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“Don’t go for the sob story”: Reporting on humanitarian crisis

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How can journalists best tell the stories of people they meet in crisis situations? Al Jazeera’s Shafik Mandhai spoke to the Cable about his experience reporting from the refugee camps in Calais.

Photo: Dean Ayotte

When the right-wing press publishes according to editorial agendas which demonise and criminalise refugees, it has never been so important to offer accurate, fair and human-centred reporting on the crisis.

Alongside exiled Iraqi photojournalist Qais Najim, Shafik Mandhai spoke to Cable members and guests at a workshop on Saturday (2nd October) about the ethics and practicalities of reporting on the refugee crisis based on his experience working for Al Jazeera on the ground in Calais.

The Cable grabbed an interview with Shafik to ask about his approach.

Bristol Cable: What’s your approach when you go into a place like the camps in Calais and you’re trying to seek out interviewees?

Shafik Mandhai: Basically when I went to Calais I had no idea what kind of stories I’d end up doing. My editor told me to not go with any plan, you’ll find something. So I went there and my plan was to walk around, and talk to people, and when I find something interesting think, ‘Yeah, that’s a story,’ and I’d turn that into a story. Obviously going into a place like Calais when people have left their homes behind, there were obviously going to be people with stories to tell. I wasn’t worried about that. It seems nonchalant but it works for me.

You mentioned before that you witnessed an awful lot of bad journalistic practices in Calais. Could you describe those?

Most of these are from what refugees and aid workers have told me. I’m a very cynical person and always have a gripe with journalists, so maybe they’re not as bad as I’m describing, or they have pressures that explain their behaviour. Some of the bad practices I was told about was basically journalists failing to show a sense of empathy: getting their questions answered, or getting their picture – the money shot – and then getting out. I think that’s very… insensitive. The people who you’re interviewing think, ‘Oh, he’s here for one particular purpose, and that’s it’. Because of that they start to distrust all journalists. It’s justified, somewhat.

“I think there needs to be more diversity in the kind of people who become journalists because if you grew up in a certain way, and you haven’t been exposed to different sorts of people, you’re only going to write from a certain perspective.”

How did you rebuild the trust that was so eroded between journalists and refugees?

To start with, I just wanted to talk to them and speak with them on a very general level. I’d meet someone and talk to them – I speak rudimentary Arabic. Then when you think ‘Oh, this might make a good story,’ then I’d ask their permission to come back another time or if I could use what they had told me. That was my method.

Was it unusual for your editor to give you such free reign, and let you follow your nose like that?

It depends on the situation. A few days after I left France there was the terrorist attack in Belgium and in that case the editors will tell you, ‘OK, I want this, this angle, and these are the people I want you to talk to’. But in Calais they didn’t know what was happening, so they put trust in me to go and find out what was happening and to bring back stories based on what I’d seen. It’s not unusual but other organisations might operate differently, they might be more structured in the way they bring in stories.

You mentioned in your talk that journalists are often aiming for ‘impartiality’ but the status quo they’re preserving is actually quite right-wing. How do you think journalists can challenge that while still working in the industry?

Good question. Basically at Al Jazeera the editorial line is to ‘give a voice to the voiceless’. It’s a cliché, but that’s the editorial line. I think to challenge it you kind of make a story about the person, not about the wider issue. Make the wider issue the context. I think you’d still be impartial but you’d get across that person’s plight or message.

Often it seems in reporting on a humanitarian crisis, the media discounts the agency of the people they’re reporting on. Do you think that’s particularly pronounced in Calais, and what accounts for that lack of depth in the reporting?

I think there’re several factors. To begin with, there’s a point there about how editors know who their audience is. So they’ll produce content to cater to that audience. I think sometimes journalists are afraid to go to a person unless they have an army of fixers arranging everything to swoop in. There needs to be more diversity of the kind of people who become journalists too, because if you grew up in a certain way, and you haven’t been exposed to different sorts of people, you’re only going to write from a perspective and relate it to the context you were raised in. When you are thrown into an extraordinary situation like Calais you just won’t have the ability to connect with those people. I think it’s a job for editors who will bring in people who will bring in those human stories.

Do you have any practical tips you would give someone who was going into that situation?

Forget you’re a journalist first of all. Pretend you’re a person who has just come across an extraordinary situation. Treat it from that perspective, not like a journalist trying to get a story. I think what happens when you do that is the story will come anyway. Just remember these people had jobs, they had normal lives back home, so there’s no need to portray them as a sob story. Don’t go for the sob story. And whatever you find interesting, others will find interesting too. That’s just a general tip for journalists.

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