Broadcasting on Snapchat and Periscope has allowed journalists to give the public access to raw, unedited and instant footage of this international story.
Travelling alongside the refugees on their journeys, three organisations have aimed to use smartphones to document the crisis and help those fleeing their home country tell their stories. Reporters from the BBC, Bild and TIME spoke to Journalism.co.uk about their experiences.
BBC Panorama on Snapchat
Ravin Sampat, senior audience engagement producer for BBC Digital Current Affairs, has been working as a roving reporter with the BBC Panorama team, creating video for BBC News during the refugee crisis.
While producing videos for the broadcaster's YouTube and Facebook accounts, Sampat decided to cover the story using Snapchat as well.
"The BBC is really keen to reach younger audiences – especially 18-35 year-olds. I went to my editor and said 'why don't we try something new?' I wanted to tell the story differently for a new audience," Sampat said.
With a kit consisting of just iPhones, microphones and chargers, Sampat travelled for a week with the Panorama team, from Greece to Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Austria, producing regular Snapchat updates on the go for what he described as a "day-by-day digital documentary".
"I wanted to capture everything we could. It was essentially an experiment, we were using it as a user and were following the journey of the refugees," Sampat said.
No editing suite needed - Ravin Sampat's mobile journalism kit. Credit: Ravin Sampat
Up until 14 September, Snapchat users who followed the 'bbcpanorama' account were able to view these posts for 24 hours before they disappeared.
As well as getting viewers engaged with the story, Sampat hopes his Snapchat coverage has encouraged younger people to tune in to the upcoming BBC Panorama programme on the crisis.
"We've had a great reaction online. I'm hoping that if they followed us on the digital journey, they will end up watching the Panorama because they've already got a bit of a preview of it," he said.
By moving away from agency footage on the television to unedited yet instant digital material, Sampat hopes Panorama has demonstrated a "new way of storytelling".
"What we are showing is quite raw. I'll be honest with you, the type of things we've seen so far have been pretty grim, but I want people to see the human side of it," Sampat said.
Although there are already great innovators using Snapchat, he is new off the mark with his coverage of current affairs and hopes storytelling through Snapchat continues with other reporters.
"If you are capturing a great moment it doesn't matter how it's been captured – it is just the moment that matters," he said.
Sampat noted that over the course of the week, John Sweeney, presenter of BBC Panorama, began to think more in a digital way and started to love making 'mobile-first' videos.
Sweeney now describes himself as a 'Snapchat raptor' rather than a 'digital diplodocus' after Sampat introduced the team to the benefits of the video-streaming app.
The journalist said he was wholly behind the experiment, because he felt "passionately that the story of the Syrian refugees should be told as powerfully as possible on as many platforms as possible".
Bild on Periscope
Paul Ronzheimer, a reporter at German newspaper Bild, has also been taking advantage of the power of social media when covering the refugee crisis by periscoping his journey to 33,000 followers.
"It was great to see how much interest there was in this story," he said. "I had sometimes between five or six thousand live viewers – and one video was replayed 90,000 times".
Ronzheimer joined a group of refugees on their travels to Germany from the Greek island of Kos, filing copy as he went and broadcasting live video using Twitter's Periscope app whenever he had a chance.
Periscope allows viewers to comment on what they are seeing and ask questions, which gave the refugees an opportunity to tell their stories directly to readers and answer any queries they had.
"The viewers gave me good hints of what to ask, and I could see what they were interested in," Ronzheimer said.
"First I was afraid that there might be too many racist questions and there were some... but mostly the questions were really good."
Viewers were able to correct any preconceived notions they may have had of the refugees by asking about their lives, families and reasons for their decision to leave their countries, Ronzheimer added.
"I was travelling with young men. One of them left his wife and he had the chance to explain," he said.
"He was also wearing sunglasses and people were asking 'how can you afford to wear this?' [The man replied saying] 'I bought them in Kos for €3 but even if I had more expensive sunglasses, what's the problem, I'm a war refugee!'"
Ronzheimer said the interactivity that Periscope offers helped his viewers stay engaged and feel part of the story, with many viewers still asking him about the refugees he was travelling with.
"I saw lots of people becoming fans of the Syrians, and I got a lot of emails, tweets, and comments from people saying 'thank you so much, now I understand this refugee problem better, and it was great that now we are able to ask our questions.'"
Access to otherwise restricted paths
Broadcasting live directly off his smartphone gave Ronzheimer greater access to the story as he was able to stay with the refugees throughout the whole of their journey, getting 'inside the story' by filming in all situations.
"We came to Kos with a camera guy and a photographer, so there were three people at the beginning. When we crossed the illegal borders they took the official way and I joined the refugees only with my smartphone," Ronzheimer said.
"When we came to Serbia and we saw police, we would have had big problems if there was a camera team. When [the refugees] were stopped by the police, I was in the background and able to film a little bit hidden – and at the same time I was always inside the story."
Ronzheimer also notes he was "amazed" at how his iPhone 6 filmed quality footage whilst staying compact through difficult situations such as attacks and harsh weather.
As Periscope footage disappears after 24 hours, Bild created a 16 minute documentary from Ronzheimer's videos, which is hosted on their website.
Paul Ronzheimer’s Periscope footage was edited together in to a 16-minute documentary.
Livestreaming at TIME
New York based magazine TIME also used Periscope to report on the refugee crisis. Tyler Borchers, senior audience strategy editor at TIME, told Journalism.co.uk it was the perfect time to try live broadcasting from the app for the fist time – the footage would bring a new perspective to a story they had already explored in so many other mediums.
"We see Periscope as a window to the world," Borchers said. "I think this experience has demonstrated to our newsroom that people want an authentic perspective on the story on the ground.
"People have seen the numbers about the crisis, they've seen the migration maps, [but] what they want to see more than anything are the faces behind this story and that is what Periscope lets us do... tell individual unedited stories."
"One of the first things we learned was how one of our biggest challenges was just going to be getting a reliable internet connection," Borchers said.
On one of the initial Periscopes, the connection was lost, cutting the broadcast short to only a couple of minutes, yet the reaction online was extraordinarily positive.
"Twenty-four hours after we ended the broadcast, we had got over 117,000 hearts on it, we gained over 5,400 followers, we had 1,400 live viewers, and after 24 hours we had 46,000 replay viewers.
"I think this goes contrary to the traditional narrative about Periscope, about it being so ephemeral, it disappearing so quickly.
"It showed us that the vast majority of people that found this Periscope were not actually watching live. They found it through our social media channels or through the Periscope app and they were still interested in watching it even though they weren't getting the truly live experience."
News organisations are still experimenting, and although this style of coverage of the refugee crisis was a success, video-streaming apps may not be practical or appropriate for use in every news story.
Find out more in the Journalism.co.uk podcast below:
Free daily newsletter
- Apps, opportunities and the future of mobile journalism: Takeaways from MojoFest
- 3 free apps for screen-recording on your Android smartphone
- 'This is about the death of the newsfeed': Stories may soon become the core of social media
- How to tackle the challenges of implementing mobile journalism in the newsroom
- BBC mobile journalism pilot scheme sees 15 experienced camera operators shoot with iPhones over three months