How The Media Are Reporting On Europe's Refugee Crisis

Giving the full picture means telling the stories of generosity and compassion, too.
Refugees walk past others resting on the ground at the border station between Serbia and Hungary near Horgos, Serbia, Wednesd
Refugees walk past others resting on the ground at the border station between Serbia and Hungary near Horgos, Serbia, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015.

As part of our What’s Working initiative, HuffPost Media is looking at how media outlets around the world are covering major stories. Are they taking a sensational, distorting, “if it bleeds it leads” approach to news? Or are they giving audiences the full picture, including all the creativity, innovation, ingenuity and compassion the media too often overlook? This week, we speak with Columbia University journalism professor Ann Cooper, a journalist and foreign correspondent with over 25 years of experience, including as the head of NPR bureaus in Moscow and Johannesburg.

The stream of refugees fleeing the war in Syria has been one of this year's defining, and most complicated, news stories.

As refugees have poured into Europe in historic numbers, their arrival has forced political leaders to consider how many they will accept, prompting a range of responses, from Angela Merkel’s pledge to accept 500,000 refugees in Germany to Viktor Orban’s use of anti-immigrant rhetoric in sealing Hungary's borders.

Despite the widespread coverage, the refugees' own struggle and personal upheaval is sometimes left out, as well as the efforts of many around the world to help those in need. But some outlets are making room in their coverage for these worthy stories.

Here, Ann Cooper, a professor of professional practice in international journalism at Columbia University, shares her thoughts on how the media have approached coverage of Europe's refugee crisis, and whether they are doing enough to spotlight solutions.

What do you make of the coverage we’ve seen on this issue? 

There’s a lot of good coverage being done. A ton has been written since this turned into a crisis for Europe, but its not a brand new crisis. I think one thing that’s gotten overlooked somewhat in the coverage of recent weeks is the degree to which some other countries -- namely Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey -- have been dealing with this massive flow of Syrian refugees for a few years already. That’s been written about but has never became a daily crisis story the way this one has. 

I think sometimes it feels like the human beings at the center of it become sort of anonymous numbers. But if you are watching or reading many of the mainstream media outlets, I think all of that coverage is there. It’s just that there’s a lot of stories to consume. 

What have been some of the better examples you’ve read of coverage that goes beyond sort of "scoreboard" reporting toward something that encourages a deeper understanding and looks toward solutions?

Some media outlets have done a good job of doing kind of background explainers, talking about the terms migrant vs. refugee. I think there have been very good articles about why all of a sudden are we seeing these people entering Europe when the conflict has been going on for several years already that Liz Sly did for the Washington Post and another Post story last week that I think originally was on their Facebook page. They asked several of their correspondents that have been covering the crisis to reflect more personally on it. I found it really revealing. As journalists, we say we need to be objective and not insert ourselves into stories but that’s interesting because you can’t cover a story like this without having very human emotions that come out.

The Post has been great. They had a story the other week about how Hungary’s small Muslim community is stepping up to help the refugees. It definitely presents a broader picture of what’s happening.

There was an NPR story last week from Hungary where a former leader was having Syrian refugees over to his house every day for meals. The Post and NPR are not the only ones doing these stories. I think it’s an important piece of the coverage because some days you look at the news and you see they’re rolling out razor wire in Croatia. It’s important to make clear, OK, that may be the official response but among the people there’s a range of reactions and a range of actions as well.

Getting back to a journalist’s emotions on a story like this, how do you think someone reporting on this take that approach without losing objectivity or veering into advocacy?

At the heart of what you do as a reporter is you observe. You’re there on the scene, I’m not, so tell me what you’re seeing. Tell me what people are saying, what they look like and what the scene looks like. That’s really our main job. But I think that in doing that in a huge dramatic story like this you may lead me to reach some conclusions that you’re not actually stating. I saw a picture on BBC of a toddler just playing on the asphalt in front of Hungarian police or border guards with their riot gear. It’s like the corpse of the small child on the beach. What more do you need to say to that? Some people might say that’s an editorial comment, but it’s real and it’s what it looks like to be there. 

I mentioned a Liz Sly piece. The headline was something like, "8 reasons why we’re seeing Syrians in Europe now." No. 1 is, let me remind you, there’s been a war going on there for almost five years now. She’s been covering that and I assume she’s got some pretty strong feelings about that. Her article is not editorializing and yet it’s very starkly reminding us that these people have fled because there’s a horrific war there. They’ve been dying and driven from their homes, that’s what set off the whole thing, and here are some other things that have happened. It walks you through all that in a way that I think deeply increases your understanding of what it’s like for the Syrians at the heart of this story and it’s a kind of story that you can only write if you’ve been covering this for several years. 

There’s a way of making us understand this without it being “I think that Europe has an obligation to help these people.” Instead, helping us understand what caused this, what’s driven the migrant traffic and what’s driving it now. Then we can reach our own conclusions about whether it’s justified to roll out razor wire to block people or whether perhaps they ought to be welcomed in some more generous fashion.

Right, a journalist shouldn’t assume that readers already have all the context, even when it comes to something that is as big of an international story as the Syrian conflict has been.

I am a pretty voracious consumer of news but when all of a sudden you have people making these dangerous boat treks and walking into Hungary and leaving the train station, I didn’t immediately have all the context in my head to understand that. It is important to cover the news and also to step back and say, “How did we get here?” That kind of reporting is absolutely vital. If you don’t have that, it does become formulaic. It becomes kind of one-dimensional: Hungary doesn’t want them, Germany does, they’re downtrodden and we’re not sure why it got to this point right now, but there they are.

Beyond offering broader context on the crisis, do you think there is enough coverage getting at the question of how this crisis gets solved, or at least more immediate steps that could be taken toward that goal?

How does the world figure this out? The pat answer to that is that is not the responsibility of the journalists covering the story. It is their responsibility to report on it and make sure we know what’s happening to remind us the situation is still out there and hasn’t been solved, to do stories where expert opinions are solicited about what are the solutions or the potential solutions at this point. That’s all part of the journalistic or reporting obligation, but journalists per se are not going to solve the problem. They do need to remind us that it hasn’t been solved. Here’s what’s still being discussed.

At a certain point, though, doesn’t news fatigue set in if no viable solutions are being introduced within coverage on an issue like this?

There is definitely a fatigue issue. When I had a session with students last week, one student had covered the Syrian refugees in Lebanon, where some have been living in camps there for several years already. He said it became very hard to get peoples’ attention. When their one millionth Syrian refugee was recorded, it was one of those journalistic templates. They reached a milestone, so you grab that and use it as a peg to write about how conflict continues and how solutions have not been found, here are some of ideas out there and here’s why they’re not being implemented. But then what do you do next week? 

I think good news organizations don’t abandon these stories but recognize that if there’s nothing really new to say today, we’ll have to take a pass on that but they keep monitoring it and send people in to see what’s happening, what’s changed if anything, and write about it when there’s something fresh and new to be said. Or, if there’s nothing fresh and new, why is that? Why is nothing being done? Where is the political impasse that’s preventing some kind of resolution for this situation?

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.



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