The world’s news media are often held responsible for how most of us, as audiences across the globe, have witnessed the refugee crisis – for good reason.
Media reportage has indeed swung public and political opinion and has led to governments opening and closing borders over these recent waves of migration. As the crisis has ebbed and flowed, so has the attention span of the news media. Coverage has dissipated and the struggles of those making the journey hardly make the headlines these days.
But September 2015 was different. Sparked by the images of three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s body washed up on a Turkish beach and Germany’s decision to offer an open-door policy for Syrians, a global news-storm ensued. It followed the mass migration of refugees sweeping up from Greece, through the Balkans and into northern Europe, as satellites and presenters frantically chased the story and beamed their interpretations to the world.
I was there, having arrived at the beginning of September to make a documentary about the influxes of migration, inspired by an earlier visit to the “Jungle” in Calais. I was desperate to see what was really going on beyond the news headlines.
Without a clear idea of what our film’s angle would be, we set off from Budapest to Lesbos (Lesvos) in Greece. As we approached the Hungarian border we decided it might be worth taking a quick look at the fence and the refugee camp there. As we turned off the motorway, we were blown away. Tension spiraled into chaos very quickly. A thousand refugees had just broken out of a camp and were running up the road toward us, while police battled to contain them. Cameramen and news presenters were running up the road to capture the drama. Women and children were crying and we were finally amid the madness we had seen on television sets and computer screens.
An enraged father came charging toward the police line, brandishing his two-year-old son in his hands as he screamed at the police. Casually, a news anchor strolled up in front of the action, calmly combed his hair to one side, smiled and proceeded to report to camera in Hungarian. I decided to film his report. As he finished he smiled to his cameraman, who gave him the thumbs-up. He looked around nonchalantly while the father was still screaming, and wandered off, pointing to other refugees. This episode stayed with me and replayed over and over again in my mind. I had never witnessed news reporting firsthand and seen the reality of what is left behind when the cameras are turned off.
That night the refugees were marched back to the camp, and there we met Bruno and Johnny. They were setting up for a “number one”-rated U.S. news anchor to go live amid the sleeping bodies, which appeared to be frozen on the floor. I interviewed Bruno, a charismatic news veteran who had been in the game for 20 years. He had been covering the story for the last month and had many views about the situation. There was a candid calmness about him and his crew, who stood around laughing and joking. This was simply a job for them; the next week, Bruno said, they would be covering the Venice Film Festival.
For me, this was a fascinating insight into those behind the news reports and offered a parallel reality, which was playing out amid this disturbing situation. The realization dawned on me that it wasn’t just the refugee story that was interesting. It was the global news story being constructed around us, based on perceptions rather than realities.
Over the next month, as we followed the migration from Greece to Germany, we went behind the cameras of the news teams and journalists. As they focused on the challenges, desperation and violence that the refugees faced, we turned our cameras to face those reporting. We put the questions to them. This gave us an insight into the problematic world of news reporting and the fine line that journalists tread to get the best story, which here is essentially about humanity in flux.
We witnessed firsthand the power of the news cycle and its coverage of events to swing political and public opinion. As the news chose its focus and its story, governments reacted – and the fate of the refugees racing to northern Europe was decided. On the Austrian border as the refugees finally reached safety, the news channels wrapped up the story. For them this was it – the story was over. As one journalist said “… it’s like starving kids in Africa: there’s only so much you can show before people get bored.”
For the mainstream media, this was just another news story. After spending a month on the road traveling and befriending many refugees along the way, I knew this would go on for a long while. But for many still making the journeys, the pain and trauma is going unheard.
Another News Story is a documentary in the making, which lifts the lid on what happened on the ground during the pivotal months of this Mediterranean migration crisis. It will serve as an eye-opening account of how news is created, and a reminder that for many this was much more than Another News Story.