Last week Helen Boaden, director of BBC Radio, resigned after 34 years working for the English broadcaster and delivered a stirring speech at the Prix Italia festival in Lampedusa criticizing journalism. Her response to the reporting of asylum seekers fleeing "the conflict in Syria … violence in Afghanistan and Iraq, abuses in Eritrea, as well as poverty in Kosovo," was to lament a transformation in Europe: from historical empathy for those seeking asylum, to blatant villianisation. Her criticisms chime with findings of the Victims and Villains report, which examined the extent to which migrant voices informed reporting of migration issues in the lead up to the 2015 U.K. election. It concluded 46% of all stories in the period studied framed migration as a threat.

Much of Boaden's speech focused on the transformative role technology has played in journalism in recent years. In her view, this has been a double-edged sword for the profession: it has provided an infinite volume of information and access but at the same time it is "obscuring rather than illuminating the issues." She canvassed the apparent incompatibility between the commercial demands of contemporary journalism and the perceived civic service role many still want it to play. From clickbait to the demands levied by the competitive 24/7 news cycle, the need to attract and maintain an audience has at times undermined the duty of journalists to "explain and explore" migration and border policy today, Boaden said.

Boaden’s concern about the media’s treatment of the more than one million irregular migrants and refugees who arrived by sea in Europe last year provides plenty of food for thought for Australian journalists as well. From the generally lax reporting of recent Essential Media poll findings about attitudes toward Muslim immigration, to the unwavering concentration on boat arrivals (and their purported links to terrorism, as suggested in this Herald Sun story) over the last decade, categorising, rather than understanding, the "migrant other," has been a popular media angle in Australia for some time.

Boaden’s concerns about the direction of journalism, especially in relation to reporting on refugees and irregular migration, are shared by others engaged in online explanatory, long-form initiatives, such as VICE’s Europe or Die. In April, VICE’s Milene Larsson expressed concern about the reporting challenge posed by the complexity of migration, noting it is "not a story that lends itself easily to clickbait headlines and limited word counts."

Peace narratives, personal stories and social media

Boaden’s speech asks many tough questions of journalists; however, her despair at the profession’s simplistic reporting of refugees, asylum seekers and irregular migrants may be assuaged to a degree by the work of citizen and not-for-profit practitioners. This includes peace journalism projects, such as Humans of New York's Brandon Stanton’s sharing of refugee stories, and the work of many not-for-profits on social media including UNHCR, MSF Sea, and the World Food Programme’s #IamSyrian campaign.

Social media, often free of the pecuniary challenges that are forcing establishment outlets to cut newsroom jobs, can fill some of the gaps left in migration reporting. While the functional effectiveness of traditional media and social media/citizen journalism must be compared with caution (the audiences of the latter can be relatively niche), there is undoubtedly strong consumer appetite for the stories of refugees and asylum seekers. Social media can play a valuable role in contextualising irregular migration; personal stories, as the University of Leicester media lecturer Maria Rovisco has discussed, "let us know what it means to be a refugee."

Telling the stories of whom, as Boaden said, "the danger at home was greater than the danger of the open seas," and presenting the "complexity and nuances of migrant experiences," is a challenging task but surely not one beyond those who have been trained to observe and report. Boaden's speech should be a wake up call for a profession that needs to catch up.

This article was originally published in the Lowy Interpreter.

Edited by: J. Michael Cole