Book Review: How media and conflicts make migrants

- Book by Kirsten Forkert, Federico Oliveri, Gargi Bhattacharyya and Janna Graham, Manchester University Press, 2020, pp. 224. ISBN: 978-1-5261-3811-8.

- Written by Lilian Kruger


In recent years, media consumption has changed rapidly, which has had an important impact on the political understanding of current events and crises. In this book, “How media and conflicts make migrants”, it is argued that it is precisely this change in the media that increasingly leads to the omission of important (historical) contexts in media reporting and thus to simplified perceptions of global crises. One of the most discussed issues in the last decade has been the so-called European migration crisis, referring to an increased number of asylum seekers as a result of the Syrian war in 2015. Starting from this point, the question of how the media treatment of global crises shapes the image of migrants in Europe is addressed. In doing so the authors try to critically deconstruct not only how migrants are perceived as such, but also how global events are narrated in European media and under which conditions they are framed as a crises.

This book is the result of the international collaboration between Kirsten Forkert, Reader in Media Theory at Birmingham City University, Federico Oliveri, Research Fellow at the University of Pisa, Gargi Bhattacharyya, Professor of Sociology at the University of East London and Janna Graham, Lecturer in Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London. Divided into five chapters, it sets off to explore the causal relation between the media coverage of global conflicts and migration to the EU and their perception and questioning in the United Kingdom and Italy in the first decade of the 21st century. The work is based on interviews and workshops with asylum seekers and migrants in Bologna, Pisa, London and Birmingham, as well as an analysis of print media, social media groups and a survey on media consumption. The treatise commutes between main chapters scrutinizing topics such as “legacies of colonialism” (Chapter 1), “war narratives” (Chapter 2), social media and their role for “solidarity movements” (Chapter 3), “the process of migrantification” (Chapter 4) as well as tactics to reframe typical narratives in European media (Chapter 5). The main chapters are interspersed with short “Interludes” that reflect authentic migrant’s views of their various (media) experiences embedded in their refugee-status context.

The authors start by stating that the way we understand our world and its crises is mainly characterised by “white amnesia” (24) and “postcolonial innocence” (26). In other words, colonial events are structurally suppressed by European media and European responsibility for past and present conflicts is not acknowledged. This has a general impact on the European migration discourse in the media as global crises are understood as the leading causes of migration movements. According to the authors, by concealing postcolonial responsibility, the West absolves itself of any moral or political obligation. Instead, the discourse oscillates between a “culture of suspicion” (157) and Western self-professed benevolence (134). These tendencies shape vehemently the representation of migrants and asylum seekers in the public perception. People are moulded into migrants by constantly reproducing institutional and social practices such as the “demand for sad stories” by the media (179). As a result of this “migrantification” (169), a person’s identity is almost solely determined by their migrant status. This one of the key concepts used by the authors to explain the nexus between media, migration and global conflicts.

The book focuses on revealing these rather concealed tendencies in order call for a shift in discourse and denaturalise the status of migrants. According to the authors, the inclusion of migrants and asylum seekers as experts could be of great help to this end (179). In general, the authors see the need for a more balanced coverage of international crises also taking into account postcolonial perspectives. A greater contextualisation of political events could free consumers of Western media from feeling powerless in an over-complex world and make it easier to formulate goals and options for action (212). Forkert et al. advocate for a change of perspective, moving away from a discourse dominated by “white amnesia” and “postcolonial innocence” to a discourse inclusive of those who have gone through asylum procedures and migration processes, thus offering insights into global conflicts that are otherwise given little space.

Overall, this book offers a new approach to the much-discussed role of international migration in Europe and its media portrayal from a critical postcolonial point of view. Its anecdotal storytelling renders it easier to read, while the formulation of clear appeals or calls to action blurs the line between activism and scholarly research. Arguments made in the book, such as those about the failure of governments at national and international level in the face of global crises, are completely legitimate but could be more nuanced and better supported. Furthermore, a clearer presentation of the research results highlighting the qualitative differences between the UK and Italy as well as a clear focus on specific global crises would have made this work even more valuable. All in all, the authors open up a much-needed perspective on the interconnections between the narrative of global conflicts and migration in Western media.

Lilian Krüger is a former intern at the Istituto Affari Internationali and studies Political Science and Romance Languages at the University of Leipzig.

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