media should remember that asylum seekers are human beings, not just a good story


The reports were compelling. Broadcasters hunt down flimsy and crowded canoes, with reporters so close they might in fact yell questions at those negotiating dangerous Channel traffic.

The BBC and Sky News reports have been condemned by opposition MPs and activists alike grotesque and voyeuristic. In a live report, a boat containing a BBC Breakfast crew ominously approached a dinghy, where those traveling there were returning water with a plastic container. Shortly after, a Sky News reporter approached another overcrowded craft to shout questions.

The satirical site Newsthump summed up the situation with the title: BBC and Sky go shoulder to shoulder in the race to see who will be the first to film a sinking boat.

The coverage of asylum seekers and migration is heavy and often criticized. But around these reports, there are two questions: if this story should be reported now and, if so, what should be the role of a journalist.

Most people opposed to covering the story see it as inspired by the remarks of former UKIP leader Nigel Farage. He spoke of a “shocking invasion” on the Kent coast – remarks immediately condemned by anti-racist activists. The media response is that the Interior Ministry’s request for help from defense chiefs – as well as the appointment of a “clandestine threat commander” – means this is news. urgent and important.

But this dependence of journalists on politicians for their sources – as my colleagues at City University of London and I discovered when conduct a recent study on how the UK media report asylum claims – means that the line taken by political elites often spills over to the public through the media and helps to shape opinion.

As Refugee Action tweeted, the focus should be on effective solutions rather than hostile rhetoric, with politicians saying little about safe and legal routes for refugees or a resettlement program.

Spectator or participant?

But if we accept that this is a story that should be covered, what is the role of the journalist? Many on social media were angry that the journalists in their boats did not save those who appeared to be in trouble.

First, as a senior official at a media organization told me, if those in the boats had been in immediate danger, there is no doubt that what would have happened: they would have helped. Maritime law dictates the captain of a ship must also assist a ship in distress. But what if the danger is not immediately apparent?

Traditional journalistic standards say that the journalist testifies rather than participates in events. But the coverage of humanitarian stories has always been a heavy exception where the lines are often blurred.

One of the most famous cases has been Kevin Carter’s photo of a little girl with a vulture that prowled nearby during the 1993 Sudan Famine. Carter waited 20 minutes to see if the vulture would spread its wings, giving her a better picture. He eventually chased him away, leaving the girl to struggle to a nearby feeding center. After the image appeared, Carter was both praised for the power of photography and condemned for not saving the girl.

In his book on Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death, Susan D Moeller commented: “Being close enough to photograph the hungry child meant being close enough to help him. The responsibility to testify does not automatically override the responsibility to get involved.

Voyeurist? Kevin Carter’s iconic famine photo.
Kevin Carter via Wikipedia

Shortly after Carter was photographed, distance standards were questioned by people such as former BBC war correspondent Martin Bell, who said he could no longer stand what he called “spectator journalism” and instead argued in favor of “attachment journalism”, defined as an approach “which would not stand in a neutral way between good and evil. , good and evil, the victim and the oppressor ”.

Distancing required

But how far should journalistic engagement go? When the 2010 Haiti earthquake hit, viewers watched CNN presenter Anderson Cooper grab a bloodied boy and drag him away from a crowd, while fellow journalist Dr Sanjay Gupta, was performing brain surgery on a 15-year-old unmarried girl. hand-gifted a field hospital overnight.

The Gawker site describe this as a “strange apotheosis” in the cover, breaking through the news / reporter barrier, with writer Adrian Chen saying that Cooper and Gupta were in fact Clark Kent and Superman at the same time. “At what point,” he reflected, “does it go from ‘CNN’s great Haiti coverage’ to CNN’s ‘great Haiti adventure?’ “

But journalism that invests too much in emotion may also not show the full picture – distance may be necessary in migration stories that have complex, overlapping narratives. The Ethical Journalism Network five point plan on migration reports is essential. He cautions against oversimplifying, acting independently of narratives that arise from politics or emotion and ensuring that migrants’ voices are heard.

The IFRC Code of conduct to cover humanitarian disasters also stipulates that disaster victims should be treated as “worthy human beings and not as desperate objects”.

Because even those with the best intentions can end up making things worse. The 2017 documentary Another current story led by Orban Wallace on the Syrian refugee crisis should be mandatory for anyone wishing to cover asylum issues. Wallace shines the cameras on the hackers themselves, who often act honorably. But it’s hard not to cringe when people stumble from a raft on a Greek island only to have a camera pointed in their face before being offered food or water.

Which brings us back to the coverage of small boats in the English Channel. Despite piling up on individual reporters on Twitter, if you actually listen to what they say on their shows, they are clear about the risks people take and the dangers faced by those in the canoes. They also say they have alerted the coast guard to make sure the rescue is possible.

But the choice to hunt the canoes live on air reduces the reporting to a spectacle, with the visuals crushing any carefully chosen words. It’s not that the story shouldn’t be covered, or that those making the trip to the UK shouldn’t be interviewed – but the tone and feel is crucial. Otherwise, any complexity or scrutiny of politicians’ rhetoric is sunk in a rush for the first interview from an overcrowded boat.

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