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Reporting on the European refugee crisis

by Mackenzie Lad March 27, 2018
Reporting on the European refugee crisis

Refugees bail from an overloaded raft and swim towards the shores of Lesbos, Greece. It is only one leg of the treacherous journey across Europe to reach their final destination, Germany in Another News Story.

Cinema Politica screening of Another News Story followed by panel on media representation of crisis

“Another news story” is a phrase one might use when referencing media coverage of Trump’s latest antics, or the most recent development of a long-standing social issue in another corner of the world. It signifies both a habitual regard for and detachment from the social phenomena that make headlines—a reflex that is all too common among those on the receiving end of the news.

In the last few years, coverage of the European refugee crisis by major news outlets around the world has saturated the media landscape with scenes of the calamity. Yet, the story has never been told from the perspective British director Orban Wallace takes in his debut documentary, Another News Story. Wallace steps away from the sea of tripods and media personnel to instead focus his camera on the journalists themselves as they navigate the working conditions and ethical dilemmas of reporting on a humanitarian crisis. This unconventional take on a widely-reported topic isn’t just another news story; it goes beyond surface-level media criticism to probe the relationship between news subjects, producers and consumers.

In this story, there are no heroes or villains; it quickly becomes apparent that the ethical and moral divisions of right and wrong are not so clear cut. Each journalist Wallace encounters projects the honourable intention of bringing truth to viewers so they can grasp the severity of the crisis and care enough to do something about it. However, under the unflinching gaze of Wallace’s camera, it’s unclear whether the journalists themselves care, whether they are at all invested in the reality they report on.

Journalists are essential to society, yet the profession’s nobility is questioned as Wallace follows reporters who seemingly go through the motions, setting up tripods on the shambles of people’s lives without enduring the emotional weight of the situation. At one point in the journey, Wallace finds out a refugee has been injured in an aggressive confrontation with police. When Wallace questions the bystanders, one journalist observes that the man is now swarmed with cameras but hasn’t actually been offered aid. It was one of many instances in which the journalistic imperative to “get the shot” overrides the human instinct to help someone in need.

The documentary does not seek to champion the virtues of journalism, nor does it take a hostile view on the news media. Another News Story simply poses the question: If the news media holds the government accountable, who holds the media accountable? The answer places Wallace in a new, unfamiliar position—the watchdog’s watchdog.

A journalist captures the last shots of a refugee-packed train before it pulls out of the station enroute to Germany in Another News Story.

Though he stays closely attuned to the lives of the journalists, Wallace doesn’t ignore the emotional intensity of the refugees’ journey. He travels alongside Mahasen, a Syrian refugee, and a group of others who have embarked on the perilous journey to Germany, to experience the bureaucratic minefield and physical stress firsthand. Wallace juxtaposes the sanitized broadcast news coverage of his colleagues with his own intimate, handheld footage from the field, effectively widening the audience’s field of vision beyond the CNN news desk to see all that lies in the periphery.

The group of refugees is seemingly always being pursued, either by journalists or authorities, to be tokenized or victimized. Wallace, with his camera and valid passport, is not excluded from the hoards of news media personnel and the security his press pass permits him. In this story, the roles can only be defined by power—who stands on either side of the camera, and subsequently, the television screen.

Towards the end of the film, a reporter Wallace encountered offers an observation: “The story is over from a news point of view.” Yet life goes on for Mahasen and thousands of other refugees who will begin a new life in Europe. Only, now, the cameras have stopped rolling.

Cinema Politica’s screening of Another News Story on March 19 was followed by a panel discussion moderated by filmmaker Muhammad El-Khairy, in which activists Fatima Azzahra Banane, Dalila Awada and Houda Asal addressed the residual questions posed by the film: With no end to the crisis in sight, where do we go from here? What kind of news coverage is needed?

Awada suggested journalists need to be increasingly aware of the language they use when identifying vulnerable people, and how these prescribed labels are then represented in the news media. Language poses the unique threat of unconsciously alienating individuals and groups, as it’s used carelessly in public discourse, she said. The most subtle linguistic divides—in this case, the interchangeable use of the terms “refugee,” “foreign person” and “illegal immigrant”—can erode any common ground between the vulnerable group and the audience.

Azzahra Banane stressed the need for context, to make both journalists and viewers aware of the social, political and cultural roots of the issues they are witnessing. When context is limited to what is considered breaking news, viewers fail to comprehend the extent of the problems and are not compelled to solve them, she said.

In the same way Wallace held a mirror to the frontline of journalists, the film calls for self-reflection among media consumers as well. News producers and consumers maintain a symbiotic relationship; the interests and preferences of the audience directly inform the nature and content of the news. If we are to honestly criticize the journalist’s vulture-like scavenging of the remains of human lives, then we must also acknowledge the North American appetite for superficial, sensationalized news coverage.

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