MU Director On Media Ethics Using Refugee, Migrant Photos

Choosing and publishing images of refugees, migrants and people in distress is both painful and difficult, notably when they’re graphic and reach various audiences across multiple media platforms in record time.

The image as symbol (courtesy “A Sea of Images”)

Weighty decisions may lead to photos becoming icons and symbols representing all other victims as that of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler lying face down on a Turkish beach in 2015 that went viral in just three hours.

Media Unlimited director Magda Abu-Fadil discussed the ethical implications and how such pictures can also be (mis)used by politicians to score points and advance their own agendas.

Magda Abu-Fadil (left) discusses the ethics of using photos of migrants, refugees (courtesy Tom Law)

The topic made for an animated discussion during “Movie Night” hosted by the Ethical Journalism Network (EJN)  at the December 2017 Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism’s (ARIJ) annual conference in which she participated as a panelist.

The movie in question was “A Sea of Images,” a documentary on how media tackle migrants and refugees from the Middle East and Africa fleeing their troubled lands in a perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.

The film, produced by Misja Pekel and Maud van de Reijt, is part of a series for Dutch public television that examined the connection between media and public opinion.

How do editors decide what photos to publish? (courtesy A Sea of Images)

 Refugee fatigue, she argued in the discussion following the film’s showing, can affect journalists’ and editors’ judgment in their choice and dissemination of images, with ethics falling by the wayside.


Audience debates ethics of photo publishing (courtesy Tom Law)

Aidan White, veteran journalist and director of the Ethical Journalism Network, said three of the Aylan Kurdi pictures were published around the world, but photos could be used in different ways to tell different narratives.

“What that reveals, is that although the pictures are dramatic and important, in the end it’s the context in which the pictures are used by journalists,” White explained.

Aidan White on the ethical use of images (courtesy “A Sea of Images”)

The ethical use of images depicting migrants, refugees and vulnerable people in the media, and what impact they have on public policy, will continue to trigger debate so long as conflicts, economic and natural disasters cause massive population displacement.

Abu-Fadil on Media, Human Trafficking at ARIJ Confab

Is there a right way to cover human trafficking and slavery? Are there ethical pitfalls going undercover to produce an earth-shattering investigative report on this repulsive trade that can jar the world’s conscience?

A topic that’s existed since time immemorial but has become increasingly thorny given the media attention it’s received, often tied in with the international migrant and refugee crisis.

Media Unlimited director Magda Abu-Fadil helped provide tips on how to cover it at a soft launch of guidelines during a December 2017 panel at the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalists’ (ARIJ) annual conference at the Dead Sea in Jordan.


Magda Abu-Fadil speaks on media’s coverage of human trafficking, slavery

Her presentation, animated with case studies and videos on slavery, human trafficking and prostitution, was drawn from the guidelines and other sources.

Abu-Fadil said news of human trafficking was one of the biggest and most difficult challenges facing media and an important test for media ethics.

This type of news requires attention and sensitivity, as the language, portrayal, and context used by journalists and media may cause damage, incite hatred, and reinforce stereotypes, she explained.

Media and Trafficking in Human Beings Guidelines

 It may also result in ignorance and misunderstanding that would divert attention from the root causes and hamper the public debate needed to solve this crisis, she added. 

Despite the existence of glossaries from various international organizations and NGOs, and reports documenting the facts, Arab journalists still use inaccurate language without distinguishing one term from another, Abu-Fadil said.


Packed session on media, human trafficking, slavery guidelines

The guidelines project was funded by the European Union, implemented by an international consortium led by the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD) and authored by the Ethical Journalism Network’s director Aidan White.

The guidelines were written in English and will be made available for download in several languages as a useful handbook for journalists to facilitate their work.

Read Abu-Fadil’s blogpost on her presentation.