Report. ‘Before, there were illegal immigrants, today there are infected illegal immigrants.’ A new report analyzes how the news and social media frame migration coverage.

Media coverage in the COVID era casts immigrants as disease vectors

COVID-19 has upset the news agenda by affecting the narrative of the migration phenomenon, which is present to a lower extent than in the past. The tone, however, has remained the same. Starting from this fact, the eighth report issued by the migrant rights group Carta di Roma analyzed, together with media analysts at the Pavia Observatory, “how much, how and when the Italian media has spoken about migration.”

“Notizie in transito” (“News in transit”) is the name of the report they released this month, a name chosen in connection with the year that is about to end: “transit” understood “as a migrant journey; as a movement prohibited by security decrees, by the closure of ports, by quarantines; as the spread of the virus.” “Transit” as passage: because 2020 and the pandemic that has left its mark on it represent a discontinuity with what has been the case so far, also with regard to the media narration about the migratory phenomenon.

The analysis by Carta di Roma and the Pavia Observatory, which has always focused on the newspapers and news bulletins by the three main TV networks, has been extended this year to Facebook and Twitter “due to the importance they have in shaping public opinion,” emphasized the coordinator of Carta di Roma, Paola Barretta. The study was divided into three levels, showing the same overall picture, namely the drop in the number of news items related to the migration phenomenon: -34% in newspapers compared to 2019.

From this general observation, the report highlights some frames in which the media places the narrative about migration. The central frame is related to flows of people: more than half of the news items focused on arrivals, divided between news chronicle and political discourse, and focusing in particular on landings from the sea. “Arrivals by land and air are being left out,” emphasizes UNHCR spokeswoman Carlotta Sami, highlighting the concerning phenomenon of society’s habituation to deaths at sea.

If we look at newspaper headlines and Interior Ministry data, “from January to October, there is an average of one headline for every four people landed,” notes Giuseppe Milazzo (Pavia Observatory), underlining that from 2013 to date, the lowest common denominator of the narrative linked to migration has always been the state of emergency: “The lexicon tied to the migration phenomenon outlines a framework of endless and endemic crisis,” with a language recalling the lexicon of war, with words such as “invasion,” “alarm,” “wave.” This narrative crosses paths with the one around COVID-19: in this case too, the words used (curfew, heroes in the trenches, etc.) recall a war scenario.

In the choice of terms and themes, an important role is played by politics, a realm in which “we are more conditioned by propaganda than by the telling of real facts,” underlines the president of Carta di Roma, Valerio Cataldi. The arrival of the pandemic, according to Cataldi, “has exacerbated the worst aspect of this story. Before, there were illegal immigrants, today there are infected illegal immigrants”: in 13% of the items analyzed, migrants are described as a vehicle of contagion, in a narrative that acts as a backdrop to the construction of a fear that lasts over time. The director of Demos&PI, Ilvo Diamanti, dwelled further on this fear, speaking of “the need for fear, particularly in the world of communication and politics.”

This need has been indirectly manifested precisely by the health crisis: “For over twenty years, the data on crimes in Italy has been represented by a flat line at a low level, yet in recent years crime has been the defining feature of the communication around the migration phenomenon. Perception has replaced reality.” This year, however, something changed: “Crime and its presumed link with immigration did not feature in the headlines in newspapers. In general, the narrative on migration has collapsed: another enemy has arrived.”

While crime as a semantic nucleus is the great absentee of this year, present only in 1.5% of the items analyzed, there are two other major gaps in the narrative: migrant reception and the protagonists of the migration routes themselves. The first has gone from occupying a percentage of 28% in 2018 to the current 4%, and migrants and refugees are given a voice in only 7% of the total information items dedicated to the phenomenon.

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