Imagery in migration: the media, democracy and perceptions
André Pereira Matos
Researcher in international relations Legal Institute Portucalense, Universidade Portucalense, Porto
The entire history of mankind has been marked by movements of people and migrant flows. To a greater or lesser extent, in all such events, sectors of different societies are forcibly displaced, while others move more of their own free will.
What is common in all such processes is displacement. Migration implies abandoning one place for another, which, not being uninhabited, is another place with its own native people who belong to that space and that community. This sense of belonging is part of one’s own identity, whose definition and borders find their point of reference by identifying outsiders, their ‘otherness’, their distinctive features. When an ‘outsider’ moves into their own group, some of the assumptions that underlined this definition of identity are questioned and reactions to such redefinition of the group emerge.
Recently, and more significantly, Europe has become the destination of individuals from the Middle East and North Africa. These displacements have caused debates about the identity of Europe and its position as a civilisation in relation to other civilisations in the world. Politically, the European Union has failed to provide a single, coherent position to deal with the dilemma between a welcoming Europe and a Europe that raises barriers against the perceived threat posed by the ‘outsider’.
European civilisation defines itself, especially in its Membership Treaties and in view of its internal diversity, as a group of countries that defend values and principles that date back to antiquity, many of which arose within the same geographical area, namely equality, freedom, tolerance, and solidarity, represented and guaranteed by democracy.
Universal suffrage is one of the key dimensions of democracy in its most basic requirement. In view of this power, that stems from the people being able to choose their representatives, state officials elected for this purpose are now accountable to their fellow citizens vertically through periodic elections and horizontally through other organs of sovereignty in a balance of power designed to prevent abuse in the exercise of public policies.
However, on a more informal level, citizens exert constant pressure on politicians by congregating their individual opinions to form public opinion, reproduced and simultaneously conditioned by the media.
For royalists, public opinion about a state’s foreign policy is volatile, emotional and inconsistent and, therefore, is not and should not have an influence on political decision-making at this level (GURAZIU, 2008). Morgenthau is another author that endorses this position while Lippmann (1995 apud GURAZIU, 2008) considers that public opinion “is a dangerous and irrational force”. For liberalists, the intervention of public opinion in foreign policy is advisable, given that its moderate nature can discourage the riskier actions to which ambitious elites might aspire (GURAZIU, 2008). For Powlick (1999 apud GURAZIU, 2008), “successful policies need to have public support or at least a lack of public disapproval”. In fact, examples abound of both sides of the argument — for instance, on one side stands public opinion contrary to US policy regarding Iraq in 2003 while on the other, we see the way civilian mobilisation conditioned the American military involvement in Vietnam.
Indeed, contrary to the characteristics that royalists attribute to public opinion, Flint (2015) argues that the public affords considerable long-term stability to structural actions, even though it has limited knowledge of foreign affairs. Thus, there exists a sensitive debate regarding the position and influence of public opinion in foreign policies. It can swing like a pendulum between absolute respect for all situations or total disregard, between a “tyranny of the majority” or a “elected dictatorship” (Idem), both of which would have a harmful effect on the quality of democracy and on the security and stability of the country in the international arena.
Nevertheless, the public is unable to penetrate political circles without the intermediary action of the media, considered to be one of the guardians of democracy (NAVEH, 2002), precisely because of their involvement at this level. The media can, in part, define the political agenda or, conversely, divert attention to other issues. They are therefore a form of power–either as entities that force governments to assume their responsibility before their citizens or as instruments for political elites by using their words to fuel positions among readers, whose opinion is thus duly conditioned (FLINT, 2015).
Nevertheless, globalisation has transformed this scenario by facilitating large-scale activism and the internationalisation of public opinion through the use of social media, for example. It has become more difficult to condition citizens with a single narrative due to the fact that those words can be dismantled through instant, affordable and universal information-sharing. This intermediary action carried out by the media has also been used by different states as a way of reaching national audiences in other countries, in order to exert pressure on the governments there, in what is a pernicious use of the influence that the media have on international civil society (Idem).
The media are, therefore, privileged tools with which to disseminate messages and ideas, helping to build up a public opinion that feeds on the information they deliver, on the positions of opinion-makers, and on ideological stances which, with greater or lesser strategic format, aim to condition readers’ opinions. In this role, assuring accuracy in the processing of information and striving to meet the standards of journalistic objectivity have become primordial if the media are to perform properly as guardians of freedom and of the quality of democracy in any particular State.
Finseraas, Pedersen and Bay (2014) carried out quantitative research on people’s perceptions of immigrants and seconded the assumptions reached in earlier studies that point to a generally negative perception towards immigrants, especially in social groups with lower levels of education and greater economic fragility. In times of economic recession marked by high levels of unemployment, that attitude intensifies due to a sense of competition with immigrants in the search for scarce resources (Ibid).
When the variables discussed above are combined, the importance of the media and its influence in shaping public opinion is even more apparent. Within this framework, and based on the criticism Bohnsack (2008) made of the paradox of marginalising picture analysis as a documentary method, illustrations and pictures are transmitters of messages and meaning which, by accompanying the corresponding news article, can shape the reader’s opinion. According to the theory of understanding through pictures, the reader constructs his own perception through the intermediation of the image, which helps him to interpret and explain the world. At a more complex level, such understanding thanks to pictures, can even lead the reader to take action and guide him in his daily affairs (ibid).
An online survey was carried out in which 136 individuals were shown 21 photographs accompanying news articles reporting on certain aspects of the refugee crisis over the same period of time. A Spaniard and a Frenchman were then questioned about the perception conveyed to them by the pictures, published in a Portuguese newspaper.
The analysis enables a set of reflections on the use of pictures in the media to be drawn. Firstly, only 16% to 20% of respondents thought the reaction to a picture of refugees being welcomed or rejected would be neutral–4 on a scale of 1 to 7. 60% of the pictures published in Portuguese and French newspapers transmitted images that were favourable to welcoming refugees, while in the Spanish press, that figure dropped to 52%, while promotion of the idea of the need to expel refugees was 36%–the highest of the three. They all offered a more favourable image of accepting refugees and respondents’ political leanings did not correlate with their perception of those pictures.
The different approach between the Spanish newspaper and the other two dailies sharpens the question about what perception these particular pictures portray of the refugee: the photographs in the Spanish newspaper transmitted a negative perception in 58% of cases, whereas that figure dropped to an average 34% between the other two newspapers. The photos used by the French daily sparked a positive evaluation of the image of the refugee they portrayed, according to 38% of respondents.
The most positively assessed photographs were those that depicted happy individuals and families, while the most negative reactions were to illustrations of chaos and insecurity, such as the group of individuals forcing their way onto a train or a protester with his face covered throwing something in a scene of confusion. Again, the three most negatively evaluated photographs were all from the Spanish newspaper and the ones most widely considered to be neutral in character came from the French daily.
Finally, with regard to the feelings provoked by the photographs under assessment, there was a common reaction from the group of respondents in all three newspapers–suffering. A considerable number of respondents identified a feeling of suffering in many of the pictures, confirming that images are used to appeal to empathy with others in pain or discomfort or who are undergoing some adverse situation. The French newspaper also conveyed a sense of hope, while the images published in the Spanish daily promoted reactions of violence and anger–not so visible in the other two journals. When the data is taken as a whole set, the French newspaper caused positive feelings (hope, empathy, security) in 45% of readers, whereas the Spanish daily conveyed the same sentiments to just 17% of respondents, while the remaining 82% were found to have negative feelings and reactions towards the pictures. The Portuguese had a middle position, with 34% of respondents recognising positive feelings. Additionally, the French publication was the one in which respondents selected both positive and negative reactions in a more evenly distributed fashion, which would seem to enhance the idea of the French daily being the one that used the most neutral pictures or at least pictures that initially produce less bias.
In conclusion, if one considers that public opinion exerts pressure on policy makers, particularly in terms of foreign affairs, and that such public opinion is conditioned by the media’s publications–text and pictures -, it is thus valid to argue that the media has the ability to exert, even if indirectly, pressure on elected representatives. Furthermore, the use of pictures as auxiliary items with which to describe the news is also able to produce certain attitudes among readers. In this sense, the iconographic use of pictures can stem from either the editorial’s deliberate ideology or from an unbiased political position, although in both cases, it certainly leads to a degree of interference in that it shapes the reader’s view, even if only on a less conscious level, through the subliminal message conveyed by any illustration. This is notably the case in matters of social and political awareness, such as the refugee crisis and other migrant flows.
- Bohnsack, R. (2008). The Interpretation of Pictures and the Documentary Method. Qualitative Social Research, vol. 9, No. 3.
- Flint. (2015). Foreign Policy, the State, International Public Opinion and the Media, E-International Relations, E-International Relations Publishing, February 12th. Available at: <http://www.e-ir.info/2015/02/12/foreign-policy-the-state-international-public-opinion-and-the-media/> (2016.01.20)
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- Finseraas, H., Pedersen, A. & Bay, A.-H. (2014). When the Going Gets Tough: The Differential Impact of National Unemployment on the Perceived Threats of Immigration. Political Studies. Political Studies Association. DOI: 10.1111/1467-9248.12162. Available at: <http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1467-9248.12162/abstract> (2016.01.20)
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