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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Tag: sensationalism

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.

Malaysian airlines story leads to speculative reports

Recent news coverage of the missing Malaysian airlines flight has led some to question the media’s role in the crisis. Although ample coverage of the missing plan exists, it’s still unclear exactly what happened to the plane and its hundreds of passengers, including a couple Americans. Not even the highest ranked experts have come up with a conclusive and proven story yet.

Nonetheless, journalists and the media want answers. Countless stories, reports and special releases have been floating around for weeks. But some are now questioning the ethics behind the Malaysian airlines reports because of the nature of the story’s coverage, and the decision of journalists to  use unknown information.

Seemingly meaningless details of the flight now carry great importance for journalists. For example, some journalists have tried to dissect the pilot’s final words, “all right, good night,” citing the phrase as the last known contact with the plane. What could this cryptic ending mean? journalists asked.

But pilots say things like that all the time, and the phrase may not mean much – if anything – in the search for the plane. Yet CNN wrote a story on the subject when the Malaysian government released new information saying the last words of the plane were in fact “Goodnight Malaysian three seven zero.” Journalists crafted stories as to why the Malaysian government “lied” before, implying the new report was a significant, hidden clue.

Similarly, other members of the media have also become fixated on the fact some of the passengers’ cell phones were still ringing. Although a minor detail, the status of the passengers’ phones also became a critical part of the story and served as rationale as to why the plane was or wasn’t still out there.

There are numerous speculations and theories about the status of the plane. According to Poynter, who wrote a column criticizing the reports of journalists, some of the theories out there are that the plane made an emergency landing, is in North Korea, was hijacked by Iranian terrorists. Is there a strong factual basis for any of these theories? The answer is most likely no. Yet news outlets in their constant search for new developments try to obtain the most information they can.

Patrick Smith, an airline pilot and blogger discussed some factual errors made by media covering the story in a recent blog post. Although USA Today claimed in one report that the pilot had full responsibility for flying off course, Smith says any journalist who had done their homework would know there are always two pilots on board.

These examples and others suggest that journalists covering the Malaysian plane incident may have been too focused on manufacturing a story instead of waiting for more information. Finding verified information may make for a less interesting story, but without facts, reporting is reduced to speculation and rumors.

[photo credit: AP/Daniel Chan]

Poynter: “Newtown’s media blackout forces journalists to do their jobs”

Writing for’s New Ethics of Journalism page, Kelly McBride examines how the  self-imposed media blackout among the residents of  Newtown, Conn., has impacted media reporting of the first anniversary of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

The citizens of Newtown, Conn., and the families of the Sandy Hook Elementary School victims have drawn a hard boundary around their homes.  No media, they’ve said to the outside world. Don’t talk to the media, they’ve said to the 28,000 people who live in the community.

In doing so, they’ve deprived newsrooms of the easy visuals and rote storytelling that have sometimes substituted for meaningful journalism. And that’s good: It forces journalists to do the hard work they should be doing on the first anniversary of the mass shooting that killed 20 first-graders and six adults.

In a way, it’s a gift to the audience everywhere that Newtown is spurning public events. Without requisite sights and sounds such as flickering candles, tolling bells, and names read aloud, journalists have to do something other than tap into the grief and rehash the horror of that day.

Read the entire article here.