Simulating Experiences of Displacement and Migration: Developing Immersive and Interactive Media Forms Around Factual Narratives

Simulating Experiences of Displacement and Migration: Developing Immersive and Interactive Media Forms Around Factual Narratives

James N. Blake (Edinburgh Napier University, Edinburgh, Scotland)
Copyright: © 2019 |Pages: 12
DOI: 10.4018/IJEP.2019010104
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Immigration is a highly politicised and emotive area of public discourse. During the peak of the so-called ‘Refugee Crisis' in Europe, a number of EU politicians and mass media outlets manipulated the abstract idea of ‘the migrant' as a scapegoat for a number of social ills including rising crime, unemployment and national security. Yet, during these years, some news organisations did seek to counter the dominant negative narratives around migration by exploring new modes of storytelling around interactive and immersive digital environments. This study examines four such media projects, all developed between 2014 and 2016. Their interactive narratives sought to break down popular discourses which portrayed migrants as “the other” by creating an emotional connection between media user and the experience of refugees themselves. For this research, journalists, editors, and producers were interviewed to determine the motivations of the content creators and the impact their storytelling techniques had on viewers.
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During the year 2015, an estimated one million people left their homelands to make the dangerous journey into Europe. According to the UNHCR, this “unprecedented” number of migrants were forced to flee due to “persecution, conflict and poverty” (UNHCR / IOM, 2015). Half of these displaced people were escaping the civil war in Syria. Others came from Afghanistan and Iraq. Most of these refugees endured the perilous voyage across the Aegean Sea from Turkey into Greece often in small and fragile inflatable boats. In the same year, about 150,000 crossed the Mediterranean Sea into Italy from North Africa. During the first five months of 2016, more than 2,800 were feared drowned in the Mediterranean. In May 2016, the G7 summit in Japan declared the ‘large scale movements of migrants and refugees as a global challenge which requires a global response’ (G7 Statement 2016).

It was a humanitarian emergency in the heart of Europe that spanned several years and still continues into 2019. During this time, as a number of studies have shown, many EU political leaders and media organisations sought to make political capital out of the crisis by portraying refugees as a threat (Wodak 2015, Crawley & Skleparis 2018). According to Krzyzanowski et al. (2018), these “politicized and mediatized visions” portrayed “mainly imaginary scenarios of migrants as a danger” (p.8). Pineo-Pineo and Moore (2015) describe the conscious manipulation of the public discourse on immigration as a “narrative or oppression” (p.4). In this charged social climate, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, warned about the escalation of “anti-foreigner sentiments” (UNHCR / IOM, 2015).

Public debate over the social and economic impact of the refugee crisis became distorted through a lens of right-wing mediatisation (Trianafyllidou 2017, La Barbera 2015). As this happened, once-commonly used terms in immigration discourse became loaded with ideological and populist rhetoric. In this way, the word “‘migrant’ comes implicitly to mean someone who’s travelling for economic reasons, rather than for as yet undetermined ones” (Kingsley, 2016). However, some media organizations did seek to counter these dominant negative narratives in popular discourse. In August 2015, for example, the TV network Al Jazeera banned the use of the word ‘migrant’ to describe those crossing the Mediterranean Sea. Barry Malone was the online editor at Al Jazeera who states:

The umbrella term migrant is no longer fit for purpose when it comes to describing the horror unfolding in the Mediterranean. It has evolved from its dictionary definitions into a tool that dehumanises and distances, a blunt pejorative. (Malone, 2015)

In a similar vein, the categories of ‘refugee’, ‘economic migrant’, and ‘transitory migrant’, for example, became either redundant or misleading. According to Crawley and Skleparis (2018), “these categories prove largely incapable of adequately explaining the complex experiences and back stories of those crossing the Mediterranean in 2015.” (p. 51). Other researchers have warned against the use of the word “crisis” itself. Krzyzanowski et al. state, “referring to a migration “crisis” is both stigmatizing—especially for the migrants themselves—and adding an unnecessarily alarmistic connotation to this discourse” (2018, p.3).

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