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University of Wisconsin–Madison

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Sensationalism or a Call to Action: Covering the Syrian Refugee Crisis

I met a Syrian refugee this June. Sitting across from me in a crowded Beirut café, the young man told me how he’d escaped from Syria and started working as a news fixer in Lebanon—arranging interviews for journalists and translating when they couldn’t speak Arabic. Later, he’d moved to Turkey and launched a media company—but that had been a challenge because he enjoyed no official legal status in Turkey. He also found it difficult to travel to Europe in order to build his company’s brand.

So, the young man told me, he was back in Lebanon to say a permanent goodbye to his friends in Beirut. This was because he was getting ready to take an “all-or-nothing” chance and swim from the western coast of Turkey to the nearest Greek island. There, he would get a fake ID that would allow him to travel to Sweden, where he’d learned he’d be granted residency.

I don’t know if he made it. After that day in the crowded Beirut café, I never heard from him again. But I’ve been thinking about him lately, as the story of traveling Syrian refugees has flooded the mediascape, and as the image of a drowned Syrian 3-year-old has caught the world’s attention. Maybe my friend has been tracking the events in Hungary and Austria from another crowded café, this one in Stockholm. But then again, maybe not.

One thing this young man told me before our interview ended was that he’s lost all faith in the potential of journalism. He said that the coverage of the Syrian crisis has done nothing to help people like him. I wonder what he’d think of this most recent explosion of news coverage on the Syrian refugees, coverage that raises a number of questions relevant to global journalism ethics.

Syrian refugee camp in Greece. Photo dated September 2012.

Syrian refugee camp in Greece. Photo dated September 2012.

Here, I’d like to examine the question of focus. I’d like to ask when it’s ethical (and when it’s not ethical) for international news media to focus so relentlessly on the trauma that individual people endure. Are there times when it’s ethically necessary to get in the face of death and despair and snap a picture or shoot a video? Are there times when those images must be distributed around the world, regardless of the impact this may have on the individuals who are suffering?

The drowning death of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi certainly invites these questions, since his image has surfaced on numerous media sites, in various stages of censorial blurriness. Nilufer Demir, the Turkish photographer who shot the image, asserts that she wanted to “express the scream of his silent body.” Since then, activists across the world have redistributed that image, in an effort at calling attention to the plight of Syrian refugees, almost five years into the Syrian civil war. Following this, the BBC has asked if this one picture has somehow “shifted our view of refugees.” The image has even inspired U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to attest that the U.S. could do more to protect them. So in one sense, it seems that Demir’s decision to snap a picture of a dead baby on a beach was indeed an ethically justifiable decision.

Yet, even before his own trip from Turkey to the Greek islands, my Syrian friend told me that he, like many Syrians, had lost all faith in the potential of journalism to change his situation. He had briefly worked as a news fixer, not because he wanted to help change the world, but because he needed money to survive. A number of local journalists I interviewed in Beirut over the summer echoed my friend’s doubt. They had long been working with Syrian activists, and knew their frustrations. Years of fruitlessly uploading their images to YouTube had led most Syrians to resent rather than celebrate the foreign news media who covered their oppression, they told me. According to them, help could have come much sooner, and if it comes now, it will not come as a result of western news coverage of the Syrian crisis.

So the question has to be asked: Who is this coverage really for? Is the international distribution of the “captivating” and “horrifying” image of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi capable of comforting his family? Is it capable of inspiring anything other than the rather useless and clichéd compassion of people who will never know such pain (and will never lift a finger to help in any way)?

Young Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Photo dated September 2012.

Young Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Photo dated September 2012.

The admission of more than 5,000 refugees into Austria on Sept. 5 might at first suggest that real change is finally coming. After all, British Prime Minister David Cameron has also just pledged to resettle “thousands more Syrian refugees.” Now, rather than stagnating in the impoverished and disease-ridden camps that crowd parts of Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, maybe these people have a chance at really living again. Maybe these images of traumatized Syrian children (and adults, for that matter) have had an impact that makes them ethically justifiable despite their invasive quality.

The problems become clearer, however, when we start to investigate the less flashy coverage of the Syrian crisis—the coverage that crunches numbers and analyzes concrete trends, instead of merely creating high-resolution slide shows of other people’s suffering. For example, the Washington Post recently reported that since the Syrian war began in 2011, the U.S. and Britain have done little to nothing to relocate the Syrian refugees: the U.S. has resettled only 1,541 refugees since 2011, and Britain has resettled only 216. Other coverage shows that the wealthy Gulf nations rarely help the refugees at all and that some European nations remain opposed to offering any space within their borders. Rather than framing personal trauma in a salacious fashion, this type of news reporting does a much better job of informing the world about what’s really happening to the Syrian refugees.

It’s one of our truisms that ethical journalism must be balanced, and it must give the public what it needs. This increasingly global public needs to know the big numbers and the inconvenient details. While emotional images of dead or traumatized individuals may help to inspire public sentiment, “outrage” and “compassion” are not enough. People need to understand the sticky truths and the diplomatic hypocrisies that plague national and international policies on refugees in the 21st Century. In the case of Syria, the job of international journalists is to illuminate the growing connections and chasms between the Syrian refugees and the nations to which they flee.