The Ethics Of Reporting On The Refugee Crisis

Reporting on the perilous journeys that refugees and migrants undertake, as well as on their aspirations and sometimes tragedies, not only entails many responsibilities, but also raises important ethical questions.

Prix Italia spoke to Tom Law of the Ethical Journalism Network, a global campaign promoting good governance and ethical conduct in media.

What role can media play when it comes to stimulating integration and fostering better policies?

It is very important to get coverage as good as it could be, enhancing coherence, tolerance and contextualizing news stories. One of the most important things to stress is that we need to report facts and not bias.

How have media covered migration so far, especially in Europe?

What I have noticed is that, in the effort to be impartial and provide a balance of opinions, some public service broadcasters ended up giving space to very polarizing views. For example, if there is a report that finds that certain levels of migration are positive for society, then for balance PSB will have to go and find something with the opposite view. The question is does that help the public?

Another thing that has come up is that the voice of migrants has been missing from coverage. Many people have been speaking about them on their behalf and many broadcasters have focused more on what politicians said about migration than on what migrants and refugees had to say. The true danger of relying on this kind of narratives is that there are not enough voices of the protagonists themselves.

In addition, some of the best journalism is often slow journalism, when journalists avoid rushing and take time to make sure they are accurate, using the right language and reporting what people are saying correctly.

What have been news media biggest limits according to you?

One of the biggest problems is the lack of knowledge about the legal aspects of migration, for example about the difference between migrant and refugee, or about these people’s legal rights. This is fundamental in order to avoid giving the wrong impression to the public.

It is important to explain who the victims are. Moreover, journalists should ask themselves if they are aware of the frames they could fall into. For example, in Italy for a while a lot of the coverage was led by the Mare Nostrum campaign. Those videos, images, language had a huge effect on how Italian media were looking at the phenomenon.

For a short amount of time, the narrative changed after the photo of Aylan Kurdi, the child found dead on a Turkish beach, showed up. Back then, even the right wing press changed opinion. Some journalism can be very powerful and it can lead democratic governments to change their policies. However, currently there are many issues distracting the media.

What are EJN’s recommendations?

As people are getting used to pictures of bodies washing up on beaches, news media have to find new ways. Preventing people from becoming numb is not always easy, as it is often the case with the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

The greatest challenge is to hold the attention of the public and to tell the story in a variety of ways, making sure we are not dehumanizing refugees and migrants and at the same time understanding the worries and needs of transit and host communities in terms of resources needed to take care of these people. 

Besides reporting on their journeys, it is equally important to cover integration and give voice to host communities and to the people who arrive in their destination countries.
Moreover, media should be aware of the narrative used by populist politicians and should avoid to be led by the political narratives. Media cannot be conjurers of falsities or hate speech. At the same time, journalists should reflect on frames they are using, being aware of what narratives they might subconsciously fall into.

Journalism has to work following its set of core values, especially now in the age where journalism has to distinguish itself from simple opinions online. There is a growing need to go back to the basics.