Why the Refugee Crisis is a Media Crisis

By Niklas Elsenbruch

These days, you can’t escape the refugee crisis. As soon as you switch on the TV, it jumps right through the screen, and cosies up on your couch. Only recently, however, the media have made us talk about a “refugee crisis”. Not long ago, the Ukraine conflict and a potential Grexit occupied our couches instead of heralds of the refugee crisis. What do we learn from this? That Western media withhold a whole lot from us, and that we must take it upon ourselves to detect the hot spots early enough before, as in the case of refugees, an issue comes knocking right at our door. To speak of “the media” is of course a grave generalisation, but I believe the problem of Western prioritization exists on a wide scale. You may wonder: what is wrong with focusing on our problems rather than those of Middle Eastern or African people? Nothing is wrong with looking after yourself, indeed, yet I am dissatisfied with the imbalanced prevalence of Western perspectives over those of the refugees and their countries of origin.

This is more than a feeling of solidarity and humanity. We should not underestimate the potential of media in influencing policy, especially when coupled with strong public opinion. It seems that the surge of asylum seekers in the EU surprised our policymakers. Capacities to host refugees could have been prepared in advance; alternatively, more foreign aid could have been contributed to shelters in neighbouring countries. I am certain that our politicians were aware of the humanitarian catastrophes in today’s origin countries, but they may not have felt compelled to take pre-emptive measures as media coverage and public opinion demanded solutions to our financial crisis and the likes more than anything. I do not suggest we should treat our own problems lightly. Yet, compared to the survival struggles of many refugees, we are facing issues emerging from a system of luxury. We may not be aware of this because the fate of people in existential need is a distant cloud of thought, a story overheard in passing that dissolves as we try to grasp it. When TV news show us images of refugee camps bursting at the seams, I think, the suffering of each and every individual blends into a swirling mass of too-much. It takes epitomes of sorrow, as found in Aylan Kurdi’s drowning, to elicit our empathy.

To multiply the pain of watching a helpless, almost weightlessly stranded infant, however, exceeds our mental and emotional capabilities. And yet it is the task of journalism, I contend, to stimulate our sensitivity towards the individual. When politicians and media discuss Dublin II or Eurodac it is about the implications for the EU member states. What we do not hear are the stories of asylum seekers stuck in Greece for years, which accepts as good as no asylum claims for the EU does not decisively support it in providing for refugees. Understandably enough, stuck asylum seekers make their way to EU states offering better prospects, but at once are fingerprinted, detected, and locked up again in the waiting room of Greece. Watching an interview with an asylum seeker who has been through this hassle might well make integration-critics reconsider their opinion. The problem of one-sided reporting has of course been lingering long since, but I feel that it is not attacked constantly and forcefully enough. It needs more attention right now. So I will do what the media would do in my place: resorting to the proclamation of a “crisis”. The media crisis.


To criticize Western prioritization is one thing; the other is to suggest a better approach. What is the root of the media crisis, where do we need to tackle it? Why must we dig embarrassingly deep to discover documentation of French and German weapons killing in Syria? Why do our journalists not inquire lacking financial contribution of the EU to the depleted budget of the UN World Food Programme, an important supplier of refugee camps? In his renowned book People Like Us, which stirred my thinking for this article, the Middle-East experienced journalist Joris Luyendijk reveals structures of the making of news that could explain why Western channels and magazines mainly write about the business of Westerners: Swarming out all over the globe, the innumerable reporters of news agencies such as Reuters and Associated Press preselect a supply of stories for media corporations from the overflow of world news. Since this business is a fast one, their reports take the form of breaking news and focus on concrete, outstanding events. When editorial offices receive such pieces, they may rephrase them or add some background information, but hardly ever will a journalist go out to interview a refugee in Greece so as to relativise his article about the most recent amendment to Dublin II.

Instead, the media publish what they assume we want: reports about singular deviations from the norm, if possible covering our Western concerns – not reflective background stories. Those are playing in the repertory cinemas, but the blockbusters star Viktor Orbán, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Angela Merkel. Sadly, the politicians who advocate our opinion or most spectacularly undermine it break the records, not the people for whom policy should be made. It seems that the media show us what they assume us to identify with most easily: the problems in our own backyard. Incidentally, assemblies of refugees might soon pitch up their tents among our beloved hand-raised vegetables. On part of the media, it might foster hospitality if our houseowners have just read an insightful story about a refugee’s life. Should the next seething hot spot be called to our attention early enough, we can assist the media in redirecting policymakers’ attention. To encourage more diverse coverage, how about we all forget our old-established Western breaking news feed today, but dig a little deeper? A good and easy start could be even the – fortunately popular – refugee page of Humans of New York. After all, the media crisis has cosied up on our good old couch for far too long.

This article was originally published Published on Issue #11 Winter Edition of The Bell Magazine January 21, 2016 and was not edited by Kichaka. For the online link check it out here: https://universalisthebell.wordpress.com/2015/10/31/why-the-refugee-crisis-is-a-media-crisis/