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When Bad News is Good News

World Policy Journal begins each issue with the Big Question, where we ask a panel of experts to provide insight into the cover theme. The question for the spring 2017 Fascism Rising issue is: What role does the media play in driving xenophobia? Below, Miyase Christensen examines the spread of xenophobic and racist values in Western news—and its roots in the event-based, sensationalist logic of mainstream media.

By Miyase Christensen

In every Western country, media outlets portray the refugee crisis differently. In Germany, the media seldom allow far-right parties to represent themselves and their xenophobic views. In Sweden, the press provides mostly “positive” images of refugees and migrants that suggest the need for more humane EU asylum and immigration policies.

In contrast, the U.K. press, with its right-wing papers like the Daily Mail and Daily Express, often shows a marked hostility toward newcomers. While conservative-leaning U.K. newspapers are not representative of European media as a whole, these outlets exert international influence. American opponents of migration and the intake of refugees frequently link to British scare stories about migrants “flooding” into the U.K. and exploiting the country’s benefit system. And state-controlled media in nations such as Russia often use British tabloids as their information sources in order to promote racial hatred and strict border policies.

The question of why many news organizations appear to fuel racism and xenophobia is not unique to the U.K. and goes beyond recent events—it is intrinsic to media itself.

Partisan media like the Daily Mail function on the basis of belief, not evidence. They want to polarize audiences. But even mainstream media operate within an event-based, sensationalist logic, which drives ratings and gives legitimacy to their own role as powerbrokers. When tension looms, the media critique what they had helped to promote in the first place. Take, for instance, the coverage of Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy. U.S. mainstream media gave considerable airtime to the candidate and his agenda. “It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS,” said the CBS CEO Leslie Moonves in reference to Trump’s campaign. He later claimed to be joking.

Event-based media logic also tends to cast Muslims, Roma, refugees, and “others” as criminals, terrorists, and threats to security on the basis of certain incidents, but seldom features these groups in other news segments.

Significant responsibility falls on the media, especially during times of social and political unrest. To promote media that embrace respect, diversity, and dialogue, we must uphold journalistic training, improve the diversity of newsrooms and media representations, and ensure regular interactions between the media and minority and migrant communities. But journalists alone cannot be relied upon to eliminate xenophobic and discriminatory discourse.

*****

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Miyase Christensen is professor of Media and Communication Studies at Stockholm University and guest professor at the Department of Philosophy and History. Her latest book (with A. Jansson) is Cosmopolitanism and the Media: Cartographies of Change.

[Phot courtesy of Eric E Castro]

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