Reporters bear responsibility during refugee crisis

By: Allie Gauthier – Print Editor-in-Chief

Over the past several weeks, we’ve heard the chaos of the resettling of refugees in Europe referred to in a hundred different articles with the same immigration rhetoric. Calling the people flooding into Western Europe “migrants” makes it sound as if they are choosing to leave their homes in search of someplace else. No one ever wants to leave home, but when war and violence overtake a city, sometimes the only choice left is to flee.

Human beings are leaving their lives behind and searching for asylum on foot or by boat, but instead are finding walls to keep them out and human smugglers who don’t care about them or their children.

In the past week, 71 decomposing bodies were found in an abandoned truck on an Austrian highway. Presumably, these people paid a smuggler for transportation, but were locked into the airtight truck and left for dead.

As a community, it’s one thing to open our eyes and ears to what is going on beyond our porches and educate ourselves about this ongoing crisis. As journalists, photographers and consumers, we must go one step farther. What responsibility do we have to publish these images and articles without crossing the line into voyeurism?

The dangers of these journeys are documented through photos and articles published online daily. Visit any major newspaper’s website, like The Washington Post or The Los Angeles Times, and the first headline to scream at you will be about the endless journey of “the migrant.” On Wednesday, there was an image published by multiple international news sites of a 3-year-old Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, who drowned along with 11 other people while trying to reach a Greek island from Turkey.

The image went viral, and The New York Times covered the debate taking place in newsrooms about the ethics of posting a graphic picture of a child. Is it morbid and disrespectful? Does it finally force members of the European Union to work together and open borders? Or is it used for clickbait, to rack up views on a page?

If a photographer, journalist and editorial staff are doing their jobs right, a picture like that would be posted to draw attention to this crisis and promote action by people and by governments. Nilufer Demir, the photographer who took the picture, did what she had to do.

“There was nothing left to do for him. There was nothing left to bring him back to life,” Demir said in an interview with CNN Turk. According to CNN, Demir, a correspondent and photographer with Turkey’s Dogan News Agency, did the only thing she could: She raised her camera and began shooting. “There was nothing to do except take his photograph…and that is exactly what I did,” she said in an on-air CNN interview. “I thought, ‘This is the only way I can express the scream of his silent body.’”

Photos have long defined times of turmoil in history. Whether it’s a sailor kissing a woman in Times Square to signal the end of World War II or a protester standing in front of tanks in Tiananmen Square, we remember the emotion behind the image. The image of Kurdi, while heartbreaking, may end up being the representative of thousands of deaths during this crisis and the catalyst for how the public responds.

According to The New York Times, “…the photograph has forced Western nations to confront the consequence of a collective failure to help migrants fleeing the Middle East and Africa to Europe in search of hope, opportunity and safety…The case of this young boy’s doomed journey has landed as a political bombshell across the Middle East and Europe, and even countries as far away as Canada.”

The E.U., the U.N. and governments across multiple continents have collectively failed. Refugees can’t find asylum, can’t find peace and can’t find home. It would be easy to forget their stories, except we have newspapers to remind us. Every day, we can see their pictures and remember.

Whether we’re bright-eyed first-years or wise fifth-years, we have a responsibility to share these stories.

For reporters, that means sharing the news when it can be painful. Today it’s the picture of Kurdi; tomorrow it may be another little boy. The pictures certainly won’t stop until the war does, or at least until people are given refuge. Until then, reporters must continue to write the news truthfully, and with utmost respect for the lost and for the dead.

We’d like to think most journalists share Demir’s sentiment. When they live a world away from the crisis, they do the only thing they can: Share these stories. No one wants to see photos of dead children or migrant bodies, but with the rights words, photos like the one of Kurdi can be used in the pursuit of knowledge and change. If a story can grab a nation’s attention and rouse a stagnant government, it should be published and shared.