“The media doesn’t do a good job covering refugee stories,” said journalism veteran and Executive Director of the Global Reporting Centre Peter Klein to the overflowing room at Vancouver Public Library, in September The crowd had gathered for a PeaceTalk panel, an ongoing series of events that Vancouver NGO PeaceGeeks started in 2011 to bring people together to talk about pressing issues of peace and unity.
Klein was joined on the PeaceTalks panel by Vancouver-based journalist Alia Dharssi, Representative for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Jean-Nicolas Beuze, and former refugee and refugee advocate Amir Taghini.
The crowd had gathered to hear stories of refugees, and understand the ways their portrayal in the media could differ from their lived experience. The first speaker, brave enough to share his difficult story, was Taghini.
Taghini echoed Klein’s sentiment—the media needed to improve their coverage of refugee issues. And he would know, as it was his story that had been told, and too often poorly told, as he spent five years detained at the hands of the Australian Government at their internationally condemned offshore detention centre on Manus Island, where he was placed for trying to seek asylum.
Amir pleaded for support to journalists, governments, and regular citizens from a homemade mobile phone smuggled in piece by piece. Access to something as simple as a phone and as complex as connection with the rest of the world are among the long list of restricted items on Manus Island.
Amir was required to share information via a smuggled phone, as the Australian government maintains tight control over access to Manus Island, as well as their alternative refugee processing facility on Nauru. Media is not allowed to visit either facility and supervised visits are limited to nearnone and journalists trying to enter have often cited having their visas denied.
Without a combination of Amir’s unrelenting determination and the reach of media, both traditional and online, Amir’s story and ultimately his connection with the five Canadians who privately sponsored Amir to come to Canada would not have happened.
The panel and audience shared their frustration in the too often sensationalized headlines and fast news that leaves little room to tell the complex stories of refugees. Today the world’s refugee coverage is littered with detrimental terms like “illegal arrival” and “border crosser”, while narrowly covering the world’s crises and making refugees over represented in crime stories.
The media had their say as well in the PeaceTalk as journalists Dharssi and Klein shared their experience working for a range of media outlets. They shared insights into some of the reasons for the lack of in-depth, informative and non-sensationalized coverage of refugees’ experiences.
Dharrasi cited the changing media landscape and mass job cuts leaving limited resources resulting directly in less investigative journalism. And Klein explained that mainstream media is structured to want people to click on more pages to appease advertisers.
Klein reflected on the dark truth for both journalists and readers that the media covers plane crashes not plane landings.
In an over stimulated world, the “plane crashes”—the outlier situations as Klein explained them—get our attention. Outlier situations show the extremes, and while, as Klein said, they make great stories, they ignore the bulk of the issue. “
And if people’s only ‘interaction’ with refugees is via these outlier stories, then they are only seeing a small, distorted part of a much bigger picture.
“Outlier stories can do great damage,” Klein contended.
From Taghini’s perspective, there is also political agendas and government secrecy—like in the instance of Manus Island and Nauru. To this end, Taghini vouched for the journalists who are seeking truth from within the walls surrounded in secrecy by the Australian government.
“There are journalists putting their lives on the line,” he said, “to show the world the truth and to tell refugees stories.”
The panel reflected that many journalists and outlets are pursuing the full story and looking at new engaging ways to make sure it reaches more and more people. During his time on Manus Island, it was The Guardian and Huffington Post (www.huffingtonpost.ca ), he said, that were telling his story well. Dharssi is inspired by Netherlands-based outlet De Correspondent. They have a model similar to The Discourse (www.thediscourse.ca/), where she currently writes, which runs a member-based model that gathers information from its members and allows its reporters to dig deep and investigate and share refugee stories in the spirit of slow news.
Taghini reminded us that as readers we have a big role to play in this too.
“Are we asking, Why is Amir leaving Iran? Are we asking, why are these countries being bombed?”
Taghini put the question back to the room and the panel. The urge was clear. Ordinary citizens, and journalists alike need to be more than curious. We need to be proactive in our efforts to find out more, and to get informed.
Taghini was passionate on this point, that action starts when the ordinary citizen steps in. He ultimately credits the actions of his five Canadian sponsors for his new life now. And, as he mentioned, we can all take action in many different yet powerful ways when it comes to media, like taking responsibility for our media consumption—writing to editors and being inquisitive in our search for more information
It is hard at times to comprehend what is happening to people all around the world. Although, that shouldn’t be used to justify inaction.
At the conclusion of his talk, Taghini reflected on his time in detention, on not only his own story but the stories of all the other families he met there, many of whom are still there. He somberly remembers being disabled by the stories I was hearing from Nauru.
“But I never gave up.”
Thank you to the incredible, informed and insightful panel. And to the inquisitive, passionate audience who joined this PeaceTalk on September 13, 2018.
From the panel and audience combined, we walked away with some insightful ways we can be more responsible consumers of refugee media coverage:
- Seek your news from multiple sources. See how different outlets will tell the same story. The panel’s recommendations included: The Guardian, Huffington Post and The Discourse.
- Pay for news you respect. Support outlets whose coverage you trust and help them continue to invest in slow stories and investigative journalists (as opposed to “fast news”).
- Write to editors. Dharssi called it “power of the readers”. Each of us can write to editors, we can tell them what we want to read more about and we can tell them when we aren’t happy with their coverage.
- Seek out more of the story. Don’t know why someone would be trying to reach Canada from Syria, Venezuela, or somewhere else from around the world? The UNHCR’s website do a great job at sharing current world crisis situations. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know all the details now, what matters is you work to find out more.
- Turn knowledge to power and action. Share what you’ve learnt with friends, advocate for refugees and help shift the narrative. Get involved in on-the-ground refugee resettlement projects near you. Check out what PeaceGeeks are up to with the new pathways app looking to connect new arrivals to Canada with services, mentors and more or join our #GiveItUp4Peace fundraiser this October.