partly caused by European border policies’ (2019: 22). In a pertinent response to the recent horrific discovery of the Essex lorry deaths, Daniel eleborates: ‘such disasters do not happen because of a lack of border control – they are the price of it’.

Accountability and the Representation of Migrants
Q: Simon Parker and Sara de Jong: ‘In the foreword of your book, André Wilkens writes that ‘Migrants are constantly used in media to play the role of the stranger or the threat. And even if newspapers don’t actively set out to vilify migrants, the sympathetic portrayal of the desperate victim in a boat is just as stigmatizing—as if people can only be seen through the lens of their trauma.’ (2019: 10). As a journalist, Daniel, how do you think the media and academia could be more inclusive and accountable in representing migration?’

A: Daniel Trilling: ‘I don’t think there’s a single answer to that.  I think part of the problem is treating this subject like there has to be just one kind of story told and that can be damaging even when it’s done with good intentions. As a journalist writing on refugees and migration there is a pressure that you’re supposed to be showing the human subjective side of it.  And if that’s done without the political context, then that risks becoming just as dehumanising as something that doesn’t account for any subjectivity. I’m also hesitant to give one straightforward answer, because obviously, I’m a journalist and I work in an industry that is imperfect.  It’s for the most part a commercial industry, so whatever ethics journalists might want to apply to their work it often comes secondary to commercial imperatives. I also don’t want to pretend to be better than other journalists, but I think there are general principles, which are worth thinking about. One principle is whether the people working in media institutions are representative of the society that they’re producing media about and for.  Ideally, there’s a broad representation everywhere, so that it avoids things becoming tokenistic or it falling to certain kinds of people to tell certain kinds of stories.

Beyond that, I think there also needs to be a questioning of what are stories being collected and produced and disseminated for. Is there something more than just a commercial imperative to doing it?  What are the editorial values of an organisation or its owners?  How are they all accountable to the people who are subjects of coverage or the audiences? That’s only to say that you can’t really separate questions about the media and how it represents these issues from wider questions about our societies and the way they’re organised and structured.’

Lost in Translation
Q: Sara and Simon: ‘Ismail, the title of the book ‘Lost in Media’ implies that the voices of migrants get lost in media representation. This raises questions what gets ‘lost in translation’. You have just published an article for the BBC in which you traced the journey, hopes and struggles of a young Gambian man, Taka, who you first met in Italy and whose family you subsequently visited in Gambia. In this article you make yourself visible as the journalist and mediator of his story, sharing your exchange with Taka and his family. What are the issues of translation and mediation that emerge when journalists recount migrants’ stories?’

A: Ismail Einashe:  ‘My first language is Somali, and Somali became a written language only in 1972.  The war happened in ‘88, so the period between when the language was actually adopted as an official and formalised language and the period of when the conflict began was so short that there were very few books written in Somali. Also, the war caused dispersal of Somali people to different places, again hindering the development of the language as an official and written language.  For instance, I don’t write Somali, I read and write in English, but I speak Somali.  So when I think about this on a very personal level, about what is missed with English, translation is a particularly important thing for me to think about.  One of the things that is often missed for me when it comes to the translation between Somali and English is that English is much more formalised [laughs].  There are a lot of words in Somali to describe certain things that you just don’t have in English.  There are a lot more metaphors and it’s much more poetic, because it’s an oral tradition.

In the context of Europe and refugees and migrants, it’s really difficult because there are so many journalists who are interviewing people who don’t speak their language, but they might want to interview them through a translator or through really poor English. Often this results in migrants or refugees not being able to read or access the information that’s been written about them. That is definitely a real problem.  Another thing most journalists are guilty of, particularly in the African region or just generally in the global South, is that while you have established foreign correspondents, they still rely on fixers. Some of these journalists do stories for Western audiences but they never really have contact with the person they’ve interviewed or the community they’ve been in. This raises questions about power, translation and representation. Interestingly, some local fixers are in fact journalists themselves, but they have to take these jobs because they need the additional money. When I publish something with the help of a fixer, I’ll get the by-line when it’s published, not him.  And I’ll get most of the money, even if I pay him something. This is how it works, because I have a Western passport, I can travel and cover politics in different places in the world. So it’s also about privilege.  The journalism industry is a massively privileged industry.’

What To Tell, What To Show?
Q: Simon and Sara: ‘The book highlights on the one hand, that some dimensions of migration remain invisible, such as the “migrant as a multifaceted person with hopes and fears, family, friends, stories, a favourite football team and annoying habits” (Wilkens 2019: 10) and the reasons for migration, for instance, the connections between colonialism, climate change, the arms trade and migration. Other aspects of migration, on the other hand, are hypervisible. You have, for instance, highlighted that the focus is often on migrants’ testimonies, but that the political context is lacking. Can you tell us more about this?’

A: Daniel: ‘Migration is a huge pressing subject in all sorts of different ways at the moment in the world.  The refugee crisis in Europe was one of the “biggest stories” of the last decade.  For many people it was a traumatic event and people are working through that trauma whether that’s individually or collectively.  And it’s understandable that artists, academics and journalists would want to turn their skills towards examining and processing that.  I suppose the danger is that it becomes shorthand for profundity. In journalism as well as in art, there’s always a risk that you end up merely aestheticizing something and losing whatever else it was you wanted to communicate through that.  I think journalists can be very convinced of their own importance or the importance of what they’re doing.  But often that ends up becoming voyeuristic if it’s not backed up with some sort of argument or analysis behind it. I wrote something last year for art magazine Apollo about the number of public artworks that are taking migration and refugees as their theme at the moment.  How they actually did that was very variable. Sometimes the premise of public art works seems to be, ‘oh we simply need to make people aware of this phenomenon of migration’. But I think people are aware of it, and the reason why people weren’t feeling empathy is not because they weren’t aware enough. I think that’s a misunderstanding.

Moreover, in media, academia and even among NGOs who work to help refugees, there is a tendency to focus on migrants’ journeys. And there can be good reasons for exploring that territory.  It’s something I’ve done myself. I have written at length about conversations I’ve had with people about their journeys.  But what I notice often is that people just assume that that’s the meaningful thing to focus on and there is an infinite need for these accounts. And actually I think it’s worth asking, ‘do you really need to know this about somebody?  And what kind of effect will it have on a person to ask them to go through those details of their migration journey again?’ Ismail and I are both involved with the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma, which has released useful guidance for interviewers who deal with refugee victims of trauma. The crucial thing is about asking why?  Why are you asking people to go into this?  Why are you trying to dredge up this particular information?  Why are you trying to present it in a certain way?

Ismail Einashe, Thomas Roueché (2019) Lost in Media: Migrant Perspectives and the Public Sphere. Amsterdam: Valiz with the European Cultural Foundation.


Sara de Jong is Co-Chair of MigNet, the University of York’s Migration Network and a Lecturer in the Department of Politics, University of York. She currently researches the claims to protection and rights by former Afghan and Iraqi military interpreters and other Locally Engaged Civilians. Her research focuses on the politics of NGOs, migrant and refugee advocacy and solidarity, and (post-) colonial brokers in migration, conflict and development. Ismail Einashe is a journalist and writer. He has written for The Guardian, The Sunday Times, NBC News, The Nation, Foreign Policy and NPR, among many other publications. For his reporting on migration in Italy he has been selected for the EU Migration Media Award 2019. He is the Alicia Patterson Foundation Fellow for 2019, an associate at the Centre for the Study of Global Human Movement at the University of Cambridge and an Ochberg Fellow at the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University. He is the co-editor of Lost in Media: Migrant Perspectives and the Public Sphere (Valiz, 2019) which gathers critical responses to the representations of migrants in the media in Europe through nine essays by prominent writers, artists and journalists. Simon Parker is Co-Chair of the University of York Migration Network (MigNet), and Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of York. He was Principal Investigator of the ESRC-funded project ‘Precarious Trajectories: Understanding the Human Cost of the Migrant Crisis in the Central Mediterranean’ and is currently co-investigator on the ESRC Governance after Brexit project ‘EEA Public Services Research Clinic’ which will be investigating the impact of Brexit on EEA nationals’ access to public services in the UK. Simon’s research and teaching focuses on urban politics and urban political economy and on forcibly displaced persons, refugees and migrants. Daniel Trilling is the editor of New Humanist magazine and he has reported extensively on refugees in Europe. His work has been published in the London Review of Books, The Guardian, The New York Times and others, and in 2017 he won a Migration Media Award. In Lights in the Distance: Exile and Refuge at the Borders of Europe (Picador) Daniel draws on years of reporting to build a portrait of the refugee crisis as seen through the eyes of the people who experienced it at first hand.

Image: Jillian Edelstein Life Seekers, 2018, photograph from the book Lost in Media: Migrant Perspectives and the Public Sphere.