I totally appreciate the sentiment, and understand where it’s coming from. But as the editor in charge of this project I have to respond to—and fairly dramatically disagree with—your characterization of what we’re doing.
Look, I’m not going to suggest that I don’t want people to read this story, or take part in our project. That would be disingenuous: I want everyone in the universe to read this. And I am a very deep believer in sensational — not sensationalist — journalism. The best reporting creates a kind of presence and empathy and understanding that transports you into other people’s lives, even the ones that feel the most alien or distant from your own.
But one of the reasons we decided to produce Ghost Boat was precisely because we thought nearly all reporting on the refugee crisis falls into the category you are concerned about. Everything I read is either clinical and distant, or like a kind of weird torture porn: Aimed at eliciting a fleeting emotional connection, which a reader maybe follows up with a donation to an NGO.
So we have decided to try and tackle that by giving readers the ability to help us, and therefore to help the families of those who are missing. Fanus’s story is meant to shock you, but our project is meant to show that being shocked doesn’t mean that you’re unempowered to make a change, or to stop more stories like Fanus’s happening in the future.
This is not a serialized piece of pseudo-fiction to titillate readers with. It is an introduction to a live investigation, one that is full of questions and dead ends and maybe a couple of answers here or there, and it is happening right now. I spent most of my weekend talking with our team as they chased down leads; our readers took the last few days building up a detailed picture of the geography of the Mediterranean coast. Things are really happening. They are only happening because we are taking this approach.
Here’s a list of things that we, thanks in large part to the readers of this story, have been able to do in the last four weeks.
- Discover the practice of dumping refugee bodies in unmarked graves in Tunisia and Libya.
- Expose the lack of forensic attention given to the dead.
- Explore the processes by which refugees and immigrants are moving from North Africa and the Middle East into Europe.
- Clarify the type of boat most likely used by the refugees we are looking for.
- Find vessel tracking data for every ship in the region at the time we’re interested in, as we try and track the movements of the missing people.
- Trace more than 140 objects off the coast of Libya and Tunisia that smuggling boats use to navigate.
- Create a new, more accurate database of boat incidents in the Mediterranean.
- Track down important figures in the smuggling rings that have moved tens of thousands of people across the Mediterranean.
And that’s just a small part of what’s been happening.
Of course, part of the process of investigating this incident is that we tell stories about it. That’s what we do here. Journalism is a way of documenting the world, of drawing attention to things we think need to be witnessed, processed, and maybe changed.
Now, you can disagree with that basic mission. Or you might not like our tone (we’re pretty unflinching and uncompromising). Or you can say that maybe we aren’t always living up to the ideals we say we’re after. But even when we fail, I am willing to keep trying. Because what’s the other option? To simply sit back and not do anything? The families—who we’re working in cooperation with, and highly sensitive to—don’t want that. They’re desperate to know, they’re anxious to tell people what’s really going on. And, ultimately, I think anything that gives us a greater understanding of what’s going on, and a greater chance to help people, seems worth trying.