Digital Storytelling, Big Data and Europe’s Migration Crisis

We need to work harder to avoid failing migrants and ourselves.

The old adage “with great power, comes great responsibility” is apt for broadcasters and journalists today, who are simultaneously empowered and overwhelmed by technological shifts. Social media and interactive data visualizations offer news outlets the opportunity to present individual stories behind vast numbers and datasets. But they also challenge journalists by requiring them to learn new skills and present information in a plethora of ways.

Recently there have been some stellar examples of digital storytelling and using big data. Washington Post’s The Waypoint allowed viewers to explore refugees arrival in Lesvos through a series of interactive videos and interviews. The New York Times’ Death in Syria data visualization presented the leading causes and perpetrators of death in the conflict. Both of these examples highlight the large scale of suffering, whilst also humanising the individuals involved.

However, the powerful opportunity offered by digital storytelling is not being utilised to its full potential in Europe’s migration crisis. This is for several reasons:

Firstly, vast quantities of people — 170,000 migrants arrived by sea in 2016 alone. Although data is an indispensable tool for journalists, the sheer numbers can dehumanise migrants, especially in the eyes of concerned EU populations. We need to tell stories that reflect the scale of this crisis, but tell them in ways that empower both the subjects of the stories and the audiences. As Susan Moeller writes in Compassion Fatigue:

‘A single child at risk commands our attention and prompts our action. But one child, and then another, and another, and another, and on and on and on is too much. A crowd of people in danger is faceless’

Without making the reader feel empowered, presenting the scale of disaster can often be debilitating and do more harm than good. Stories told well should inspire action, not paralysis.

Secondly, stories are complicated — Complex stories are harder to tell. We have all seen the debates raging about using “refugee” or “migrant” discourses. It is easier to create a compelling narrative around people fleeing from war-zones, than those in search of better economic opportunities. But the people who arrive in Greece and Istanbul are not all from Syria or Iraq (43% are from Syria and 14% from Iraq according to UNHCR data). It is imperative that other migrants have their stories told as well, whether they are from the Comoro Islands or Afghanistan. The only way to challenge generalizations is to explore the individual experiences and hardships that pushed people to risk travelling to Europe.

Another complex issue is the EU-Turkey deal, intended to dismantle smuggling networks and limit the numbers of migrants drowning during dangerous sea crossings. But despite this clear and worthy aim, this agreement has thrown migrants into a no-man’s land. Currently there are over 13,000 people stranded on the Greek-Macedonian border, boat arrivals are continuing, and there are concerns over whether principles of non-refoulement will be respected in Turkey. Amidst these chaotic circumstances it is difficult to distil migrant experiences into one appetising soundbite.

Finally, limitations on resources and time — One of the implications of digital storytelling is that we expect news to be immediately available at our fingertips. This puts immense pressure on journalists to rapidly post photographs, stories, and videos as events occur. This immediate gratification of news may make readers feel more connected. However, it can isolate readers from stories that take time to research and a subject background to understand. Take Eric Reidy’s inspiring recent investigation of “Ghost Boat” as an example. Reidy, supported by Medium’s digital magazine Matter, spent six months exploring the circumstances surrounding a boat that went missing between Libya and Italy, whose 243 passengers disappeared without a trace. He openly admits that “I would never have been able to cover Ghost Boat as a freelancer” due to lack of funding. We need to find ways to prioritise stories that are structurally difficult to research and tell. Readers need to reward outlets that dedicate time to long-form pieces, with support for journalists undertaking mammoth tasks.

The responsibility lies with broadcasters and journalists to tell the stories of migrants and tell them better, whilst being honest about the scale of the crisis. If we do not improve, scaremongering and polemic will triumph. Panic over Islamic State barbarism and fear of terrorists sneaking into Europe masquerading as refugees will continue to fuel anti-migrant rhetoric.

We must tell these humanising stories better and use all tools at our disposal. If we do not, we fail the migrants and fail to justify our own values.

* This piece is based on a speech I gave at a hackathon in Geneva focused on digital storytelling, data and the migration crisis, hosted by the European Broadcasting Union. Many thanks to Mike Mullane and his team for their support.*

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