Seven things we’ve learned about adding a solutions focus to reporting on migration

Seven things we've learned about adding a solutions focus to reporting on migration
Reporting only on extreme or exceptional events doesn't give the full picture.
Throughout May, The Local hosted four online sessions about incorporating solutions-focused reporting to the migration beat. Over the month 60 journalists took part, selected from more than 200 migration reporters who expressed interest in the training.

We were lucky to be joined by reporters from 19 European countries, many of them with a migrant or refugee background and all of them with experience reporting on migration.

Here are seven takeaways from the discussions.

People admit they are uninformed about migration – and they know it

Just 39 percent of people in the EU think that the media presents immigrants objectively. Even fewer, 37 percent, say they are well informed about immigration and integration.

Those stats come from the Special Eurobarometer on Integration of Immigrants in the European Union, which also showed that most people significantly over-estimate the proportion of the population with a migrant background. It's our responsibility in the media to give people the full story.

Nuance is missing

While there are many publications producing excellent reporting on migration, it's still the case that reporting on migration is over-simplified. Migrants are often portrayed in the media as victims, as a threat, or as heroes.

Each of these over-simplifications can cause harm, by dehumanising people, by presenting their existence as a threat to others, or by suggesting that they need to do something exceptional to be worthy of attention or even acceptance. 

One participant based in Norway said that as a migrant, they were angry at these headlines and that this had pushed them to started their own online publication. Several others said the biggest problem they faced in writing nuanced migration stories was getting these stories accepted by editors.

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We need to listen more

When writing about problems affecting migrants, or programmes that are supposed to improve things for them, we need to listen to the people affected. That's especially true if our newsrooms aren't representative of the community – which is all too often the case.

This means being in touch with migrant communities before, during and after reporting, in order to find out their priorities and realities, and build up trust which has been badly damaged by the mistakes outlined above.

“The media too often presents refugees as a uniform mass – as people to fear or pity. Our stories influence policies and how migrants are seen by the public,” said one journalist based in the UK.

“Normally migrants' and refugees' personal experiences and narratives are invisible, so it's important to share individual stories,” commented a journalist in Italy.

Reporting on progress can lead to impact

Not everyone was comfortable with the term 'solutions journalism', and it may be more helpful to think of this coverage as reporting on a response: not a perfect solution, but something that's working at least in some way (or in some cases, something that hasn't worked as well as hoped, but where there's evidence of how the response could be improved).

We aren't simply telling our readers everything will be all right, but we are showing them a way that some things could be better.

As the Solutions Journalism Network, one of the main organisations promoting this approach (and which has given The Local a grant for our solutions-focused coronavirus coverage) says, “it's not happy journalism, it's useful journalism”.

Success that's only possible due to a unique circumstance – like exceptional talent or a one-off donation – is unlikely to help others elsewhere. Solutions-focused stories go into detail about what results were achieved, how they were achieved (and therefore how they could be replicated), and they do not shy away from limitations. Others could adopt, improve, or campaign for similar programmes.

The goal is to give a realistic picture of what's working and why so that our audiences are equipped to act. Because we've already seen what happens when all they hear about migration is disasters, crimes and tragedies. 

“I think European media have a big responsibility in the irresponsible answer that the continent has given to migration issues in the last years, feeding populist and xenophobic speeches within the EU,” said a freelance journalist in Spain.

Focusing on solutions doesn't mean forgetting the problems

Some journalists raised concerns that highlighting 'solutions' could minimise the problems, particularly where the problem was a structural one and the response a grassroots or community-led initiative, or something that only fixed a small aspect of a major issue.

Solutions-focused reporting isn't always appropriate. When a problem is newly emerging and there is little data available on what's working to fix it, reporting should focus on exposing the problem.

But we do believe this type of journalism has a place alongside regular news, investigative and features reporting. When there is evidence of a promising response, reporting on this is part of giving the full picture. At other times, you might be reporting on a project, policy or scheme that was intended to solve a problem but failed – and highlight what went wrong and why. 

Think long-term

Migration is a long-term topic; it's a fact of life. Many of the problems migrants face today have been faced by migrants over history and around the world.

This means that there might be lessons to learn from how efforts to solve these problems have worked, or failed, in the past, and in other countries. We looked at this example from The Local, where results from previous integration efforts could be used to inform today's initiatives – but the reporter also looked at how the context had changed. Responses can rarely be copy-pasted.

We also spoke about the importance of looking at the long-term effects of proposed solutions.

Schemes that make life more bearable in a refugee camp are good, but they don't address the problem of displacement or necessarily help migrants find a secure home. And well-meaning projects can have unintended consequences; schemes to get new migrants into jobs could lead to segregation on the job market over time.

The work doesn't stop when the article is published

By exposing problems you can expose unfair systems, and by analysing potential solutions, you can show a template for change.

We discussed some of the ways of maximising the impact of journalism, from taking time to listen to feedback and questions to getting your article in front of decision-makers and a wider audience. We also shared resources on awards, grants, and publications that support this kind of journalism. And we discussed ways to start building relationships and trust with people who have been traditionally underserved by media.

Why did we organise these sessions?

The Local was founded in 2004 by two British immigrants to Sweden. Today, we operate news sites in nine countries in Europe, but our core audience is still people who cross borders. Our mission is to help our readers navigate their new countries, and make sure that their voices are heard.

We know that migration can be good, bad or everything in between, but too often the ‘everything in between’ is lost in public debate. This training is our way of using what we have learned about reporting on migration and solutions journalism over the years, and helping other journalists with this experience to share knowledge.

The curriculum has been developed independently by The Local journalists Jessica Phelan and Catherine Edwards, but it is made possible thanks to the EU-wide project MAX (Maximising Migrants' Contributions to Society). Funded by the EU's Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund, MAX aims to expand the public narrative around immigration in Europe and highlight stories of real people who have migrated and the communities they have joined.

What next?

If you're not a journalist, but are interested in hearing more about the sessions, get in touch. We're especially open to feedback from people with a migrant background. You can also contact our training organisers below.

Many of the migration reporters who participated were interested in keeping in touch and possible future collaborations. You can follow them on Twitter here.


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