Reporting the facts, points of view and the media. The Lampedusa Case Study – part I
LAMPEDUSA – Symbol of hope, turmoil and controversy
The Lampedusa Case Study is a series of blog entries all related to the migration issues touching and raised by current and past situations on Lampedusa (Italy.)
On the morning of Friday, 7 September, the small yet infamous southern Italian island of Lampedusa made headline news again. Within 24 hours, 313 articles from news services around the world had been published on the tragic shipwreck of a boat from Tunisia carrying mixed migrants, of which, at the time, at least 50 were deemed to be missing at sea and at least one is known to have died.
Approximately 140 kilometers (75 nautical miles) off the coast of Tunisia, Lampedusa has since many years been a major destination from the North African region for those fleeing their countries in search for a better life. It is reported(1) that in 2011, approximately 55,000 Africans of different nationalities landed in Lampedusa after the crossing of the Mediterranean Sea. A crossing that Amnesty International/UNHCR report to have cost the lives of at least 1,500 others in the same year. An island with a population of around 6000 people, it has become a beacon of hope as the entry way to the dream of Europe. And yet it has also become the representation of turmoil and controversy among its own inhabitants as well as within Italy, the European Union, and beyond.
Lampedusa was already a subject on my list of posts to write, in great part because of its pertinence to so many issues related to asylum seekers, refugees, irregular migration and related attitudes and policies. There are a few other similar examples I could have used, but other than this touching me personally (with my being primarily Italian), it was two small articles I read in the course of last year that led me to choose it. These articles not only illustrated that every story can contain elements of a positive nature, but also how those elements often get lost in all the noise (if I may call it that.)
As I launched myself into writing what was originally intended to be a single blog post, I wanted to check some facts. I started researching articles, reports and much more that is now easily available through the internet. Little did I know that what I had imagined would not be more than a days’ work, has already engulfed countless hours of my last five days – and I have yet to arrive at a complete factual picture (although I am much closer than five days ago!)
While not a revelation, what has been glaringly clear is that most news articles and reports tend to provide a one-sided, at most two-sided view of the situation. I count at least six different points of view to date: that of the island itself, its inhabitants and the regional government; that of the people trying to reach it from the sea (with at least two points of views there – the economic migrants and the asylum seekers); that of Italy at large (from the viewpoint of the population and that of the political framework); of the EU at large (here again from the point of view of individual countries, the Schengen agreement and of border security); that of international organizations such as the UNHCR, the IOM, Amnesty International and the Council of Europe, and last, but certainly not least, from the point of view of ratified international instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to name but one. Yes, that’s actually more than six points of view, and there is at least one more – that of the Tunisian population in response to the high influx on their land of Libyan refugees in 2011.
Another element that I disturbingly became aware of was how many of the articles, and a few official reports, that I read contained inconsistent or incorrect facts – including those of major news services and organizations. To give you but a small example, Lampedusa is said to be anywhere between 80km to 180km from Tunisia (I’ve seen 80km, 100km, 113km, 138km, 160km, and 140 nautical miles to name a few.) Perhaps not so significant for the core issue of the story (other than for the poor souls travelling the distance in small, overcrowded boats), it is testimony to the general reliability of facts presented. I personally came to my conclusion of the shortest distance between Tunisia and Lampedusa by taking note of the distance that seemed to be reported most often, double checked it against the distance of a sailing race held between the two locations (these guys usually know their nautical miles), triple checked it with an aviation website, and quadruple checked it by measuring the distance on a map. For the other facts, I have done my best to read through the most significant documentation (albeit not all as that would likely take me 5 months and not 5 days), and I provide them under the precept stated above, with direct references to their sources.
On the one hand, I understand the difficulty of presenting in some way all the different points of views within one story. Hence the creation of the Lampedusa Case Study Series to address them in separate yet related posts. On the other hand, having taken a few classes in journalism way back when I was still relatively unexposed to certain realities of this world, possibly the one lesson I retained most vividly was that journalism was intended to be impartial and based on verified facts. I do not wish to cast a dark shadow on journalism as a whole, for I sincerely believe there are many journalists and news services that do their best to uphold these values.
Nevertheless, what and how the media and governments communicate globally on the subject of migration has been identified as an issue to be addressed by more than one international organization. While perhaps the media are not entirely to blame given the positions taken by some politicians and policy developments, it is widely recognized that the media is a large contributor to the widespread negative perceptions and misconceptions of migration in the general public. Which, in and of itself, has serious implications. As stated by the International Organization of Migration (IOM):
“…misinformation and misperception can trigger a vicious cycle which influences government policy, and in turn, perpetuates negative attitudes in mass media and the community at large.” (3)
Since many years now I have adopted the habit of looking at and reading news from a variety of different sources, no matter what the story. And doing the same with official reports from different sources. The problem is that the majority of the time, most of us just don’t have the time. Understandably so as most of our lives have become increasingly busy.
And yet whether we are aware of it or not, we are heavily influenced by what we read and what we hear. It is both what allows us to expand our awareness, knowledge and understanding, as well as what forms our prejudices.
(1) & (2) Report on the visit to Lampedusa (Italy), (23-24 May 2011), by the Ad Hoc Sub-Committee on the large-scale arrival of irregular migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees on Europe’s southern shores; AS/Mig/AhLarg (2011) 03 Rev 2; Parliamentary Assembly, Council of Europe.
(3) Introduction to the World Migration Report 2011 – Communicating Effectively about Migration. http://publications.iom.int/bookstore/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=37&products_id=752