Media Coverage of Migrant Crises: The Politicisation of Suffering?

The bodies of Salvadoran Oscar Ramirez and his 23-month-old daughter Valeria were found washed up on the banks of the Rio Grande, after an attempt to cross the US-Mexico border. A viral image of Valeria’s arm around her father’s neck as they lie face down has since captivated the media’s attention, giving rise to heated debates on the ethics of hard-hitting images. Despite the photograph being used to advance certain political agendas, what it is depicting cannot be ignored: human suffering.

The hard-hitting images of deceased migrants shared in recent years have been criticised by many for being unethical as they rob people of their autonomy. The increase in such images can be attributed to the media’s normalisation of migrant crises as well as the matter-of-fact, journalistic delivery of their suffering, which desensitises people to such issues. Photographs such as that of Oscar Ramirez and Valeria force people to confront the reality of what migrants go through, making them more likely to be emotionally moved by the atrocities. Focusing on a single case within the migrant crisis across the US-Mexico border creates a human response and connection with individuals such as Ramirez and his daughter, rather than viewing migrants as mere statistics presented by the media. Activist Fernando Garcia, director of the Border Network for Human Rights, says that “people talk about immigrants in the absence of their humanity. As sad as it is, I think we need to show the photo.” Despite the ethical questions such photographs may raise, in the wake of increasing hostility towards migrants, it is important to share hard-hitting images, depicting the human suffering in these crises, that evoke universal feelings regardless of political agenda.

In spite of the media attention that Ramirez and his daughter received, in 2017, 412 migrant deaths were recorded at the US-Mexico border, with many being attributed to drowning, though a lot of these went unreported. This raises many questions regarding the use of hard-hitting images to support political agendas, especially in light of the upcoming 2020 presidential elections in the US. While the photo itself factually displays the fate that some migrants face, the use of the image in the media leads to advancements of certain political stances by exploiting human suffering. Many have blamed Trump’s strict border control for the death of Oscar Ramirez and Valeria, thus using the image to denounce Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign. On the other hand, when asked about the image, Trump stated that “[he hates] it, and it could stop immediately if the Democrats change the laws” and implement stricter border control to avoid such tragic deaths. As a result, the politics surrounding the image becomes more important than tackling the actual crisis, giving rise to ethical debates around the use of hard-hitting journalism and its effectiveness in solving crises. Regardless of that, the migrant crises across the world cannot be separated from the politics surrounding them, thus it is expected that images displaying migrant deaths might be used to back up political agendas. The fact still stands that hard-hitting images contribute to these humanitarian issues being acknowledged by all political parties for their devastating nature.

Following the spread of the photograph of Ramirez and Valeria, the president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, addressed their deaths, stating that “We can speak blame to any other country, but what about our blame?… They fled El Salvador. They fled our country. It is our fault.” Bukele’s statement highlights the impact of hard-hitting media (especially of migrant bodies) on pressuring governments to acknowledge their role in such crises. Unlike Trump’s statement which denies responsibility, El Salvador’s president admits his country’s fault. This acknowledgement illustrates the pressure the image has had on influencing calls for reform, not only on the US, but also on the home countries of migrants. While Trump denies responsibility for his strict border control and instead blames Democrats for not having stricter policies, this is still due to pressure to reform in order to avoid a migrant crisis that leads to deaths across the border. Despite political disagreements, emotively hard-hitting images – especially those that depict dead bodies of innocent children – make governments face the suffering involved, thus pressuring them to call for reforms.

Hard-hitting images such as that of Ramirez and Valeria’s dead bodies lead to many concerns, especially the media’s role in the coverage of migrant crises. While the image evokes an emotive response to the harsh realities faced by migrants, it can also lead to further desensitisation regarding such humanitarian issues; the danger is that the more hard-hitting images are shared, the more people will be used to and less affected by human suffering. Furthermore, political divides over such images can lead to a lack of real reform, as well as the aestheticisation of tragedy to advance different political agendas. Despite these ethical concerns, harrowing images portray the real suffering of migrants, which cannot be ignored.

Sara Abdulnabi, Treasurer 

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