Panel: How to improve media coverage of the refugee crisis

When it comes to refugees, journalists could do more to debunk misconceptions, put Canada’s contribution in perspective and tell stories of other crises outside of Europe, a group of panelists said this week.

By: /
April 5, 2017
Refugee panel
A panel on covering the refugee crisis Monday, April 3, featured, from left: moderator Jennifer Ditchburn, Michael Petrou, Michelle Shephard, Naheed Mustafa, Mark MacKinnon and Margaret Evans. Denis Chatterton/CIGI

Canada has been lauded in the international press for the Trudeau government’s response to the global refugee crisis — for the resettling of more than 40,000 Syrian refugees since taking office and for the way the government has framed the issue in positive terms.

But at a media panel presented by the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) on Monday at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, journalists who have spent time on the ground in Syria and neighbouring countries affected by the Syrian refugee crisis caution against Canadians feeling overly proud of themselves.

Journalist Michael Petrou, who has recently returned from a month spent in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon reporting on Syrian refugees who have stayed in the Middle East, pointed to much smaller communities that have accepted a far greater number of refugees.

“I wish we’d stop being so damn smug about it,” Petrou told the audience this week. “I interviewed the mayor of Kilis, in southeastern Turkey — this is a town that prior to the Syrian civil war had a population of about 94,000 people. It now has close to 135,000 Syrian refugees. [The mayor] tells me this joke, and the punchline is, 'oh, Canada is hosting 40,000 refugees — congratulations, what hotel are they staying at?'”

Petrou recommended that Canada’s media, political class and public consider “the very mundane aspects of hosting that many people — garbage, sewage, water — then expand that into education, and you start to have a little bit of an idea of the severity of the impact of this refugee crisis on the countries that are actually hosting most of the refugees.”

Naheed Mustafa, an independent writer and broadcaster, agreed. “[Crises are] often seen through this lens of something that’s happening to ‘us’ — something that’s happening to Europe, to America, to Canada,” she said. “Whereas when you look at the local countries, that’s where this crisis is playing out in the worst ways.” 

The importance of getting it right

When it comes to coverage of the current refugee crisis, in places like Britain, where The Globe and Mail’s Mark MacKinnon is stationed, the polarization of the media means nuance is often lost.

“It’s either [refugees] are these angelic characters who desperately need our protection, or they are these scheming migrants who are going to take our jobs and our social programs and probably our groceries too,” MacKinnon said. “My experience is that very rarely one of those two sides completely applies…headlines often try and simplify [things] to grab attention, [but] there’s nothing simple about this.”

"The punchline is, 'Oh, Canada is hosting 40,000 refugees — congratulations, what hotel are they staying at?'"

In a media climate where “fake news” seems ubiquitous, Toronto Star national security reporter Michelle Shephard emphasized the importance of journalists holding to account politicians who sometimes erroneously point to “the immigration/refugee boogeyman” as being responsible for terrorism, in order to further their own agendas. “It’s just not based on fact,” Shephard said, “but people don’t seem to really push back on this.”

Shephard gave the example of the sprawling Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya: every time an attack is perpetrated by the militant group Al-Shabaab, “the Kenyan government threatens to close Dadaab,” she said. “It’s never been anybody from Dadaab — but that idea of ‘Somalis in our midst’ is enough to start the political machine going.”

MacKinnon said there have been deliberate attempts by certain politicians and countries “to exaggerate and in some cases fabricate the involvement of refugees and migrants in security incidents,” including the Russian government and websites affiliated with it. “There are many forces at work that took legitimate sentiments and pushed [them] somewhere very dangerous and not based in fact.”

The CBC’s Margaret Evans added that on top of reporting that debunks arguments being made based on faulty logic and incorrect statistics, journalists could do more to understand what is driving those who are spreading inaccurate stories in the first place. “I don’t know that we do the best job that we can in reporting the other side of the argument,” she said, “and trying to delve a little bit deeper into the people who are so determined to reject the facts as we know them.”

Expanding the spotlight

Discussion of how to improve coverage of the global refugee crisis also centred on how to tell the stories of all displaced people — not simply those from Syria. (Current statistics put the number of forcibly displaced people worldwide at 65.3 million, including nearly 21.3 million refugees.)

With the shutting of foreign bureaus and constantly shrinking news budgets, the panelists agreed it’s harder than ever to devote coverage to areas currently lacking attention.

When asked by Oxfam Canada’s Melanie Gallant why food crises leading to mass exodus, like the current famine in South Sudan, are underreported or under-covered in the media, Petrou was frank: “Because the victims are black and African.”

“It’s not pure cynicism,” he continued, “it’s more expensive for journalists to get there; there isn’t the same sort of diaspora resonance in Canada. But all our news organizations have done a terrible job of covering conflicts in Africa.

“I remember spending a year researching an alleged [Liberian] war criminal, who was living in Toronto…I gathered an enormous amount of evidence about the crimes he allegedly committed, nailed the story down, published it — nobody cared.”

“I think there’s a sentiment that these are perennial stories, and so it’s not as important, because we’re going to be here again next year,” Mustafa added. “It’s difficult to get those stories to go forward.”

Evans gave what she called “a more optimistic and hopeful answer,” saying that while reporting from some countries involves a lot more red tape, and is more complicated and expensive with regards to logistics, she is more positive about news organizations’ desire to cover stories from Africa (she covered the famine in Ethiopia last year and mentioned CBC will be going to South Sudan in a couple of weeks.)

Mustafa said other examples of mass displacement could be instructive for covering today’s Syrian crisis: “What is the conversation that Turkey is having, around belonging? Is there the idea that this population is going to go back? Go back to what?…If you look at the Afghan situation, that’s been going on for 30 years, and those questions are still around.”

How to make Canadians care

At the end of the day, even if the reporting on the global refugee crisis was more nuanced and evenly spread out, journalists are finding it increasingly more difficult to vie for attention in the oversaturated, constantly buzzing world of social media.

Shephard said it comes down to “that one person, that one story” that can take a complicated conflict and distill it down into something that resonates with readers — like her reporting on Ismail Khalif Abdulle, who had a hand and a foot amputated by Al-Shabaab.

“I have to do the best job I can do and hope that whoever reads it, that it resonates with them and that they get something from it,” she said.

Evans agrees it’s important for journalists not to get fatigued or depressed, and to keep peeling back the layers on stories to expose deeper truths. “The last I looked, just before Christmas,” she says, the European Union had “relocated 6,000 people out of a promised 160,000… yet the reflection in the European press is, ‘well, we’ve taken 160,000, what more do they want?’”

“In all these places that we’ve been reporting from, I worry what could have gone worse had there not been international journalists,” said MacKinnon. “Especially in [places] where the media isn’t completely free, we’re the ones who are bringing the scrutiny, as slapdash and haphazard as the scrutiny is.”