Holding hands
Credit: By jeanbaptiseteparis on Flickr. Some rights reserved.
"The controversy around the words 'migrant' and 'terror' has become part of the story, but this issue is now wider, influencing and informing all sorts of geopolitical arguments, in the UK and Europe," said Charlie Beckett, director of Polis, the journalism think tank at the London School of Economics.

Beckett chaired a discussion hosted by Polis and the London Press Club on Thursday evening, about the role of social media and journalists' responsibility in delivering fair and accurate reporting on the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe.

He was joined on the panel by Lindsey Hilsum, international editor at Channel 4, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, columnist at The Independent, William Wintercross, photo and videojournalist at The Telegraph, Matthew Price, correspondent for BBC Radio 4 and Rossalyn Warren, senior reporter at BuzzFeed News.

"Humanising the story"

Speaking about the public's reaction to her coverage of refugees' journey across Europe last summer, Hilsum said she has "never received as much online abuse" on Twitter and Facebook for any of her previous stories, even though her main focus in reporting on the issue was to "make the stories human and not talk about masses".

Several guests on the panel said they had been accused of trying to soften the issue by deliberately portraying the struggle of women and children, at a time when most of their audience thought refugees were predominantly young and male.
"These people were very alarmed by the humanising of what they previously saw as a mass," Hilsum explained.

"No wonder people are afraid, because we think history is something that happens somewhere else.

"But this is a big piece of history that is happening here, now, and that is why it's so compelling to report and so difficult to get right."

Wintercross said he has been asked numerous times about why the image of the Syrian toddler who drowned and was found on a beach near Turkey, resonated with people and captured their attention more than other coverage had.

"This was a beach where European tourists go and anybody could have gone there, so it was no longer an unpronounceable name.

"Suddenly, there was a personal connection made, which hadn't happened prior to that, and it made people sit up and listen," he explained.

Engaging with the audience on social media

BBC Radio 4's Price said public reaction to his reporting on the crisis drastically changed in the space of a few months – most of the responses he received initially, when he was tweeting about the Lampedusa boat tragedy, were positive.

But they became increasingly negative as he covered the refugees' arrival in the Greek island of Lesbos and later, when the Paris attacks occurred – although that did not deter him from engaging with readers on social media.

"We live in a multicultural society and I am not saying that we should excuse those viewpoints, but we do have to understand and engage with them," he said.

"A blind spot in British media"

The Independent's Alibhai-Brown argued that media coverage on the refugee crisis "has not communicated nearly enough that people moving is an eternal human story," which has affected how people perceive these ongoing events.

"Newspapers sometimes dehumanise these stories and make migrants, as a whole, into this unnamed threat," she said.

"I think television coverage has been very effective and affective, because it portrays the human story very well, but it ends up making people feel helpless."

Warren said "there is a massive blind spot in British media where we are not fully taking these stories to the people", to help them understand the issue easily in their communities and on their chosen platforms.

In December, she published a piece called 'A Syrian refugee shared his struggle to reach Europe in real-time on WhatsApp', which combined the more traditional format of a written feature with images and screenshots of the conversation she had with a refugee named Abdul on the messaging platform.

"I could have done it as a feature, but I wanted to break it up visually for people.

"At BuzzFeed, we try to do a mix of on the ground reporting and tweeting, looking at ways to cover the story in an accessible, not patronising way," she said.

Reporting from the frontline – a challenge going ahead?

In November, 148 journalists, activists and coders from 27 countries met in Rome as part of The 19 Million Project, an initiative launched by Chicas Poderosas, Fusion and the Italian Coalition for Civil Rights and Freedoms (CILD) to reflect on the implications of the migration crisis, and develop ideas and approaches to shape future coverage.

CILD also launched Open Migration recently, a bilingual website in English and Italian that provides analysis and fact-checking on issues relating to refugees.

Other similar initiatives include Migranti, developed by crowdsourced platform Valigia Blu, and The Migrants Files, a pan-european data journalism project that monitors the number of deaths that have occurred in the last 15 years.

Answering a question from the audience on how news outlets will cope with disaster fatigue when continuing to report on the crisis over the next few years, Hilsum said her main concern is that it is becoming increasingly harder to get access to the places where these events are happening.

"I believe in being an eyewitness and it's becoming incredibly difficult to be one now, and go to places like Syria," she said.

"That's the most difficult thing – how do you tell the story when you can't see it with your own eyes?"

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