This past Saturday morning I was listening to the radio when yet another story about the tragedy in the Mediterranean Sea that resulted in over 700 dead came on. I immediately thought: I can't take this anymore. A week after the tragedy, I was getting really aggravated by what I perceived was a good dose of hypocrisy from some news outlets that were suddenly paying attention to a migration crisis that did not start a week ago. So I took it out on NPR, just because they are my main source of information, and therefore my main target when I decide to criticize the media (it's funny how that works). I wrote a letter to NPR's ombudsman:
Dear Ms. Jensen,
I have been hearing with great interest the numerous stories that NPR has aired this past week about migration to Europe, after the tragic death of hundreds in the Mediterranean Sea. This is a topic that I care about and follow closely. And there is something that bothered me about NPR's coverage. After a few days I realized what it was: the way NPR has gone from 10 to 100 in the coverage of this topic suggests that NPR is not ahead of the news when it comes to this topic, but only reacting to a tragedy. Which makes me think that when this sudden interest goes away, NPR will go back to not cover the migration phenomenon in Europe.
Anyone who follows the news in any of the Southern European countries knows that what happened in the Mediterranean sea last week was nothing surprising. Granted that the magnitude of the tragedy was unprecedented, but the migration pattern has been going on for many years and the situation of emergency is nothing new.
So here's my suggestion: Stop asking your European correspondents and freelance reporters to rush trying to file a story per day about migration for a week or two, and start asking them to cover this beat consistently and in depth. Not only your reporters will probably be happier, but perhaps then the NPR audience will acquire a decent understanding of what is happening in Europe with regards to immigration, instead of being inundated with stories for a short period of time.
That was my letter. I wrote it, I sent it, and then I begun the real thought process. Was my letter fair? Was I accusing NPR of doing exactly what I actually wanted them to do, just not exactly in the way I wanted them to do it?
A search on NPR's website this past Sunday returned over 34 stories about the migrant tragedy and everything that has to do with it, only in the previous week. That is kind of crazy. The New York Times ran 116 stories from Sunday to Sunday. If I run the same search for the past year, I get 63 stories from NPR and 390 stories from the New York Times. So, more than half of the stories NPR ran about this ongoing crisis in the past year were produced in the past week, and about 30 percent of the stories the New York Times published in the past year came out in one single week. Am I right to complain that these media outlets are only paying serious attention to this phenomenon now, after one single tragic event?
To be fair, it's not that they didn't cover it at all before. NPR has run stories that cover the migration crisis from different angles, such as the situation in the Spanish cities of Ceuta and Melilla, other instances of boats sinking, or the impact of European countries' policy in the ongoing rescues. The New York Times has also published excellent stories years ago about this topic.
But this intense one week of stories about the European migration crisis seem almost ridiculous to me. Still, the question pops up in my cranky head: What's wrong with this? They are covering the story now and they are looking for every possible angle they can find.
Well, that's part of the problem. When a media outlet enters a phase of pseudo-obsession over a particular topic, there is one immediate consequence: the desperate need to find new angles. Media outlets hate to report the same exact story. But they love to find slightly new angles on a story that is developing. And the search for new angles can lead to inaccuracies. On Saturday morning NPR aired this story. The piece explores the idea that the population in the south of Spain is more suspicious of immigrants because of the long economic crisis the region has been suffering for seven years. The reporter might have spent the past week in the south of Spain, but I have been working on a documentary about the Spanish crisis and the opinions of a group of Spaniards from Andalusia for the past three years. Not a single time, during the countless hours of interviews I have collected, immigration was mentioned. Does that mean immigration is not a concern? No. But I think it does mean that southern Spaniards are more concerned about the devastating economic crisis than about immigration. Spaniards are also more than used to living with the migration crisis. For the past 10 years, African migrants in the hundreds have literally charged against the fence that separates the Spanish cities of Ceuta and Melilla from Morocco. The images are heartbreaking, the situation around that area is simply pathetic, with the Spanish government scrambling to stop a flow of immigrants that is simply impossible to control, and getting in trouble for possibly breaking E.U. law in the treatment of migrants and the use of so-called deportations "en caliente." So neither the migration crisis, nor the economic crisis is anything new for southern Spaniards. I don't think anyone's tolerance about immigration is being tested.
So a story on the radio does not cover every single angle and complexity of the subject at hand. What's the big deal? I still don't know if I have a reason to complain.
It seems clear to me that the tragedy that occurred last week is business as usual in Europe. And that is the real tragedy. But this disaster has no easy solution and therefore there is no easy way to cover it. Some want to see more personal stories from those who embark on these dangerous journeys. I personally would like to see a debate started about foreign aid. Aid that is being drastically cut in some European countries.
Of course, policing a border and deporting undocumented immigrants is much easier than facing the task of helping their countries of origin develop, or re-balancing the structure of our global economic system. So I may want our governments to send aid, enough aid, as much as necessary, so that these countries can develop once and for all. Because how long can we go on with a world where a few enjoy the benefits of democracy, development, comfort, employment, human rights, equality (or pseudo equality) while the majority of the world lives in absolutely shameless conditions? But I am not even sure this demand is reasonable.
I still don't know if it was right to send that email to NPR. They are probably doing what they can. Would I do better if I were an editor working for them? Probably not. And our politicians in the U.S. and Europe, who knows if any of them actually have the power to change the way these migrants live in the countries where they come from? I just wish they weren't forced to leave and risk their lives.
Meanwhile, on Saturday morning, news of a major earthquake in Nepal shifted the news media's attention. Until the next time hundreds die in the Mediterranean Sea.