Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Reporting Refugees

This year saw me taking part in one of the most ambitious university assignments I’ve had the privilege of being involved in over the last 4 years.

It’s technical definition was something to do with ‘Public Journalism’, in other words a way of the media telling stories that aren’t necessarily hard news but are still of benefit to their audience.

The project revolved around the telling the stories of local ACT refugees and asylum seekers.

My partner Kim and I were given the task of showcasing an organisation called ‘Companion House’, which largely deals with refugee health issues but has found itself dealing more and more with wider community education over the years as well.

In the past I think the discourse surrounding asylum seekers in Australia has often lacked compassion, and that’s a finding similar to Foye and Ryder (2011) who found that for a range of reasons governments are afraid of expressing compassion towards these people because of the significant political cost that can lead to. That’s a cost many studies have found traditional media have been afraid of too. (Baker and McEnery 2005, KhosraviNik 2010 and Klein and Naccarato 2003)

According to Bailey and Harindranath (2005) it’s an issue that journalists can overcome though if they manage to reframe the discourse around human rights and take it away from a nationalist ‘us versus them’ type debate.
If the results of this project are anything to go by, then that is exactly the right sort of approach to be taking.


One thing I learnt during the Reporting Refugees process is that refugees don’t always look like refugees. They don’t wear badges and so unless somebody tells you they are a refugee, then it’s almost impossible to tell. With that in mind my I think my past contact with refugees has been extremely limited. I do remember meeting a number of Afghani refugees who had moved to Dubbo, NSW to work in the abattoir around 10 years ago, but apart from that nothing.

My attitudes to asylum seekers and refugees were also largely non-existent. Apart from that brief encounter a decade ago, refugee issues seemed completely irrelevant to me. One of those news stories you see on the news but listen to with a blank and almost uncaring mind. I knew I had a lot of friends with vastly differing views on how to treat refugees in Australia, but I knew it was a complex issue so I steered well clear of any debates.
On receiving this assignment though, I started to listen. I started to watch. I started to care.
I immediately saw where the debates stemmed from, but with what limited knowledge I had I went into the assignment thinking it was all a bit over the top.


I’ve already mentioned that refugees can be hard to spot and that is one of the main points I take away from the project. Despite what the media show us every evening of dark-skinned people arriving on shonky boats, my experiences showed me that those people are just a tiny piece in a giant puzzle.
Refugees can come from everywhere, they can be highly educated, speak any number of languages and they’re sometimes even white!
This project just went to show how ridiculous it is to stereotype the title refugee.
I was also very interested to get an understanding of the issues surrounding refugee care from those who provide it. Some of the problems reminded me of the issues that face other minority groups such as disabled people. A real problem with ‘tick-a-box’ bureaucracy. Which is again a problem stemming from a level of stereotyping. If a refugee doesn’t quite fit a particular description or doesn’t quite cross the right boxes on the forms, then they can’t always access the support they need and deserve.

I think one of the biggest barriers people face when it comes to understanding refugee issues, is that most Australian’s have probably never met one. Putting a face to an issue was so important to helping my understanding of the problems. You learn to treat the issue with humanity. You learn to see refugees as people and quite often extremely vulnerable people at that.
If the whole refugee debate didn’t have any relevancy to me before, it certainly does now.


I’m probably going to differ slightly to the opinion of a number of classmates, when I say that reporting refugees needs to take less of a tippy-toe stance. There can be too much sensitivity in reporting anything. The refugees I met during the course of this project didn’t appreciate being treated like babies. They appreciated the chance at telling a different side to a story. My partner Kim didn’t necessarily agree and left me to ask most things that were a little forward. I’ve always believed people want to be treated as equals and placing people such as refugees on a ‘too tricky’ platform would be and has at times led to ridiculous results in the past.
Of course you always take your sense of judgment and a level of humanity into any interview (this isn’t Today Tonight), but I would love to see more stories that approach these issues without any prior prejudice.

I think one of the best tips here is to not be scared of something you may not know a lot about. That essentially is one of the whole points of journalism, uncovering and explaining stories to a similarly in the dark audience.
If you regularly follow the news and aren’t a complete idiot, than chances are you know about as much on any topic as your audience. So over-researching and preparing to cover stories such as refugee issues can often be a double-edged sword. Getting answers to complicated questions is of no use to anyone if all your audience wants to know is the basics.
People are generally happy to explain their story in a mainstream way if you ask respectful but curious questions.

The whole #reportingrefugees experience, as it became known, was an incredibly positive and enjoyable ride.
The confidence and skills it honed during a time when most of us where out hitting the jobs market was timed perfectly.
But it’s the skills I learnt in dealing with complex issues and people that are most beneficial. Skills we can use not just on the job but in everyday life.


Bailey, Olga Guedes, and Ramaswami Harindranath. "Racialized 'othering': the representation of asylum seekers in news media." Journalism: Critical Issues (Open University Press), 2005: 274-286.

Baker, Paul, and Tony McEnery. "A corpus-based approach to discourses of refugees and asylum seekers in UN and newspaper texts." Journal of Language and Politics, September 2005: 197-226.

Foye, Jonathon, and Paul Ryder. "Cries from Babylon: the problem of compassion in Australian refugee policy." Global Media Journal, June 2011.

KhosraviNik, Majid. "The representation of refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants in British Newspapers." Journal of Language and Politics, April 2010: 1-28.

Klein, Roger D, and Stacy Naccarato. "Broadcast news portrayal of minorities: Accuracy in reporting." American Behavioral Scientist, August 2003: 1611-1616.