The BBC and Sky News have recently been criticised by MPs, activists and much of the general public for their reportage of migrants attempting to cross the British Channel. The video that caused a response was of BBC reporter Simon Jones discussing how dangerous it was to be crossing the “choppy” sea on that particular day and that the camera crew had noticed the migrants rapidly trying to get rid of the excessive water in their already over-crowded boat with a plastic container.
Sky News also broadcasted a video of a group of ten people on a small dinghy with one person even shouting out “please no camera.” Watching the British reporting of the migrants fleeing from civil war, on the tumultuous tides, trying to hold on to whatever faith they have to fight for their lives, was like watching a real-life horror show. Yet, it’s anything but made-up TV. Here’s why the media seriously needs to reevaluate how it reports on the migrant crisis.
The migrant crisis is the intense difficulty, trouble, or dangerous situation in the receiving state (the ‘destination country’) due to the movements of large groups of immigrants escaping from the conditions which negatively affected their situation. These can be because of security, economic, political or societal problems at the country of ‘departure’. The “crisis” situation is not due to the refugee numbers but the system’s failure to respond in an orderly way.
What felt unsettling about watching this coverage was how our British reporters were able to film the scene and then turn off their cameras and just go home, leaving the people being filmed out at sea.
“This report was a stark illustration of the significant risks some people are prepared to take to reach the UK. Channel crossings is a topic of huge importance and we always endeavour to cover the story sensitively,” responded the BBC after many complained about the insensitivity behind the footage.
The BBC added: “In this instance, the Dover coastguards were aware of the boat before our crew spoke to them and at no point did they, or those in the boat, signal that a rescue operation was required. The coastguards instead alerted Border Force, who then safely picked up the occupants and took them to shore.”
Taking a slightly different approach, Sky News stated that migrants crossing the Channel were “a major news story following the government’s suggestion that it needs a military response, and we will continue to cover the story in a responsible and human way. Ali Fortescue’s reports have made it clear that the captain of the boat she is on calls the coastguards about every dinghy and stays with each boat to make sure it is safe as it comes to shore.”
As a journalist, sharing and publishing stories for almost a decade, I am familiar with all of the above, yet I still don’t understand. As much I have been trained to favour neutrality, to learn how not to be biased in reporting by stating clear facts without dramatisation—an increasingly important skill during the bend of social media and lightning of fake news—I never want to reach a point where I understand why the media can just film and leave migrants at sea.
The world has become so desensitised, enough that when reporting on how migrants who have been squeezing themselves on boats and cupping excess water out of their boat with plastic containers, the lines between reality and reality TV have become blurred.
It’s sad to say but watching migrants risk their lives makes good TV. What we need to question is how we’ve got to this point where we can see that and not offer any aid. People are dying at sea because the land is not as safe as the waves that are trying to envelop them any second now. People are dying at sea when they don’t need to be.
Perhaps I’m too emotional—too human and just not seeing things as they are. But what I see isn’t actually about the reporting, the reporters or even the news channel, it’s about selling people’s misery. Yes, we need a well-rounded view on the world but there should be directions towards changing what we see for the better, the choices we have to help as a society should be clear. This also circles back to who we’re voting into positions of power and the power they have to help.
My point? We need to reset. It’s not just important that we think about what it would be like if we were in that same situation, it is crucial we react with the care we should have had all along. We need to take a step back and realise these people are not numbers, nor burdens. They’re people, desperately floating on a plastic raft for their lives. Get emotional, get ‘too involved’, donate and help.
Donate to Help Refugees here.
Donate to Amnesty International UK here.
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After the news of the Christchurch terror attack broke, it was shocking but not surprising to see the tabloid press exposing the most sensitive parts of the tragedy. In this case, this was visual: both the Daily Mail and the Sun’s websites featured the live-streamed footage of the shootings themselves. The Sun also included an animated GIF of the video on its homepage, which becomes all the more troubling and abhorrent when we remember that it’s the U.K.’s most widely read newspaper.
In her book, Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag discusses the politics of what it means to look at tragedy, both in the literal, visual sense, and also to read about and engage with it. Sontag says that to regard tragedy more broadly is to read about it, and engage with details of it. Beyond the visual realm, it’s notable that the Mail also allowed readers to download the manifesto of the terrorist attackers, encouraging readers to engage in a type of looking that wasn’t directive of prescriptive (will they be looking out of curiosity? To scrutinise? To become radicalised?). Even if editors had their own idea of why readers should engage with it, it’s worth considering that once the artefact is out in the world to be looked at, they may not have control of how it is used.
But attack after attack, tragedy after tragedy, violence upon violence, outlets that go far beyond the right wing press must continually reflect and interrogate what responsible reporting looks like. For me, the Sun and the Mail are examples on the extreme end of the spectrum, as there’s no doubt in my mind there has been a historical institutional judgement that clicks are more important than respect for the dead. What’s more, their editorial decisions fit into a wider trend of continued racist and Islamophobic reporting. But what about our ‘responsible’ outlets? We should be critical of the calls that are made in how black and brown bodies are portrayed in cases of violence—not to mention acknowledging when reporting has been done responsibly.
Images of grief, as demonstrated in The Guardian but also commonly in the New York Times, go a long way in articulating the gravitas of a tragedy without dehumanising those whose lives have been lost. During the peak of the Black Lives Matter movement, the New York Times opted for images of tributes, vigils, flowers and cards, and the BBC has also overwhelmingly used this narrative technique to articulate the grief after Christchurch. Showing images of protests—as seen by the comprehensive video coverage of the movement by the Guardian—can also convey that we should be angry, without having to show graphic detail of violence itself. In images where grievers are distressed, it’s important that these are consensually captured with the subjects’ knowledge, as otherwise journalists run the same risk of objectification and stripping autonomy of those in pain. Eyewitness accounts, which were also used by the Guardian in the wake of Christchurch, can equally responsibly explain events from the perspective of victims and survivors, which gives power back to them in how tragedies are told.
The fault lines between necessary and sensationalised information can be blurry, and decisions often need to be made about what will best explain the gravitas of a tragedy with due respect. In one of the Guardian’s first pieces of coverage on the Christchurch attack, it ran a headline with the quote “I saw people drop dead”, which could be deemed as emotive rather than unacceptably graphic. Both the Atlantic and Vox also ran coverage that discussed the content of the attacker’s manifesto, despite not hosting it in its entirety.
It is not always clear cut. However, the fact that these questions may be difficult to navigate shouldn’t deter outlets, and the general public, from continually posing them. We must be critical of how tragedy is relayed to us—what we should see, and what should go unseen.
Micha Frazer-Carroll is arts and culture editor at gal-dem and writes for HuffPost U.K.