This article originally appeared on the Impatient Optimists blog of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
By Michael Boyce
Humanitarian reporting is a tough beat these days. Amid the proliferation of political news and commentary in recent years, reporting about the world’s most vulnerable populations—the poor, the displaced, and the victims of conflict—seems to have been left behind.
One explanation is that audiences today don’t want to hear about civil wars, food shortages, or human rights abuses. As the argument goes, these problems are so big, so complicated, and so alien that Western news consumers are turned off by them.
In her recent post on this blog, acclaimed reporter Brooke Gladstone attempts to flesh out this explanation. First, she says, audiences are bored with humanitarian crises because the larger they become, the less human they seem. Second, news consumers have seen so many famines, earthquakes, and bombings that they have become desensitized. And finally, there is the empathy gap: where the subjects of humanitarian reporting are so different from their audience as to be unrecognizable.
At Refugees International, we take a slightly more optimistic view. Our mission is to bring the experiences of displaced people to those in power. And we think there are effective ways to tell their stories and get audiences to pay attention. Here are a few ideas drawn from our experiences in the field:
- The mere existence of suffering is not a story: Narrative draws readers into a story and makes them pay attention. So when our team met Aluel, a woman displaced by violence in Sudan, we didn’t just ask if she had access to food—we tried to understand why she was hungry in the first place. It turned out that when Sudanese forces attacked her village, her family was forced to leave their belongings behind and shelter under a tree. With no goods to sell, she explained, she struggled to get by on a few handouts from relatives. Those few additional details made her story more compelling.
- Don’t just define individuals by their tragedy: Just as our lives are about more than our jobs, the lives of refugees are about more than being displaced. So when we met Halil, an ambitious young man in Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp, we tried to find out how his refugee status affected his main goals in life: getting educated, and earning enough money to start a family. Unfortunately, as a refugee he wasn’t allowed to enroll in a university or get a job outside the camp, but telling his story helped show that refugees aren’t automatons: they are three-dimensional, and have goals and desires everyone can relate to.
- Show that a problem can be solved: To maintain objectivity, journalists sometimes avoid proposing solutions to problems they find in the field. But this can leave readers feeling helpless and unsatisfied: Why should they be forced to read about a disaster when they can’t do anything about it? So when we met Abdel Rashid, who fled his Afghan village after it was raided by NATO, we asked him: What did he need? He answered that getting a few tools to make handicrafts he could sell in the market would make a real difference. A hammer and drill wouldn’t end the war that had displaced him, but it would give his story at least a glimmer of a happy ending.
By embracing these ideas, we can tell more compelling, more accessible stories; stories that will inspire Western audiences to read more widely, give more generously, and demand change more forcefully.