19 m project
Credit: Screenshot from The 19 Million Project

It is almost impossible to consider the ongoing migration crisis in Europe as a single news event. More than 800,000 people have reached Europe from across the Mediterranean Sea during 2015, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

Such a large scale movement of people has raised immense challenges for journalists and reporters following the case. How did they approach this coverage?

A recent analysis conducted by The European Journalism Observatory (EJO) in eight European countries showed that media attention around the migration crisis has been a rollercoaster since September.

European news outlets have changed their attitudes towards migrants – adopting more sympathetic tones in the wake of certain tragic events, but cooling and slowing down their coverage again after only a few days, when the media frenzy was over.

Chicas Poderosas, Fusion and the Italian Coalition for Civil Rights and Freedoms (CILD) have launched The 19 Million Project, an international collaborative initiative. It saw 148 journalists, activists and coders from 27 countries meet up in Rome between 2-13 November to develop ideas for a better understanding of the migration crisis.

The event provided an opportunity to reflect on recent events, analyse the work of journalists covering the crisis and discuss the issues around reporting on the topic.

The complexity of the migration crisis has further underlined the need for innovative formats and approaches, as well as the need for collaboration in the newsroom, bringing together skills from different fields.

The 19 Million Project rounded up some of the most pressing issues in contemporary journalism and encouraged attendees to develop practical solutions around them, a timely call for experimentation and innovation.

“In the classic hackathon style, mixing the origins, the skills, the backgrounds is going to create interesting ideas that will lead to good products”, said Basile Simon, a journalist with the BBC News Labs who participated in The 19 Million Project.

“What we’re trying to do is find people who can work with us, because we need people from different backgrounds and experiences. The wider, the better”.

Collaboration in journalism can definitely play a major part in acquiring knowledge and information around complex issues which require a more comprehensive journalistic approach than other news events.

Similarly, data journalism and visual storytelling, both practices that are at the border between traditional reporting and coding, can help better understand and portray the migration crisis.

Many news organisations have adopted these approaches while covering the crisis, while other news outlets have opted for more traditional strategies. 

“You can approach the story completely from a data angle or you can approach it from an anecdotal and human angle”, said Sylvia Tippmann, data scientist at BBC News Labs, “and there’s a real value in bringing the two things together”.

Following this ethos, while in Rome, the BBC News Labs team and Mike Walker, a game developer from the MIT Playful Systems, worked together to develop a mobile news app able to send push notifications about the fictional trip of a refugee, based on stories and data gathered from real testimonies.

The initiative aimed to provide a narrative that helped readers empathise, by bringing together different disciplines ranging from journalism to coding.

Involving readers in the narrative has been another approach news outlets have explored when telling the stories of refugees, such as the Ghost Boat project published on Medium.

Relying heavily on tips from readers and crowdsourced insights, the team wants to find a ship carrying migrants that went missing in the Mediterranean Sea.

We, as journalists, have to think harder about the questions we want to ask Beauregard Tromp, Dart Center Ochberg Fellow
Eric Reidy, author of the project and a Matter reporter, was also in Rome for the event, and shared his views on how to avoid causing 'compassion fatigue' around human rights stories.

“Being bombarded with difficult stories could disempower readers and make them switch off with the feeling that there’s nothing they can do about it”, said Reidy. “But people are still contributing and can contribute with anything, like translations”.

The lack of a global perspective on what is arguably the biggest humanitarian crisis of our time was also a shared concern at The 19 Million Project.

Looking at this large displacement of people as a crucial sociological turning point is the hardest part of telling the story.

Data and innovative storytelling can definitely help engage and inform audiences, but the core issue will remain documenting the crisis in depth.

“We, as journalists, have to think harder about the questions we want to ask”, said Beauregard Tromp, multimedia journalist and Dart Center Ochberg Fellow.

“We usually get parachuted on things and become experts three days later. We should look for the people who spent time on this, look for the sociologists, look for the NGO workers and volunteers on the ground and use their experiences”.

In addition to discussing the most innovative forms of storytelling, The 19 Million Project raison d’etre was actually wider and pointed to the core nature of the future of journalism.

“We come together as a group of journalists, designers, programmers to try and think as a community and to open source news”, said Mariana Santos, director of interactive and animation at Fusion and founder of Chicas Poderosas.

“We want to bring them to the same table and we want journalists to open their eyes and look at the issue from different points of view. We try to create a flux, where all we have in common is access to information.”

The lesson to be learned from The 19 Million Project is about openness and sharing: what’s needed is a journalism that aims to bypass national borders and narratives, and which relies on innovation with a purpose that is not only technological, but human.

Philip Di Salvo is a PhD Candidate at Università della Svizzera italiana (Lugano, Switzerland). His research interests are digital whistleblowing and the collaboration between journalists and hackers. He edits the European Journalism Observatory Italian site and writes regularly for Wired. Follow him on Twitter at @philipdisalvo.

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