Why correct terminology in political communication matters: Case study on unaccompanied minors

This case study is based on results of media monitoring conducted by IRI’s Beacon Project between September 1 and November 31, 2018, during which Czech and Slovak media produced 1,391 articles about migration. This media monitoring sought to gain an understanding of which migration narratives are disseminated, capture the dynamics of the identified narratives and understand the susceptibility to certain narratives by various demographic groups. Despite many international events drawing media attention to migration (demonstrations in German Chemnitz, political departure of Angela Merkel or Orban’s disciplinary hearing), one topic trended in the Czech and Slovak media space above others.

In September 2018, Michaela Šojdrová (Czech MEP, KDU-ČSL/EPP) published a proposal asking for a “manifestation of solidarity of the Czech Republic with the victims of the Syrian war.” In the proposal, Šojdrová asked for “acceptance of a concrete number of unaccompanied children (for example 50) – orphans – from Greek refugee camps.” The proposal further explained that children could be selected from a group of 3,050 unaccompanied underage migrants (ages 12-17), of which 70% were male, all currently residing in Greek refugee camps. Only those children receiving war refugee status under standard Czech administrative procedure would be eligible to take part in this initiative. The proposal refers to previous occasions when the Czech Republic accepted war refugees, and Šojdrová argued for “moral reciprocity” reminiscent of the safety offered to Czechoslovak citizens escaping Nazi and Communist regimes in the past. The British Immigration Act’s amendment directly inspired the proposal.

This news took the Czech and Slovak online media space by storm. For example, in August, the word “orphan” appeared in 136 online articles, and the word “Merkel” (the word most associated with migration) appeared in 1,169 articles. At the peak time of September 16-30, “orphan” trended so much that it appeared in 51 more articles than “Merkel.” However, despite good intentions to show the Czech Republic’s responsiveness to the humanitarian crisis in Syria and strong moral arguments, the proposal was received rather negatively.

Interestingly, there is no apparent connection between criticism of the initiative and the “migrants represent a threat to European culture,” prevalent narrative in Czech and Slovak online media. In September 2018, Czech and Slovak online media produced 705 articles on migration, 224 of which supported the narrative. Out of 163 articles published in September mentioning Šojdrová’s initiative, only 38 supported the narrative and expressed fear of importing terrorism and Islam. The majority of media voices who disapproved of the proposal based their arguments on confusion stemming from the terminology that media and political actors used to describe the group of children, their legal status and the legal consequences of their arrival.

For example, in her initial proposal, in addition to the legal terms “unaccompanied minors” and “child refugees,” Šojdrová used the term “orphans.” These various terms caused confusion when quoted in online media without context of the initial proposal and with no explanation of legal terms Many people felt deceived by the term “orphan” since, in many cases of unaccompanied minors in Greece, death of parents or other family members has not been confirmed merely do not currently accompany these children. Some people were confused by the reference to a “child” because although, legally, a person younger than 18 is a “child,” in colloquial Czech language, that does not necessarily include young teens, who made up most of the unaccompanied minors present in the refugee camps.

However, it wasn’t only the media who quoted Šojdrová out of context, but also Czech politicians, who took advantage of the situation and fueled a debate based on misinterpreted data and terminology, rather than the actual objective of the proposal. Many alternative media outlets soon took advantage of this confusion and turned it against Šojdrová’s proposal and similar civil society initiatives.

Media sources often referred to the unaccompanied minors in question as a “Trojan horse”  or “jeskyňky” - evil fairies who try to enter one’s house under false pretences. Prime Minister Andrej Babis called the initiative a flash in the pan,” because the debate is “not about small children, but about boys in the age 12-17 (915 children in the suggested group were female). The many contradictory interpretations (compare examples here and here) of the initiative created distrust as discourse on this humanitarian topic shifted to an investigation of political motives and legal rules.

This case shows that there is a burden of responsibility not only with the media, but primarily with political actors whose political communications ought to be clear, factually correct, ethical and consistent in use of language and terminology. The correct and standardized expert terms should be used where necessary, yet communication must be understandable and clear to the target audience.

Only high-quality communication can mitigate the risks of creating misinformation which could be later used to fuel the spread of “grey” disinformation by alternative media. A few words may not make a difference to the meaning of the entire speech, but quotes taken out of context can quickly take on a life of their own. Imperfect quotes cannot be avoided, but one needs to maintain responsibility for the meaning their words take. “The orphans’ case,” as it is being called by the Czech media, is not significant because of the great confusion it caused. Rather, it highlights the minimal effort of the media to explain the matter to their audience, and the low level of interest of some Czech politicians to engage in ethical and merit-based dialogue. On the other hand, the determination of Michaela Šojdrová to react to misinformation with repeated clarifications exemplify a good practice worth following because those who tolerate or even support misinterpretation by media risk losing trust of society in media as a source of information. Lack of ethical and reliable information sources make people more vulnerable to the effects of malign influences on the opinion forming process due to fear, lack of knowledge or confusion