Czech media on refugees… without refugees

Czech Radio, a public service, failed to provide objective and balanced information as required by law in some of its programmes, tending to create a stereotypical image of migration.

Wikimedia Commons, Author: Ondřej Kořínek

In the second half of 2015, migration was one of the most frequently covered topics by Czech media, including those in the public service. But did they serve the public interest and provide their listeners with unbiased information? Unfortunately not entirely, as shown by a case study analysing Czech Radio broadcast programmes. 1

According to this analysis, the media representation of migration and the information given in certain programmes was not sufficiently balanced or diverse.

This lack of diversity fails to fulfil the law requiring public media to provide objective and balanced information. However, it is important to note that since the analysis included only a percentage of the total Czech Radio broadcasts in the selected period, it is not possible to accuse Czech Radio of failing to comply with the law.

Framing the topic of migration

Despite the fact that migration was taking place in this period largely in other parts of Europe, outside the Czech Republic, when compared to media coverage of other events migration was clearly the most covered topic on both of the analysed channels.

However, the news concerning migration was represented and grounded in a pre-defined discourse. The analysis identified the use of several interconnected and mutually supportive methods that distorted a balanced representation of the topic. Individual events pertaining to migration were covered selectively and disproportionally, and so were the specific information and data presented.

The analysed radio stations distorted their representation of the topic in order to make particular events, or even loosely related events, fit a theme. Migration often served as a background on which to project the representation of different events not directly related to migration.

The majority of broadcasted news was presented from the macro perspective, meaning that the refugees’ everyday personal lives were rarely covered. In the analysed broadcasts of the main radio news station, Czech Radiojournal, migration was framed mostly as a political issue, unrelated to particular individuals in need.

59% of the reports on migration informed about events happening outside the territory of the Czech Republic – mostly migration via the Balkan Route, incidents at the Budapest railway station, and the increasing numbers of asylum seekers in Germany and Scandinavia.

In approximately one-third of the broadcasts, listeners were presented with information about the possible consequences of migration on the situation in the Czech Republic, including but not limited to the possible arrival of refugees to the CR, the EU negotiations on quotas, and a decrease in EU subsidies for states not showing enough solidarity, such as the Czech Republic.

Journalists’ updates on migration most frequently included quotes from Czech politicians on international politics, data on safeguarding the Czech borders, the Czech state’s level of preparedness to accept or place asylum seekers, and the situation in the asylum facilities. They related the topic of migration to the Czech Republic using the phrase “national point of view” and the concepts of risk and endangerment to “us” (the Czechs). Messages about migration were constructed according to the “us versus them” view.

Journalist routines

Given the frequency and salience of the topic, it is all the more relevant to see how the news services were structured. Journalists accentuated events with “negative news value” and showed preference toward events with negative connotations, as well as events or aspects of events with an element of conflict. As a result, events with “negative news value” were significantly over-represented, and the level of their representation grew with their geographical (or cultural) proximity to the Czech Republic.

Journalists selectively and disproportionately chose which aspects and contexts of a particular topic to represent, as well as fractional events related to them. They also selectively represented certain facts and figures necessary for a balanced and complex description of the given event.

Most surprisingly, the perspectives of both (or all) sides involved in a given event were not portrayed. Instead, the Czech Radio migration discourse was based on an extremely high proportion of quotations from institutional sources such as politicians, police officers and authorities, or narratives based on these quotations.

The key experts? Journalists themselves

On the whole, journalists used only a minimum of the information sources available. Not only did they not give voices to those who migrate – including those who were already living in Europe.

They only consulted foreign sources of information, representatives of foreign aid organisations, social scientists and similar professionals as information sources in very minimal ways.

Following from this, the choice of people invited to talk about the topic of migration was highly questionable. The most-cited sources were the Czech Radio journalists, commentators and collaborators themselves. The second most-used sources were Czech politicians, whose statements appeared in 12% of the news broadcasts and in 21% of the opinion and journalistic broadcasts, followed by spokespersons for the Czech authorities. No one else was routinely given space for presenting their views – and if so, they were only exceptions. Not a single direct statement from an asylum seeker or refugee was aired in the analysed part of the news, nor in the opinion pieces of Czech Radiojournal and Czech Radio Plus.

There were, of course, slight differences between news and opinion programs; however, they were not that essential. For example, the stories of real refugees could be heard in 9 of the 54 analysed broadcasts from the evening show “60 Minutes”. But these refugees’ experiences and opinions were mostly very loosely retold in Czech by people assisting the refugees, or by employees of Czech Radio. Alternatively, a recording of a refugee’s voice was sometimes used in the background as a “hurly-burly” effect to illustrate the topic and support the illusion of authenticity and topicality.

When listening to Czech Radio, one could easily get the impression that the key experts on migration were the journalists and contributors of Czech Radio themselves. However, the analysis of selected opinion discussion broadcasts revealed low preparedness and professional erudition on the part of some radio anchormen, certainly not high enough to conduct a deep, specialised discussion about the topic of migration.

Stories without actors and heroes

The refugees were largely presented as the objects of political decisions or police and army interventions. Even within the opinion format, the space was not used to bring in information from a micro perspective; this appeared only in one-third or less of the total contributions.

Journalists used the terms “refugee” and “migrant” interchangeably, along with semantically manipulative techniques such as synonymisation to make terms such as migrant, immigrant, asylum seeker, and refugee seem equivalent.

It was common to stereotype the actual humans involved by linking their identity with implied negative features, using value-laden metaphors such as tide, wave, flood and even tsunami. This not only contributed to the dehumanisation of the migrating individuals, but also associated them with natural phenomena which are impossible to control and must be confronted and mitigated.

Due to the fact that Czech Radio covered the refugee crisis mainly from the macro perspective, without reference to specific individuals, it was probably more difficult for their listeners to identify with the refugees, develop empathy for them, imagine their life stories and perspectives, and ultimately express support for them.

Although we can identify attempts to correct the one-sided image of migration with “alternative narratives”, those contributions were so underrepresented that they cannot be considered to represent a complex picture of the given events or counterbalance the identified disproportions and biases.

In the context of the legal and ethical requirements dictating how Czech Radio should perform, their presentation of the topic of migration was problematic. The discourse tended to create a highly closed-off, stereotypical image of events, making use of selective facts, opinions and positions. Journalists structured the narrative based on the paradigm of conflict between “us and them”, stigmatising the represented actors and creating a semantically loaded, negatively charged image of them.

However, it was difficult to identify whether these shortcomings in fulfilling the legal requirements were due to purposeful action on the part of the journalists, or  the influence of the so-called “media routines” in the journalists’ everyday work. 2

In addition, only a small part of the whole body of broadcasts was analysed, and it is still possible that the representation in other parts was more balanced and complex with more time given to migrating individuals.

Notes:

  1. Renata Sedláková, Marek Lapčík, Zdenka, Burešová, Analýza mediální reprezentace tématu emigrační vlny z islámských zemí do Evropy a reakcí české politiky a společnosti na tuto emigrační vlnu, 2016, http://bit.ly/2lgvO2X (accessed on February 24, 2017). The analysis was done on assignment by the Czech Radio Board and for the period stipulated by them concerning two Czech Radio stations, Radiojournal (ČRo Radiožurnál) and Czech Radio Plus (ČRo Plus) between August 17 and September 18, 2015. The presented findings are valid for selected broadcast pieces in the given period only. Both news and opinion broadcasts such as “The Main News at 12:00” (Hlavní zprávy ve 12), “The Main News at 12:00 – Interviews and Commentaries” (Hlavní zprávy ve 12 – rozhovory a komentáře), “Sixty Minutes” (60 minut), “The Day According To…” (Den podle…), “For and Against” (Pro a Proti) and “Opinions and Arguments” (Názory a argumenty) were analysed. Both quantitative and qualitative methods were used in the analysis. Altogether there were 256 messages related to migration broadcasts in the given period.
  2. See TUCHMAN, G., Making News. A Study in the Construction of Reality, New York: The Free Press, 1978.
Renáta Sedláková

Renáta Sedláková

Mgr. Renata Sedláková, Ph.D. works at the Department of Media and Cultural Studies and Journalism in the Faculty of Philosophy of Palacky University in Olomouc. She focuses on research into media representations of minorities and marginalised groups (e.g. Roma people, ethnic minorities, older people) in the Czech media environment. http://bit.ly/2m52GNB