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Reporting the migrant crisis: A dual responsibility to tell the human story

Jack Burgess

is a researcher at the BBC. Twitter: @Jack_Burgess1

Reporting on the current migrant crisis has led to the most online abuse and hate mail in her entire career, says Channel 4’s international editor Lindsey Hilsum.

BBC Radio 4’s chief correspondent Matthew Price has also had his fair share and says the most bizarre comments included several followers suggesting his reports were deliberate attempts to encourage terrorist atrocities. “You bastard… you want us all to be blown up”, was one particularly colourful comment he says he remembers receiving.

While accepting that it can often be tempting to block people making these comments on social media, Price believes there’s a responsibility for journalists to reach out and establish a dialogue.

The journalists’ comments came during a Polis and London Press Club discussion called Migrants, terror and the media: Reporting and responsibilities on the front line. Price and Hilsum shared the stage at the London School of Economics (LSE) with Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a columnist for the Independent, William Wintercross, a photo and video journalist at the Telegraph, and Rossalyn Warren, senior reporter for BuzzFeed.

They’d gathered to examine whether the media has represented the migrant and terror crises fairly, and the wider responsibilities of journalists. Panel chairman, LSE media professor Charlie Beckett set the tone: “The [migrant] crisis is one of the most extraordinary topics for journalists… one of the most difficult as well.”

A culmination of several factors have been cited recently by commentators as contributors to public discontent over the crisis, including a rise in terror attacks, widespread anxiety over the global economy, increased nationalism in Europe and uncertainty with the Brexit debate.

While Price felt this did not excuse inflammatory discourse, it did give context to the frustrations of many who feel wary or alienated by media coverage of the crisis.

Panellists sympathised, and were familiar with, the social media abuse Price spoke about. The BBC correspondent also pointed out that some criticism he had received online had been more constructive and had actually informed his reporting.

He referred to a reader who had criticised media coverage for disproportionately focusing on images of women and children, when the majority of the refugees were men. After hearing this, Price researched the precise figures and discovered that the migrants were indeed roughly 70% men.

The practicality of this instance was reflected in an observation by Warren about the digital age – journalists now have an obligation to engage in two-way communication with audiences, rather than dictating stories.

Charlie Beckett pointed out that the complexity surrounding the terms ‘migrants’ and ‘terror’ has actually become part of the debate.

Most of the panel agreed that these words have taken on negative connotations, particularly in parts of the press. As Alibhai-Brown put it, such reporting has served to “de-humanise [migrants] and turn them into an unnamed threat”, when in fact theirs was “the story of the human race”: "This is history that is happening now,” she said.

Both Alibhai-Brown and Warren argued that the media had failed to convey empathy with the migrants or to show their plight as part of the wider human story, particularly at the start of the crisis.

This oversight was illustrated in September last year by the outpouring of public sympathy following the publication by a Turkish news agency of a powerful image of a dead toddler on a beach in Turkey, drowned attempting to reach Greece.

There had been regular reports over the past year of many people dying in the Aegean Sea, but public opinion had been more subdued until that time.

Wintercross believed that this was the moment the media really captured public interest: “It was so incongruous to see the toddler on the beach in a place where European tourists would go… these people were no longer the ‘Other’… people could suddenly relate to [the crisis].”

Although getting the facts right is the cardinal principle of journalism, as Warren pointed out, perhaps the lesson that can be learnt is the importance of finding ways to make powerful stories more relatable to audiences at an early stage.

“Maybe the people we’re not humanising are the people who are afraid… afraid of change,” suggested Lindsey Hilsum

As the crisis shows only signs of worsening over 2016, the debate helped to shine a light on the duties of the media towards both the public and the migrants.


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