Humility and humanity are key to ethical reporting on the global refugee and migrant crisis

Photo credit: Channel 4 News

By Paraic O’Brien, Channel 4 News Correspondent

The global refugee and migrant crisis has been the biggest story I’ve worked on during my career. I can close my eyes right now and see people and incidents played out in technicolour inside my head from the migration frontline. I can see the charity rescue boat we were on off the coast of Libya, for example. The captain had rescued too many people and the boat started to list. During another incident I remember the sight of a small group of bloated bodies drifting passed us face down in the Mediterranean. Other memories are not as obviously traumatic but stay with me. I remember listening to a Syrian father singing his crying baby to sleep in a tent on the island of Kos. I can see a Nigerian woman, called Comfort, recounting matter of factly how she’d been bought and sold in Libya. There were countless moments of incongruous hilarity as well. There was the time someone’s prosthetic leg was passed up a row of migrants and refugees on a dinghy and was the first ‘to set foot’ on the rescue boat.

Some tried to play down ‘the crisis’, others tried to exaggerate it but crisis it was nonetheless. At its heart it was about people in the throes of dramatic, emotional or circumstantial upheaval, the dictionary definition of crisis. It’s been a turning point in so many other ways as well. It fuelled the Brexit engine; became part of the narrative of a new form of nationalism; made people question their own sense of place and made journalists ask themselves serious questions about what they do and how they do it.

The language of reporting migration became one of the most contentious issues for journalists like myself. The mass movement of people to Europe, in terms of contemporary history, was new. Added to that a more polarised political environment. Then layered on top – social media. Immediate, often partisan, reaction to your reporting. It felt like the Twitter gallery was on 24 hour duty, dissecting everything you said, mining for perceived bias, challenging the language you used. Although some of it was just trolling, I actually found a lot of it useful. It made me think longer and harder about my journalism.

The hashtag brigade reserved special ire for the perceived misuse of words like ‘migrant’ and ‘refugee’. I decided early on that I would use both words when referring to a group of people on their journey to Europe.

“As night fell, the nightmare scenario: groups of migrants and refugees in dinghies, in the darkness, in distress.”

My rationale was that at this point in their journey they hadn’t claimed asylum therefore a formal decision on their status had not been made. I wasn’t an immigration judge so I had to leave the language sufficiently open ended. However, when I was talking about an individual, I tried to refer to them by their name or just as a person.

“Mohammed showed me the scars on his wrists where he’d been tied up in the Libyan detention centre.”

One of the other difficult areas is filming and reporting on people trying to cross in boats out at sea. The latest spate of small boat crossings from Calais to Dover has again thrown this issue into focus. It is fraught. I’ve been on bigger boats filming groups of people in dinghies crossing from Turkey to Greece and from Libya to Italy.  I think it’s important to show this happening but I think it’s about how you do it as a journalist rather than whether you do it or not. Here are some of the difficult questions I ask myself when I’m reporting from alongside active crossings:

Is the dinghy taking on water and are the people in immediate danger? If so, our first responsibility is to alert the authorities and, if needs be, assist. This becomes very complicated when the migrants and refugees are, for example, in Libyan waters ie when they don’t want to be rescued by the coastguard of the country they’re leaving.

Is our very presence beside them in the water making it less safe for the occupants of the smaller boat? If so, pull back.

The consent to be filmed question is not straightforward. Most of the time those who are happy to engage make it obvious and those who are not, huddle down and obscure their faces.

Are there agents for people smugglers onboard the dinghy? Sometimes they will try to speak for the group, posing as migrants and refugees.

I have not always got it right when reporting on active crossings. But what I try to do is explain to the viewer why I’m making the decisions I’m making. I try to communicate that this is an unpredictable situation we’re in but we are thinking about the mechanics of what we’re doing. We are not sensationalising. We are aware of what these people are going through and we are aware of how our presence changes the dynamics.

For me that’s what ‘ethical reporting’ is all about. It’s not about getting it right every time, although that would be nice. It’s about being aware, being thoughtful, questioning what you’re doing and why. It’s about involving the audience and, more importantly, the people you are reporting about in the process. In a nutshell it is, perhaps, just about being a little more humble.

Author photo

Paraic O’Brien is a correspondent with the London-based news programme Channel 4 News. He has reported extensively on the migrant and refugee crisis and the rise of Populism in Europe. His reporting has won several awards including a Royal Television Society gong for a searing report on people living underground in Bucharest’s sewers. He’s originally from the West of Ireland but lives in London with his wife and four daughters.