The close-up, a human element of migration reporting
By Barbara Kužnik
It was in the mid-nineties, when I joined a workshop as Service Civil International Fellow at alternative local radio LORA in Zurich, to get hands-on training on how to produce a radio feature. The topic was refugees from ex-Yugoslavia. I was only nineteen at the time, with no real journalistic background and no reporting skills. As Slovenian, I was closer to the focus group because of the language, and therefore I became a bridge between the Bosnian refugees and the rest of the world. What was supposed to be a learning exercise became one of the most challenging experiences I’ve ever faced. But also the most powerful one, as it gave me a close-up of something I only assumed I understood – forced migration. In the years since, I have returned to the topics of migration and integration over and over again in my work as a journalist.
But there was often something missing.
Over the past few years, I’ve finally realised what that was. While working with the European Journalism Centre (EJC) on various press trips to the world’s migration crisis hot spots, I came to understand the importance of place and of movement for those who report about it. When reporting migration, it is essential to go to places where the story is, to investigate the background and explain the context. Being there brings invaluable first-hand knowledge and this helps to overcome stereotypes and misconceptions. Most of all, focusing on individual people and local communities brings the human element in reporting that develops empathy and compassion in oneself and one’s readers.
And we need such empathy and compassion, now more than ever. Migration is a complex issue but has too often been simplified and misused as a political tool to spread fear and amplify populist voices.
These past two years, I worked with partners from the University of Oxford and Budapest Business School on part of the EU REMINDER project about migration into and within Europe. We looked behind the scenes of migration reporting in nine EU countries. Our research found that, despite considering their jobs as a way of contributing to the public debate around migration and despite often good intentions, many journalists still seem to frame “migration” reporting in terms of their country’s most immediate current concerns or public agendas. Besides reporting on what actually happened, they often consider other factors such as audience expectations, editorial policy and even the demands of the market.
While some argue that journalists should stick to the conventional idea of a balanced, “mirror” approach, reporting facts and staying neutral, migration is one of the topics that probably need a different approach.
That’s not to say that journalists should be tailoring their coverage to their audiences’ preconceptions or the editorial line of their media outlet, however. But it is important that journalists are aware of the contexts in which they are reporting and that they reflect on their own role as bridge builders, amplifiers or advocates in the process of newsmaking and cultural change.
For journalists, finding a mindful purpose in what they do and how they do it, contributes to getting things right. Especially when we talk about reporting on migration and framing the stories of migrants.
This can’t take place in a vacuum. Quality journalism needs opportunities for professional training, funding, press trips, and more time and resources for investigative collaborative projects that can make a change.
This is what organisations such as the European Journalism Centre aim for: to connect journalists with new ideas and to support independent collaborative initiatives beyond national media traditions. Projects like the EU REMINDER research with its media component give journalists a valuable opportunity for a critical analysis of the factors that shape their reporting and open spaces for discussions that could lead to better solutions around these clashing topics.
A Slovenian journalist and media consultant, Barbara Kužnik is based in Brussels. She worked with the European Journalism Centre (EJC) as a manager of the EU REMINDER migration research project. She has also worked with the EJC on press trips and seminars, as well as on international innovation events and trainings for journalists in co-operation with Google News Initiative. Reach her on Twitter @BarbaraKuznik.