The Little Boy Whose Tragic Picture Helped Get Media Back on Track

Aidan White

For most media across Europe and North America the migration story this week moved from being a political game of numbers to a compelling drama in which empathy and compassion dominated the headlines.

The painful scenes of desperation in Budapest central railway station and, most striking of all, the image of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, a drowned Syrian refugee child lying face down on a Turkish beach stirred media and journalism across the globe.

This turn of events took many media by surprise, after all for the last year there have been many vivid and explicit images of the suffering of migrants and refugees risking their lives in dangerous sea crossings, often at the mercy of brutal and cynical people traffickers.

Some media were forced to reverse their previously hostile coverage of refugees. The Sun, Britain’s leading tabloid newspaper, quietly erased its promotion of dehumanising rhetoric from columnist Katie Hopkins who in April referred to Mediterranean refugee victims as “cockroaches” and said: “Show me bodies floating in water, play violins and show me skinny people looking sad. I still don’t care.”

This week media in Britain and almost universally across Europe and beyond showed that they do care. Eric Wishart, AFP editor in Hong Kong has shared the following links to stories about how media have been forced to think again about the migration story.

Journalists, media educators and editors can all benefit from a close examination of how media around the world – and the social networks – have helped shape the refugee crisis into a more sensitive, humanitarian and people-focused story.

The drowned Syrian boy photo is viral social media at its most hollow and hypocritical

Image Of Dead Syrian Child Shakes Up Media Coverage Of Refugee Crisis

Roundup: Who Used Photos of Dead Syrian Boy

Photographer Who Found Drowned Syrian Boy On Beach: “I Was Petrified”

Why I tweeted the photo of the dead Syrian toddler

Heartbreaking cartoons inspired by images of Aylan Kurdi

In anger and in grief world reacts to ‘angel on beach’ image

Image of Drowned Syrian Boy Echoes Around World

The Daily Mail’s hypocrisy on refugees knows no bounds

How the media covered Aylan’s grim and iconic photograph

A dead baby becomes the most tragic symbol yet of the Mediterranean refugee crisis

Aylan Kurdi photo fuels anger on Arabic social media

Aylan : comment la presse française est passée à côté de cette photo iconique

Pourquoi nous n’avons pas publié la photo d’Aylan

Pourquoi la presse française (ou en tous cas Le HuffPost) n’a pas publié la photo de l’enfant syrien mort

Réfugiés : une photo pour ouvrir les yeux

La photo d’Aylan absente à la une de la presse: une honte bien française?

These comments illustrate how journalists need to consider carefully the words and images that they use to cover the story – how, for instance, we use terms like “migrant” and “refugee” or if can allow unscrupulous politicians to poison the debate with their pejorative language and talk of swarms, marauding migrants and tidal waves of humanity overwhelming settled communities.

There has been much debate in France, for instance, where the poignant picture of Aylan Kurdi failed to make the front pages of many newspapers. Was this careful, sensitive editing and a fear of pandering to voyeurism or had the press simply lost touch with public mood and failed to recognise how this tragic image would send a powerful message about the people caught up in this crisis.

In Germany, Bild Zeitung, the country’s equivalent of The Sun, surprised everyone both at home and beyond by launching a high-profile campaign – Wir Helfen (We Help) – to welcome refugees and migrants from Syria. This initiative caught the public imagination and was launched even before the death of Aylan Kurdi. It brings together activists, politicians and readers and supports practical action to help hundreds of thousands of refugees now making their way to Germany.

In a short time public passions over this incident will cool, but the story will remain in place. Media and journalists will have to focus once again on statistics and practical challenges, but this time without allowing hatred and intolerance to get in the way of serious public and political debate about how to treat migrants and refugees as people first and numbers second.