Misrepresentation and the Media

It seems that the topic of refugees and asylum seekers is one of the most disputed political issues in Australia. The media plays a huge role in the framing of asylum seekers particularly through dehumanising visual representations. As an Australian, how many times have you seen dramatic images in the media of asylum seekers arriving on Aussie shores by boat? Does this make you feel threatened? Should Australia be worried? I mean we are surrounded by ocean… that makes us more vulnerable to the hoards of refugees trying to bombard our golden shores right?


These exasperated claims can all be logically examined with simple facts and figures. I mean Australia receives approximately three per cent of the total asylum claims made in industrialised countries globally… three… per cent (UN High Commissioner for Refugees, 2012). So why do a
good portion of Aussies seem to ‘flip out’ over the issue of ‘boat people’. The media shapes public opinion; it has the power to create moral panic over certain issues. Media representations play a crucial factor on the publics opinion of political issues, I mean the general publics knowledge of political issues is unavoidably and inherently mediated. A survey by McKay, Thomas, and Kneebone showed that ‘most respondents have limited accurate knowledge about asylum seeking issues, with knowledge highly dependent on media reporting’ (2012:128).

Images and visual representations in the media can hold a great power over viewers. They provide a snapshot of the situation being discussed; they tend to linger in the mind of the audience and can shape their emotional responses. So how are refugees being visually displayed in Australian media and to what extent does this affect this diaspora of refugees?

In the past decade the amount of media coverage on asylum seekers in Australia has experienced drastic rises and falls. This relates to events and catastrophes overseas as well as events domestically, like elections. I am sure most Australians can place a time when the issue of refugees and asylum seekers dominated national news. During these times the Australian audience was flooded with images and stories of ‘boat people’. These images usually featured large groups of asylum seekers arriving by boat. How does this representation influence our interpretation?

Australia Malaysia Refugees

Social-psychological studies have actually shown that close-up individual portraits are more likely  to evoke compassion in their viewers, while shots of large groups creates emotional distance. The  Australian mainstream media tends to be framing the issue of asylum seekers as less of a  humanitarian disaster and more of a security or border control threat (Jenni and Loewenstein,  (1997). This has created something of a moral panic within certain demographics of the Australian public, as they are misinformed or uneducated on the truth of the situation.

The power that the media can have over the response to certain issues (especially politically) can be demonstrated by the sympathetic reporting on Kosovo refugees in the late 90’s. In comparison, with the angle taken in many stories on asylum seekers today, Kosovar refugees were framed as the victims of terrible war crimes. Close up’s of women and children were often featured. This sparked a wave of donations and help from Western governments and humanitarian agencies.

refugees54_1jalica1_websRefugee camp fire in Podgorica

The Australian media often frames certain diasporas in a negative light. This could be the result of politics and media control. Whatever the reason many Australians are being misinformed and uneducated on this important topic. This problem now needs to be tackled from the bottom up, through citizen agency and through citizen media. Local and community media creation can be an engaging and active way to bring awareness to certain issues. If exercised properly it can also be a great way for those misrepresented diasporas to voice their stories and opinions. In a perfect world the mainstream media might actually tell the truth and report stories in a completely neutral light… but this world is far from perfect, so don’t believe everything you see on TV, ok?

Jenni, K.E. and Loewenstein, G. 1997 ‘Explaining the identifiable victim effect’, Journal of Risk and Uncertainty 14: 235–57.

Mares, P 2002 ‘Reporting Australia’s asylum seeker “crisis’, Australian Policy Online http://apo.org.au/commentary/reporting-australias-asylum-seeker-crisis

Salazar, J.F 2012 ‘Digital Stories and emerging citizens: media practices by migrant youth in Western Sydney’ Journal of Community, Citizens and Third Sector Media and Communication, Issue 7





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