In general, the stories of refugees coming to Europe have been told in two ways: one that "tries to instil fear in people with unverified and unfactual reporting", and the other aimed at "shaking the public awake through sorrow and shock", said freelance journalist Donata Columbro, moderating a discussion at the International Journalism Festival in Italy today (6 April).
But there are some ways to inform the public about this issue that focus less on breaking news and dramatic images of people arriving at the border, and more on conveying their experiences through new formats and languages.
Using longform to tell stories that add up to an experience
Marina Petrillo, formerly of reported.ly and currently working with Open Migration and Italian online newspaper Il Post, said "the real stories of migration aren't found on social media unlike other stories", because people either can't or won't tell them on these platforms. Reporters have to "go and seek them out" and longform journalism is one of the formats that allows for a better understanding of the issue.
For example, Il Post has created a new section on its website called Natives, which features stories about people whose parents are migrants or who arrived in Italy when they were very young.
It's also very important to try to dismantle the catchphrases and slogans often used when writing about migration. These lead to fear, which prevents dialogue and interaction, she added, and are often a product of the lack of experience readers themselves have with migration.
"How can we make the stories we tell add up to an experience, even if it's a vicarious one?"
One way journalists can do this is by not assuming they know beforehand which stories need to be told, and understanding that they need to portray a range of backgrounds and experiences, even contradictory ones, to help the audience draw a comparison between them and what they've seen or lived through themselves.
Single experiences help people better relate to a story
Freelance journalist Marta Cosentino recently produced a documentary called Portami via (Take me away), which follows the journey of a refugee family making their way from Syria to Italy by plane. It shows the transition from the family finding out about their departure to their arrival in the country, as well as what they knew about Italian life and culture beforehand and their expectations.
Cosentino said she chose to focus on only one family because it is easier for the audience to "get close to a smaller number of people" than it is to relate to the experiences of refugees portrayed collectively.
"We're always moved by the same things, but it's important to recognise migrants as human beings, with the different experiences they have," Cosentino said.
Migrants or refugees? Language makes a difference
The language used to cover this subject and whether the stories portrayed are negative or positive can also have an impact on how refugees and migration are perceived by the audience.
Three years ago, Al Jazeera decided to move away from using the term 'migrant' and use 'refugee' instead. Yasir Khan, senior editor for digital video at Al Jazeera English, said the decision was made because "anyone can be a refugee" and the word shouldn't be exclusively used to refer to people who flee their home countries to escape war.
"Our defininition of refugee is broad, it refers to anyone who is seeking refuge from a circumstance they're trying to escape for a particular reason.
"And if the word 'refugee' is being used too much in a particular story, then we use the word 'people' because that's what they are."
Whenever Al Jazeera shares a video about refugees on its social platforms, there is a lot of sympathy in the comments, he added, but also plenty of negative remarks from trolls and bots. This was the case with Al Jazeera's video coverage about the recent chemical attacks in Syria.
The key to avoiding negative comments or minimising them has been to focus more on telling the stories of survivors and not just victims, such as this video about Alex Assali, a Syrian refugee in Berlin who is giving back to Germany through a charity kitchen he runs for homeless people.
"Looking through the comments, we realised there's a reason why people are tired of these stories – because sympathy is exhausting. Empathy is empowering because it moves you to action," Khan said.
"We should look at the refugee situation in the same way we look at climate change. It's something that has happened as a consequence of something we did and it will have an impact on the world, so we each need to do our bit to help."
Free daily newsletter
- Tip: How to innovate when working on your own
- 'Stories affect us when we're out in the field' – Al Jazeera English interviewed its own reporters for an experimental podcast series
- A history of audio storytelling: 10 seminal moments and timeless formats
- The first podcast from Al Jazeera English used 'privileged access conversations' to take audiences beyond the story
- Tip: Ask these questions before adopting new tools and workflows in the newsroom