Pope Francis calls out journalists: Does the media needlessly foster fear?

Pope Francis rebuked Italian reporters for stirring up negative sentiment toward migrants fleeing war and fear.

Andrew Medichini/AP
Pope Francis arrives for his weekly general audience, in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, on Wednesday.

The Vatican’s Pope Francis has strived to be a voice of peace and unity on a continent struggling to deal with a refugee crisis. On Thursday he spoke out once again, this time against mass media, which he says has the power to shape the public’s response to that challenge.

During an address to Italy’s national journalism guild, Pope Francis told leaders of the industry that the press has the power to act like “terrorists” when it relies on gossip and rumors, particularly while covering humanitarian crises such as Europe’s influx of migrants. Yet while studies show that the press can help shape public dialogue, some experts say that the public opinion also plays a major role in shaping the tone that is reflected in the press.

“The bottom line is that there is a complex interaction between media, public opinion, and policymaking. To some extent, they’re indistinguishable from one another,” says Oxford University media analyst Robert McNeil. “They all drive one another.”

More than 1 million people made their way into Europe in 2015 alone, with even more flooding European borders over the course of the past several years. They came seeking many things: some sought freedom from fear, others a respite from civil war or corrupt government, and some made the journey in search of better economic opportunities.

Although many European countries were at first open to the idea of sheltering migrants, the reality of coping with so many asylum seekers has been daunting for beleaguered governments, a factor that some experts say has led citizens of countries such as Germany to become less welcoming.

“Europe’s sense of self has been challenged by its inability to respond to a situation with so many people in dire, dire need,” Mr. McNeil tells The Christian Science Monitor. “It is losing its ability to describe itself as a place of social democracy in a situation where people are becoming considerably less open to principles of social protection espoused by the European Union.”

As Europe struggles to understand and manage its uneasy new role as social support provider to thousands of migrants and refugees, the press plays a major role in educating existing citizens about their new neighbors.

And while some news providers have done an excellent job maintaining balance and showing humanity, according to Georgetown University refugee expert Rochelle Davis, others are showcasing Europe’s worst fears.

In 2013, the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, in Britain, combed through hundreds of news articles to quantitatively examine press coverage of the surge of refugees pouring into Europe by analyzing the frequency of words used in articles about the subject.

The resulting report found that the word “illegal” was most frequently used to modify the word “immigrants” in British publications, whereas “failed” was most often used to describe asylum seekers. “Jobs” and “economic” were also high-frequency words, perhaps speaking to British concerns about the job market due to high rates of immigration.

Another study, conducted by researchers at Cardiff University in Wales on behalf of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), found that Britain’s press was the most hostile toward refugees overall, despite the presence of several publications that were largely sympathetic.

Currently, Britain is one of the European countries that is more open to refugees, although 52 percent of British citizens polled by Pew Research Center reported that they believed that immigration would increase the risk of terrorism in their country.

“How migrants and migration are described, categorised and represented matters,” wrote Cardiff University researchers. “Indeed it matters a great deal when it is done by politicians who represent us, and by news media whose ‘cultural authority’ is premised upon speaking truth to power and representing the world of events to us.”

The UNCHR report found that while the Italian press had a long history of anti-immigrant sentiment, the current crisis has been accompanied by a return of "self-preservation" and ethnically exclusionary rhetoric. 

According to the Pew research study on public opinion in Europe, Italy is one of the countries that is most concerned about migrants. Sixty percent of Italians surveyed told Pew that they were worried that migration would increase the chance of terrorist attacks occurring in their country. Sixty-five percent of Italian survey respondents said that they saw refugees from Iraq and Syria as a “major threat.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, therefore, in the past year, Italian newspapers have run headlines such as "ISIS is coming. Let's arm ourselves,” and “Islamic Bastards,” creating a characterization of migrants that Pope Francis told reporters is morally wrong, according to Reuters.

Journalism should not, Francis said, be used as a "weapon of destruction against persons and even entire peoples, neither should it foment fear before events like forced migration from war or from hunger.”

Regardless of whether or not journalists will take Francis’s rebuke to heart, McNeil says, “It is valuable to have high profile people such as Pope Francis focusing peoples’ attention on improving media, or creating a situation in which journalists are more self-aware.”

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