Sileshi Yilma Reta: The BBC’s biased framing of North African migration to Europe


Mass media play a pivotal role in constructing and shaping the migration discourse. The stereotypical depiction of migrants by the media has been a source of debate by various researchers, who criticize the media establishment for focusing too much on trivial issues and ignoring the underlying causes of migration. Researchers, such as Thorbjornsrud (2015), argue that the issue of migration has been drawn by the media through the ”narrative of illegality” by mirroring the opinions as well as proposals of principal political organs (p.774). This argument is also supported by Benson (2013) and Suro (2011). They claim that the media houses portray migration mainly as a matter of ”law and order issue” that is choreographed by politicians, who attempt to show their unwavering struggle of illegal migrants (as cited in Thorbjornsrud, 2015, p.774).

Apart from ignoring the root causes of the crisis, the media also allow the stories to be dominated by heavy weight stakeholders of migration and refrain from entertaining the voices of migrants. As a result, researchers, such as Thorbjornsrud, criticize the coverage of migration as unfair and biased. According to him, as the reports prefer to use ”metaphors, images and symbols” that reinforce stereotyped framing of migrants (2015, p. 776). This idea goes in line with most of the findings that my study tried to uncover with regards to the unfair and biased coverage of migration.

This paper, therefore, claims that the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is unfair and biased in its reporting of North African migrants to Italy as it violates the basic principles of journalism. This is illustrated by the media outlet’s usage of sources, which are mainly politicians as well as governmental and non-governmental organizations that have paramount stake in migration discourse. It ignores migrants’ point of view although they are at the centre of the issue.

I selected the BBC for this study because it is a global media organization that gives vast coverage on migration in its news bulletins and current affairs programs. I chose 2015 to get a better understanding of how the BBC has recently covered migration. Furthermore, the media outlet was chosen because it has a global presence in audio, video and online. I randomly selected 10 stories produced by the BBC. They were analyzed for content using media framing theory.


Media Framing Theory

This theory is used to analyze the contents of media reports. According to Entman (2004), it is employed to highlight ”some facets of events or issues” and conduct linkages among the occurrences to ”promote a particular interpretation, evaluation, and/or solution” (as cited in Balbanova & Balch, 2010, p. 386).

By framing a topic in a particular way, media houses arrange their presentation from a particular angle. Pan and Kosicki (1983) suggest that this happens by ”including and excluding ideas to produce a coherent construction and understanding” of the topic under discussion (as cited in Balbanova & Balch, 2010, p. 386). Framing theory enables us to explain problems and suggest solutions.

Other researchers argue that framing incorporates some kind of bias- ”a process of selection and exclusion” (Zakakis, Batimaroudis & Bounia, 2012, p.450). This claim is also supported by Entman (1993). He states that main words frame ”stock phrases, stereotyped images, sources of information and sentences that provide thematically reinforcing clusters of facts or judgments” (Zakakis et al, 2012, p.349). So, I employed this theory to analyze my findings in a more manageable and meaningful manner.

Sources of the Story

The analysis conducted on 10 stories reveal that the BBC’s usage of sources is unfair and biased, violating the principles of journalism. The findings show that the migration coverage has a number of shortcomings. Almost all of the stories heavily rely on three types of sources: politicians, governmental organizations, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

No. Types of sources used Frequency of the sources
1 Politicians 15
2 Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) 9
3 Governmental organizations 8
4 Migrants 0
Total 32

Table 1: The types of sources used in the stories

As it is indicated in the above table, the BBC’s journalists have mostly employed politicians as sources of their stories. Out of the 32 sources used, 15 were politicians. What is striking here is that even among the politicians, the Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, was cited as a source 4 times. Other politicians from Germany and France were also used in the news articles. In some instances, a source was used more than once in a single news.

Following politicians, governmental and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were used by the BBC as major sources of its news stories. Out of the 32 news sources employed, 9 fall in the NGOs category whereas 7 were sources from governmental organizations. Some of the major examples of non-governmental organizations that were repeatedly cited in the news stories include International Organization for Migration, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and United Nations. On the other hand, the sources from governmental organizations include European Commission, European Union Border Agency, Italian Coast Guard, and Italian Navy. Except for one source, none of the stories cited the names of the officials who work in the organizations. This is probably because the news stories highly relied on the press releases sent to them by the organizations. Press releases are prepared by public relations (PR) specialists whose primary mission is to paint good images of their institutions. These experts may conceal weaknesses of their organizations from the media. So, although it is difficult to totally ignore PR experts and press releases from news stories, too much dependency on them may affect the balance of stories by giving organizations favorable coverage and ignoring other stakeholders.

The dominant presence of governmental, non-governmental as well as political sources has affected the narrative of the stories giving them free reign to advance their interest and/or agenda. This finding is similar with the observation of Thorbjornsrud (2015). He claims that the media’s framing of migration issues reflects ”the initiatives and arguments of politicians” in the government circles (p. 774). When politicians and organizations are given more platforms, they can easily shape and manipulate the public’s opinion and attitude towards migration to their advantage.

The BBC also totally ignores the voices of migrants, who are at the heart of the crisis. None of the stories analyzed used migrants as a source. The journalists were not committed to interview migrants even when they got the opportunity to do so. The BBC was reluctant to balance the stories as it excluded the perspectives of the migrants so that the audience would get the migrants’ side of the story.

Framing in Action

According to the stories analyzed for this study, migration coverage by the BBC was mainly framed in the following manner:

No. Primary frames used in the stories Frequency of the frames
1. The human traffickers frame 4
2. The fair burden-sharing/ reluctant parties frame 3
3. The morality frame 2
4. The religious conflict frame 1
                                       Total 10

Table 2: The types of frames used in the stories

The Human Traffickers Frame

One of the common framing techniques that portrays the BBC’s biased and unfair coverage of migration coverage is what I have referred to as the human traffickers frame. As it is indicated in the above table, out of the ten stories analyzed, 4 fall under this category. To divert the attention of the audience from the failures of the key stakeholders in the migration issue, the BBC frames its stories from the belief that the human traffickers as the cause of all problem. It reports: ”People-smuggling gangs have taken advantage of Libya’s war and chaos to run a lucrative racket sending packed, unseaworthy boats to Europe” (BBC, 2015).

In another news report, the BBC uses an expression of the Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, to justify its framing technique. The Prime Minister described the human traffickers ”the slave traders of the 21st century” (BBC, 2015). Once again, the BBC’s usage of such expressions are biased and showcases its systematic strategy of ignoring ”the elephant in the room” with regards to migration. It is unwilling and not determined to highlight the policy failures and misguided strategies of the Western world, which the BBC is part of.

It is obvious that human traffickers are one of the stakeholders to blame in aggravating the migration crisis. They are creating their hot spots and comfort zones to expand their wealth. However, there are also other major players which can either reduce or speed up the migration chaos. Instead of pinpointing the major power players’ role in migration, the BBC overplays human traffickers’ frame by downplaying the major causes (for instance, the poverty and violence that exists in the migrants’ home countries such as Syria, Somalia, and Eritrea). This attitude that is followed by the BBC seems to be in line with its unfair and biased reporting style and is in conflict with the basic tenets of objective and balanced reporting. In this regard, the BBC seems to conceal the failures of countries such as the UK to fight the migration issue with determination. Instead, it plays the blame game on human traffickers and retreats back from reporting the root causes of migration i.e., the misguided policy that the European countries, including the UK, follow towards countries such as Libya and Syria. The media giant is unwilling to deal with the root cause because. I strongly believe this is because analyzing the root cause clashes with the national interest of the UK, which that the BBC is always determined to safe guard.

The Fair Burden-Sharing/ Reluctant Parties Frame

In what I refer as the fair burden-sharing/reluctant parties frame, the BBC attempts to dictate that member countries of the European Union should equally share the burden of migration and member states must not be reluctant to comply with such a move. The media outlet seems to be sympathetic to countries such as Italy and Greece, which it believes have carried much of the burden. In the news story the BBC ran on June 16, 2015 entitled ” In Mediterranean migrants: Italy warns EU over quota plan,” it explained its sympathetic view of this frame as: ”The crisis has put a huge strain on Italian, Greek and Maltese resources” (BBC, 2015).

Although the BBC’s call for equal sharing of migrants by the European Union member states seems logical, it focuses on admiring the efforts of few countries and blaming other nations for being reluctant. What is important to focus on here is the BBC’s probably deliberate negligence of UK, which funds of the media house. In the news stories analyzed for this study, it has directly or indirectly blamed countries such France and Germany. However, none of the news stories had the courage to criticize the UK for its negligence in easing the burden of the migration problem, which is currently challenging Europe. From the perspective of journalistic principles, this is a deliberate bias and selective reporting This directly supports the argument I have made that the BBC’s reporting style of migration stories is biased and unfair.

The Morality Frame

In what I refer as the morality frame, the BBC depicts attempts to be the guardian of morality. It attempts to frame the migration issue from the viewpoint of morality as depicted by the dominant stakeholders in migration issues. In some instances, it champions the case of asylum, claiming they have to be given jobs in their host countries. In other instances, it reiterates the politicians’ view that countries have moral obligation in handling migrants’ crisis. In its June 30, 2015 news report, the BBC attempts to back up this claim by quoting the Prime Minister of Italy: ”Italy has a moral duty to return the bodies to the relatives of those who had died (in the sea)” (BBC, 2015). However, echoing politicians’ voice on morality doesn’t show the BBC’s concern on the topic as it has retreated back from reporting the root cause of migration. Properly covering the root cause of migration and then giving ample air time for migrants can be considered as an encouraging step towards morality.

The media outlet seems to be moral guardian of migration, it has never attempted to provide intimate account of the migrants to its audience, according to the analysis I made on the 10 stories. If it were worried about the moral aspect of migrants, then it could simply interviewed the victims of migration. However, the study reveals that BBC did not worry about this even when it was given exclusive access to rescue missions. This finding is similar with the observation of Thorbjornsrud (2015). He argues that media outlets frame migrants as ”victims of an unfair system” and stresses the moral aspects of these victims by ”focusing on human suffering and human rights” (p.774). However, the BBC has not attempted to investigate what or who has caused the ”unfair system” although it has indicated migrants as victims of this system. In my view, this is because one of the major stakeholder behind this ‘‘unfair system” is the UK, which funds the BBC. As a result, the media house’s reports of the issue has become unfair and biased, violating the basic principles of journalism.

The Religious Conflict Frame

What I call the religious conflict frame reveals the BBC’s diverting strategy of the migration issue towards the religious aspect. It attempts to portray the issue as the fight between Christians and Muslims. In a news report made by the BBC on 16 April 2015, this issue is presented:

Italian police say they have arrested 15 Muslim migrants after they allegedly threw 12 Christians overboard following a row on a boat heading to Italy…. The 15 Muslim migrants involved in the row with Christians were arrested in the Sicilian city of Palermo and charged with multiple aggravated murder motivated by religious hate. (BBC, 2015)

Such types of occurrences may happen occasionally but they are not the main causes of migration. What is more striking about this story is the BBC’s framing based on unreliable and third party sources. In this story, it only used one source (simply stated as ”police say”). What is more amazing is that the police’s statement was based on an eyewitness. The BBC’s usage of ”eyewitnesses told police” style shows that the media giant is negligent about migration stories. Firstly, using only one source for a news report is unethical as the rule of balancing is violated. Secondly, using third party sources (”eyewitnesses told police”) likely leads to journalistic errors as unnamed sources can often times be unreliable.

The other problem of this framing technique is the fact that the BBC obsessed with the religions of the migrants (‘‘15 Muslim migrants” and ”12 Christians”) rather than merely reporting what happened. This sometimes may lead to religious tensions among the various parties involved. We have seen several instances where the burning of the Quran in one place, for instance, has triggered backlashes in other places, claiming the lives of innocent civilians. Prior to reporting the alleged Muslims vs. Christians conflict, the BBC editorial team should have taken the sensitivity of the issue in to consideration.


The analysis of the 10 stories the BBC produced indicates its biased and unfair reporting style. This is supported by the fact that most of the sources used in the stories are politicians as well as governmental and non-governmental organizations. Furthermore, the stories totally ignore migrants’ view although they are key in the narrative of the issue. The finding further illustrates how the BBC sets aside the main causes by portraying the stories in four frames.

I believe that the BBC’s framing of migration may have broader implication. One such implication might be the discrimination of migrants in their host country. Such reporting styles may also lead the audience to doubt the BBC’s credibility on the issue. In general, this area could be a good area for future research and it might further be advanced by focusing on how media houses cover migration stories in relation to various principles and ethics of journalism by expanding the sample size.


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Sileshi Yilma Reta is a postgraduate student at the Graduate School for Social Research at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences and Lancaster University. The research project was supervised by Dr. Bernadette Nadya Jaworsky (Assistant Professor of Social Sciences at Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic) and Jennie Toner Algin (Instructor and Instructional Designer of Academic Writing at Istanbul’s Koc University).