Al Jazeera Journalism Review

Kareem Shaheen
BOHONIKI, POLAND - NOVEMBER 18: An unknown migrant, who died in Poland, is buried during a funeral organised by a community of Polish Tatars on November 18, 2021 in Bohoniki, Poland. At least 11 migrants have died in recent months while trying get into Poland from Belarus. Poland and Belarus are currently in a standoff over thousands of migrants, many of them from Iraq, Syria and Yemen, who have amassed on the Belarus side of the border with the hope of entering Poland and the European Union. (Photo by Maciej Moskwa/Getty Images)

How to cover refugee stories ethically 

As Poland grapples with a migrant and refugee crisis at its borders, we examine best practice for journalists covering refugee stories. Part one of our series. 

Read more: Part Two, Part Three, Part Four


Contrary to the popular assertion that stories of refugee suffering are falling out of favour with editors, mainstream media outlets routinely cover refugee stories. 

These range from incremental developments in the movement of peoples during escalations in conflicts around the world, to trend and feature stories that mesh well with periodic updates by the UN or humanitarian organisations. 

There is also the occasional viral news story such as the coverage surrounding the tragedy of the child Aylan Kurdi, as well as frequent alarmist coverage in tabloids that cater to anti-immigrant sentiment. 

Both reporters and humanitarian organisations complain that there is so called ‘compassion fatigue’ amongst readers, that they are tired of reading depressing news. This might be true to a certain extent, but it is not the reason media outlets reject refugee stories. Most mainstream media outlets see a public service responsibility in continuing to cover the refugee story.

A woman holds a picture during a vigil in rememberence of Aylan Kurdi on September 7, 2015 in Melbourne, Australia. Thousands of people around Australia gathered to remember Aylan Kurdi, the young Syrian refugee who died in 2015. [Photo by Chris Hopkins/Getty Images]

Refugees do not have to speak to you

In fact, many do not want to speak to the media, either to avoid recriminations affecting themselves or their families by local authorities back home, because they have suffered trauma such as sexual violence that carries with it a societal stigma, or simply because they feel that cooperation with media outlets has not led to an improvement in their lives. Be clear that you cannot control the reactions to your reporting, respect the desire for privacy when it is expressed, and evaluate whether you can grant anonymity if this is requested out of legitimate fear. If they say no, respect that. 

Be sensitive to the on-going plight of refugees

Most refugees are living in a state of persistent trauma. They had to flee their homes, and have gone overnight from the safety of their communities to refugee camps, where the future is uncertain and peril is still very real. Be aware of those stress factors and always treat people with dignity. 

Avoid re-traumatising victims

Refugees who have been victims of torture, sexual abuse and major trauma may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Special care needs to be taken during questioning. Some might be eager to share what they endured in detail so it can be documented. Others might be reluctant and could experience relapses as a result of direct questioning. For journalists without significant experience in interviewing such individuals, it might be helpful to have a case officer from an aid organisation present during the interview, to help build trust and to carefully steer the conversation to best approach the trauma.

Interviewing children 

Media outlets usually frown on the interviewing of children. However it can be difficult to avoid if you are doing a story on child labour, for example. If you are interviewing children - If possible, ensure you have permission from parents or guardians beforehand. Protect their identities at all times by using a pseudonym, blurring their images and using a voiceover.

MYTILENE, GREECE - SEPTEMBER 10, 2020: Displaced Syrian asylum-seekers rest while camping on the side of the following a fire at the Moria migrant camp on the Greek island of Lesbos which destroyed the camp. [Photo by Byron Smith/Getty Images]

Empathy as a core value 

A crucial part of ethical reporting while covering refugee stories is being empathetic. What does empathy mean? Bearing witness and amplifying the voices of the dispossessed, while appreciating the suffering they have endured. 

Understanding that refugees are not numbers or simply a story that you will move on from once the assignment is over. Caring about the fate of other human beings. 

Acknowledging and appreciating the good fortune that put you in the privileged position of being the interviewer rather than the interviewee in this context, and of being someone who reports on abuses perpetrated against the weak and holds the strong to account. 

Empathy does not mean: 

Reporting the stories you are told in the field uncritically. 

Forgoing the rigours of reporting in the interests of promoting a dramatic narrative that will sell a story, or acting as a campaigner or activist on behalf of the downtrodden. 

Giving false hope to people who might implore you to tell their story in the hope that they will receive more food baskets or win an offer of resettlement (both of which are reasons refugees sometimes speak to reporters).  

BOSANSKA BOJNA, BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA - JANUARY 6, 2021: Members of a migrant family from Afghanistan walk in the rain after being pushed back into Bosnia by Croatian police, after they attempted to cross into EU by foot near Bosanska Bojna. [Photo by Damir Sagolj/Getty Images]

When and how to use numbers 

Refugees are not numbers. Telling their stories in the midst of the media glut and the 24-hour news cycle requires the traditional tools of journalistic practice of rigour, accuracy, impartiality and integrity, but it also requires empathy and an ability to connect with people with wildly different experiences from your own. 

When and how is it advisable to use numbers? The numbers and statistics behind the global refugee crisis are breathtaking but abstract. 

It is helpful to explain in some instances that the displacement of peoples today is the worst it has been since the Second World War, or that one out of every five people you meet in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee. But reducing the gravity of such a tragedy to mere numbers does a disservice to your readers, because it renders abstract the individual stories of suffering and resilience. 

The numbers are not the story. Having a healthy mind will increase your levels of empathy. Mental health, as it pertains to them, is not a subject frequently broached by journalists. However it is important, when not in the field, to engage in diverse hobbies and activities that have nothing to do with your work. Through maintaining your own mental health will help you to have the strength and empathy to report on the tragedies of others. 

Documenting human rights abuses 

Covering refugee stories is unlike reporting on other issues. The levels of trauma and suffering involved complicate reporting on refugees as compared to covering daily breaking news stories or traditional beats (although many of the same ethical reporting issues apply there as well). However it also makes it more rewarding on a visceral level. 

At the most basic level, telling stories about refugees is telling how other human beings, in the midst of trauma and suffering, lead their daily lives. It involves bearing witness to the plight of individuals who have often survived incidents that brought them to the very edge of human endurance and experience.

The stories you will hear as a reporter covering refugees may be deeply moving experiences that offer powerful lessons on the human experience. Absorb them and learn from them, and know that you are privileged to be offered such intimate confidences. Their vulnerable status means that refugees are often victims of human rights abuses. 

Regardless of the type of story you choose, asking yourself about these abuses and documenting them if you find them will build a narrative that allows for accountability. You must observe the traditional rules of reporting on human rights abuses. 

In this photo provided by the Territorial Defence Forces of Poland's Ministry of National Defence, members of the Territorial Defence Force secure the fence at the closed Kuznica border crossing where thousands of migrants have been relocated by Belarusian soldiers on November 15, 2021 in Poland. [Photo by Territorial Defence Forces of Poland's Ministry of National Defence via Getty Images]

These include, but are not limited to:

Detailing with as much specificity as possible the alleged human rights violations.

Understanding why such practices violate international law.

Corroboration of the narratives through interviews with as large a sample as possible.

Asking probing questions and fact-checking claims with other sources of information.

Investing time and energy to cultivate sources with knowledge of on the ground activities in inaccessible areas where human rights violations are taking place. 

Your role as a journalist is not activism 

You might find yourself in the odd situation of being asked to intervene in a matter with aid officials or being implored by a refugee to highlight his or her case. Sometimes they will ask you whether speaking to you will help them secure additional assistance or perhaps be recommended for resettlement. You must be absolutely clear about the limits of your role. 

You are there to listen to whoever will talk to you, to bear witness, and to portray an accurate and truthful image to your readers. Explain that you are only doing your job and that you cannot guarantee that their situation will change because of your reporting. Of course, if you encounter someone facing a life-threatening situation, you should fulfil your duty as a human by trying to help.


This article first appeared in the AJMI publication, Covering Refugee Stories



More Articles

Fighting Misinformation and Disinformation to Foster Social Governance in Africa

Experts in Africa are using various digital media tools to raise awareness and combat the increasing usage of misinformation and disinformation to manipulate social governance.

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 22 May, 2024
"I Am Still Alive!": The Resilient Voices of Gaza's Journalists

The Israeli occupation has escalated from targeting journalists to intimidating and killing their families. Hisham Zaqqout, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Gaza talks about his experience covering the war and the delicate balance between family obligations and professional duty.

Hisham Zakkout Published on: 15 May, 2024
Under Fire: The Perilous Reality for Journalists in Gaza's War Zone

Journalists lack safety equipment and legal protection, highlighting the challenges faced by journalists in Gaza. While Israel denies responsibility for targeting journalists, the lack of international intervention leaves journalists in Gaza exposed to daily danger.

Linda Shalash
Linda Shalash Published on: 9 May, 2024
Elections and Misinformation – India Case Study

Realities are hidden behind memes and political satire in the battle for truth in the digital age. Explore how misinformation is influencing political decisions and impacting first-time voters, especially in India's 2024 elections, and how journalists fact-check and address fake news, revealing the true impact of misinformation and AI-generated content.

Safina Nabi Published on: 30 Apr, 2024
Amid Increasing Pressure, Journalists in India Practice More Self-Censorship

In a country where nearly 970 million people are participating in a crucial general election, the state of journalism in India is under scrutiny. Journalists face harassment, self-censorship, and attacks, especially under the current Modi-led government. Mainstream media also practices self-censorship to avoid repercussions. The future of journalism in India appears uncertain, but hope lies in the resilience of independent media outlets.

Hanan Zaffa
Hanan Zaffar, Jyoti Thakur Published on: 25 Apr, 2024
The Privilege and Burden of Conflict Reporting in Nigeria: Navigating the Emotional Toll

The internal struggle and moral dilemmas faced by a conflict reporter, as they grapple with the overwhelming nature of the tragedies they witness and the sense of helplessness in the face of such immense suffering. It ultimately underscores the vital role of conflict journalism in preserving historical memory and giving a voice to the voiceless.

Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu
Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu Published on: 17 Apr, 2024
Journalism in chains in Cameroon

Investigative journalists in Cameroon sometimes use treacherous means to navigate the numerous challenges that hamper the practice of their profession: the absence of the Freedom of Information Act, the criminalisation of press offenses, and the scare of the overly-broad anti-terrorism law.

Nalova Akua
Nalova Akua Published on: 12 Apr, 2024
The Perils of Journalism and the Rise of Citizen Media in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia's media landscape is grim, with low rankings for internet and press freedom across the region. While citizen journalism has risen to fill the gaps, journalists - both professional and citizen - face significant risks due to government crackdowns and the collusion between tech companies and authorities to enable censorship and surveillance.

AJR Contributor Published on: 6 Apr, 2024
Silenced Voices: The Battle for Free Expression Amid India’s Farmer’s Protest

The Indian government's use of legal mechanisms to suppress dissenting voices and news reports raises questions about transparency and freedom of expression. The challenges faced by independent media in India indicate a broader narrative of controlling the narrative and stifling dissenting voices.

Suvrat Arora
Suvrat Arora Published on: 17 Mar, 2024
Targeting Truth: Assault on Female Journalists in Gaza

For female journalists in Palestine, celebrating international women's rights this year must take a backseat, as they continue facing the harsh realities of conflict. March 8th will carry little celebration for them, as they grapple with the severe risks of violence, mass displacement, and the vulnerability of abandonment amidst an ongoing humanitarian crisis. Their focus remains on bearing witness to human suffering and sharing stories of resilience from the frontlines, despite the personal dangers involved in their work.

Fatima Bashir
Fatima Bashir Published on: 14 Mar, 2024
A Woman's Journey Reporting on Pakistan's Thrilling Cholistan Desert Jeep Rally

A Woman's Voice in the Desert: Navigating the Spotlight

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 8 Mar, 2024
Breaking Barriers: The Rise of Citizen Journalists in India's Fight for Media Inclusion

Grassroots journalists from marginalized communities in India, including Dalits and Muslims, are challenging mainstream media narratives and bringing attention to underreported issues through digital outlets like The Mooknayak.

Hanan Zaffa
Hanan Zaffar, Jyoti Thakur Published on: 3 Mar, 2024
Why Journalists are Speaking out Against Western Media Bias in Reporting on Israel-Palestine

Over 1500 journalists from various US news organizations have signed an open letter criticizing the Western media's coverage of Israel's actions against Palestinians. They accuse newsrooms of dehumanizing rhetoric, bias, and the use of inflammatory language that reinforces stereotypes, lack of context, misinformation, biased language, and the focus on certain perspectives while diminishing others. They call for more accurate and critical coverage, the use of well-defined terms like "apartheid" and "ethnic cleansing," and the inclusion of Palestinian voices in reporting.

Belle de Jong journalist
Belle de Jong Published on: 26 Feb, 2024
Silenced Voices and Digital Resilience: The Case of Quds Network

Unrecognized journalists in conflict zones face serious risks to their safety and lack of support. The Quds Network, a Palestinian media outlet, has been targeted and censored, but they continue to report on the ground in Gaza. Recognition and support for independent journalists are crucial.

Yousef Abu Watfe يوسف أبو وطفة
Yousef Abu Watfeh Published on: 21 Feb, 2024
Artificial Intelligence's Potentials and Challenges in the African Media Landscape

How has the proliferation of Artificial Intelligence impacted newsroom operations, job security and regulation in the African media landscape? And how are journalists in Africa adapting to these changes?

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 18 Feb, 2024
Media Blackout on Imran Khan and PTI: Analysing Pakistan's Election Press Restrictions

Implications and response to media censorship and the deliberate absence of coverage for the popular former Prime Minister, Imran Khan, and his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), in the media during the 2024 elections in Pakistan.

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 14 Feb, 2024
Digital Battlegrounds: The New Broadcasting Bill and Independent Journalism in India

New legislation in India threatens the freedom of independent journalism. The draft Broadcasting Services (Regulation) Bill, 2023 grants the government extensive power to regulate and censor content, potentially suppressing news critical of government policies.

Safina Nabi Published on: 11 Feb, 2024
Pegasus Spyware: A Grave Threat to Journalists in Southeast Asia

The widespread deployment of spyware such as Pegasus in Southeast Asia, used by governments to target opposition leaders, activists, and journalists, presents significant challenges in countering digital surveillance. This is due to its clandestine operations and the political intricacies involved. The situation underscores the urgent need for international cooperation and heightened public awareness to address these human rights infringements.

AJR Contributor Published on: 5 Feb, 2024
Media Monopoly in Brazil: How Dominant Media Houses Control the Narrative and Stifle Criticism of Israel

An in-depth analysis exploring the concentration of media ownership in Brazil by large companies, and how this shapes public and political narratives, particularly by suppressing criticism of Israel.

Al Jazeera Logo
Rita Freire & Ahmad Al Zobi Published on: 1 Feb, 2024
Cameroonian Media Martyrs: The Intersection of Journalism and Activism

Experts and journalists in Cameroon disagree on the relationship between journalism and activism: some say journalism is activism; others think they are worlds apart, while another category says a “very thin” line separate both

Nalova Akua
Nalova Akua Published on: 28 Jan, 2024
Silent Suffering: The Impact of Sexual Harassment on African Newsrooms

Sexual harassment within newsrooms and the broader journalistic ecosystem is affecting the quality and integrity of journalistic work, ultimately impacting the organisation’s integrity and revenue.

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 23 Jan, 2024
Echos of Israeli Discourse in Latin American Media on Gaza

Heavily influenced by US and Israeli diplomatic efforts, Latin American media predominantly aligns with and amplifies the Israeli perspective. This divergence between political actions and media representation highlights the complex dynamics shaping Latin American coverage of the Gaza conflict.

Rita Freire Published on: 23 Nov, 2023
Why have opposition parties in India issued a boycott of 14 TV presenters?

Media workers in India argue that boycotts of individual journalists are not the answer to pro-Government reporting bias

Saurabh Sharma
Saurabh Sharma Published on: 23 Oct, 2023
The bombs raining down on Gaza from Israel are beyond scary, beyond crazy

REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK: As Israel bombarded Gaza for the third night, I found myself closer to a missile hit than I could have imagined

Maram Humaid Published on: 11 Oct, 2023