We knew their names, their faces, their stories. That made us feel connected to them. And that’s a key difference with coverage of refugees, who usually remain a nameless and faceless mass to us.
There has been much commentary in the past few days about the difference in media/public perception of the Titan tragedy and the tragic deaths of asylum seekers drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. It seems to me that there are two main factors which help to explain it, other than simple racism. (Racism explains much of the prevailing attitude but not all of it). First was the particular situation of people on board the Titan who were, we imagined, trapped in a tiny submarine at the very bottom of the ocean, running out of air while rescuers searched frantically to save them. This was horribly compelling. As we now know that wasn’t what happened on the Titan, but it was what we believed might be happening.
We have seen the same fascination for media stories about miners trapped underground or children who have fallen down a well or become lost in caves. It’s the race against time scenario. Are they going to be rescued alive? We need to know. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, we knew who the passengers were. We knew their names, their faces, their stories. That made us feel connected to them. And that’s a key difference with coverage of refugees, who usually remain a nameless and faceless mass to us.
I don’t know what efforts are made to identify and trace individuals who die at sea trying to reach a place of safety. I have a horrible feeling that not much is done about that. But it should be. It would make a big difference I think to public perceptions if we understood more about the individual people & families on those boats. It would make it much harder to dehumanise them. In the absence of that kind of information it becomes easier for myths & falsehoods to flourish. It becomes much easier for politicians to talk about stopping the boats instead of talking about stopping people and families desperately trying to reach a safe harbour.
Many of the myths about asylum seekers can be easily disproved by talking to people who have already made that journey. We know most come to the UK because they have an existing connection. They have friends or family here, a community who can support them, help them to integrate, help them to find work and housing and stand on their own feet. That’s all that asylum seekers want. If more people understood that I am some of the negativity would diminish.
There are a great many journalists doing excellent work on these issues, trying to explain, to get the human stories out there and to tell the truth. But there are others who are content just to regurgitate government narratives and who don’t have much interest in the people at the heart of it. That’s probably the biggest difference and the biggest failure in the coverage of these two tragedies. Because if you are a journalist writing about the tragic outcome of “people smuggling” or “people trafficking” without moving heaven and earth to find out who those people were, and why they were taking these terrible risks, are you really doing your job?