‘You wouldn’t really expect a journalist writing about climate change to do so without doing any learning about the basics of the way that global environmental systems function.
Similarly, migration reporting does require some training and knowledge. – Rob McNeil

Words matter when reporting on immigration; a recent South African study by Sikanyiso Masuku and Sizo Nkala, published in The Conversation, found that “the media often used language that portrayed foreigners in a bad light, and dehumanised them … this has the potential to trigger violence against the perceived invaders.”

Yet the problem is not unique to South Africa, as a report by The Migration Observatory reflects. Titled A Decade of Immigration in the British Press, the study found six key problematic trends in migrant reporting.

“Storytelling about the issue almost always comes within the context of crisis frames,” notes Rob McNeil, Deputy Director and Head of Media at The Migration Observatory. “So if there isn’t a problem with a certain type of migration going on, it doesn’t get talked about. It only starts to be talked about when people are bothered about it.” 

McNeil and former colleague Tom Law, now Media Policy Adviser to the Global Forum for Media Development, co-wrote The Handbook on Reporting Migration, for The International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD).

“The problem with migrant reporting is that it’s different in every country, and within every reporting context,” explains McNeil. 

“There is no one-size-fits-all solution for how you fix it, because it’s fundamentally dependent on the media landscape in that country.

“It depends on reporting traditions, geographical location and the geopolitical relationships that country  has with its neighbours and with other countries. All of these affect the way that migration reporting happens.” 

ALSO SEE:  Why Immigration Coverage Needs to Center Migrants’ Stories 

Fears, fallacies, and unchallenged reporting

“The seemingly inevitable, crisis framing of migration in media means that migration, as a whole, tends to be discussed as a ‘problem to be solved’ – and this means that people end up being framed as problematic too,” says McNeil. 

Donald Trump’s 2016 US election campaign, and the UK’s Brexit referendum that same year – both grounded in anti-migrant rhetoric – are telling examples of the impact that rhetoric has on public attitudes and sentiments.

SEE HERE: This Daily Maverick expose offers a glimpse into effective challenging of the status quo

PLUS: This MSNBC blog highlights the difference in two opposing US political viewpoints on the issue

Much of this rhetoric, and its impact, centres on the fear that immigrants take scarce jobs; the so-called “lump of labour fallacy,” notes McNeil.

“The loading of language, too, is problematic here; often, the language is incredibly imprecise,” he explains, pointing to the use of “immigrant” or “expat” to denote subtle differences in race or economic status. “Even words that are nominally neutral, like migrant, have become loaded,  pejorative terms.” 

This is just one reason why – despite differing immigration policies per country, indicating unique challenges for each – reporting on the issue requires more than basic journalism, argues McNeil.  

“You have to have an understanding of the law, economics, sociology…  you wouldn’t expect a journalist writing about climate change to do so without doing any learning about the basics of the way that global environmental systems function. Similarly, migration does require some training and knowledge. There’s no expectation, broadly speaking, that journalists should learn how migration actually works.”

ALSO SEE: Facebook, YouTube and TikTok approve for publication violent xenophobic hate in South Africa

Facts matter: why education is an imperative

“There are ways of doing this right, and they require at least some training,” emphasises McNeil, who has also developed a free 3-hour online training course for British journalists on British migration issues (see details below).

“For journalists to actually engage with complex policy, social and policy issues like migration, they need to understand their social and technical components, to understand how economies work, and how migration works with inequalities. Journalists need to apply themselves to actually recognising where dehumanisation can happen: through the use of language,” adds McNeil.

So: what can be done?

A range of resources (guides, courses, toolkits) are freely available online; see below for recommended links, and take note of these five crucial pointers from The Ethical Journalism Network:


Are we accurate and have we been impartial, inclusive and fact-based in our reporting?
Are we acting independently from narratives that stem from politics and emotion rather than facts?
Are we fairly and transparently reporting the impact of migration on communities?”


Asylum seeker? Refugee? Victim of trafficking? Migrant worker? Do we use irregular migrant? Do we understand and use migrant definitions correctly and do we articulate to our audience the rights migrants are due under international, regional and national law?


Humanity is the essence of ethical journalism. But we must keep our emotions in check, avoid victimization, over simplification and the framing of coverage in a narrow humanitarian context that takes no account of the bigger picture.


Do we have migrant voices? Are we listening to the communities they are passing through or joining? Question how representative self-appointed community and migrant spokespeople really are.


Have we avoided extremism? Have we taken the time to judge whether inflammatory content about migrants or those who seek to limit migration can lead to hatred? Words like “swarms”, “floods” and “waves” should be treated with caution, as should indiscriminate use of “racism” and “xenophobia.”

Recommended Resources


The EJN Five-point guide for migration reporting

Reporting On Migration In South Africa A Journalist’s Guide, by The Scalabrini Centre, South Africa

UNESCO’s Guidelines for Journalists: Reporting On Migration And Refugees

The Handbook on Reporting Migration, from The International Centre for Migration Policy Development


McNeil’s free 3-hour online training course, developed for British journalists on British migration issues, may offer invaluable insights for all regions; REGISTER here 

The International Organisation for Migration offers a more comprehensive, global course, also free.

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