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The media needs to diversify its coverage of refugees. And readers need to demand it.

“The media doesn’t do a good job covering refugee stories,” said journalism veteran and Executive Director of the Global Reporting Centre Peter Klein to the overflowing room at Vancouver Public Library, in September The crowd had gathered for a PeaceTalk panel, an ongoing series of events that Vancouver NGO PeaceGeeks started in 2011 to bring people together to talk about pressing issues of peace and unity.

Klein was joined on the PeaceTalks panel by Vancouver-based journalist Alia Dharssi, Representative for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Jean-Nicolas Beuze, and former refugee and refugee advocate Amir Taghini.

The crowd had gathered to hear stories of refugees, and understand the ways their portrayal in the media could differ from their lived experience. The first speaker, brave enough to share his difficult story, was Taghini.

Taghini echoed Klein’s sentiment—the media needed to improve their coverage of refugee issues. And he would know, as it was his story that had been told, and too often poorly told, as he spent five years detained at the hands of the Australian Government at their internationally condemned offshore detention centre on Manus Island, where he was placed for trying to seek asylum.

Amir pleaded for support to journalists, governments, and regular citizens from a homemade mobile phone smuggled in piece by piece. Access to something as simple as a phone and as complex as connection with the rest of the world are among the long list of restricted items on Manus Island.

Amir was required to share information via a smuggled phone,  as the Australian government maintains tight control over access to Manus Island, as well as  their alternative refugee processing facility on Nauru. Media is not allowed to visit either facility and supervised visits are limited to nearnone and journalists trying to enter have often cited having their visas denied.

Without a combination of Amir’s unrelenting determination and the reach of media, both traditional and online, Amir’s story and ultimately his connection with the five Canadians who privately sponsored Amir to come to Canada would not have happened.

The panel and audience shared their frustration in the too often sensationalized headlines and fast news that leaves little room to tell the complex stories of refugees. Today the world’s refugee coverage is littered with detrimental terms like “illegal arrival” and “border crosser”, while narrowly covering the world’s crises and making refugees  over represented in crime stories.

The media had their say as well in the PeaceTalk as journalists Dharssi and Klein shared their experience working for a range of media outlets. They shared insights into some of the reasons for the lack of in-depth, informative and non-sensationalized coverage of refugees’ experiences.

Dharrasi cited the changing media landscape and mass job cuts leaving limited resources resulting directly in less investigative journalism. And Klein explained that mainstream media is structured to want people to click on more pages to appease advertisers.

Klein reflected on the dark truth for both journalists and readers that the media covers plane crashes not plane landings.

In an over stimulated world, the “plane crashes”—the outlier situations as Klein explained them—get our attention. Outlier situations show the extremes, and while, as Klein said, they make great stories, they ignore the bulk of the issue. “

And if people’s only ‘interaction’ with refugees is via these outlier stories, then they are only seeing a small, distorted part of a much bigger picture.

“Outlier stories can do great damage,” Klein contended.

From Taghini’s perspective, there is also political agendas and government secrecy—like in the instance of Manus Island and Nauru. To this end, Taghini vouched for the journalists who are seeking truth from within the walls surrounded in secrecy by the Australian government.

“There are journalists putting their lives on the line,” he said, “to show the world the truth and to tell refugees stories.”

The panel reflected that many journalists and outlets are pursuing the full story and looking at new engaging ways to make sure it reaches more and more people. During his time on Manus Island, it was The Guardian and Huffington Post ( ), he said, that were telling his story well. Dharssi is inspired by Netherlands-based outlet De Correspondent. They have a model similar to The Discourse (, where she currently writes, which runs a member-based model that gathers information from its members and allows its reporters to dig deep and investigate and share refugee stories in the spirit of slow news.

Taghini reminded us that as readers we have a big role to play in this too. 

“Are we asking, Why is Amir leaving Iran? Are we asking, why are these countries being bombed?”

Taghini put the question back to the room and the panel. The urge was clear. Ordinary citizens, and journalists alike need to be more than curious. We need to be proactive in our efforts to find out more, and to get informed.

Taghini was passionate on this point, that action starts when the ordinary citizen steps in. He ultimately credits the actions of his five Canadian sponsors for his new life now. And, as he mentioned, we can all take action in many different yet powerful ways when it comes to media, like taking responsibility for our media consumption—writing to editors and being inquisitive in our search for more information

It is hard at times to comprehend what is happening to people all around the world. Although, that shouldn’t be used to justify inaction.

At the conclusion of his talk, Taghini reflected on his time in detention, on not only his own story but the stories of all the other families he met there, many of whom are still there. He somberly remembers being disabled by the stories I was hearing from Nauru.

“But I never gave up.”

Thank you to the incredible, informed and insightful panel. And to the inquisitive, passionate audience who joined this PeaceTalk on September 13, 2018.

From the panel and audience combined, we walked away with some insightful ways we can be more responsible consumers of refugee media coverage:

  1. Seek your news from multiple sources. See how different outlets will tell the same story. The panel’s recommendations included: The Guardian, Huffington Post and The Discourse.
  2. Pay for news you respect. Support outlets whose coverage you trust and help them continue to invest in slow stories and investigative journalists (as opposed to “fast news”).
  3. Write to editors. Dharssi called it “power of the readers”. Each of us can write to editors, we can tell them what we want to read more about and we can tell them when we aren’t happy with their coverage.
  4. Seek out more of the story. Don’t know why someone would be trying to reach Canada from Syria, Venezuela, or somewhere else from around the world? The UNHCR’s website do a great job at sharing current world crisis situations. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know all the details now, what matters is you work to find out more.
  5. Turn knowledge to power and action. Share what you’ve learnt with friends, advocate for refugees and help shift the narrative. Get involved in on-the-ground refugee resettlement projects near you. Check out what PeaceGeeks are up to with the new pathways app looking to connect new arrivals to Canada with services, mentors and more or join our #GiveItUp4Peace fundraiser this October.
Oct 5, 2018
Category: Issue Briefs

PEACETALKS #39: Media & Refugee Narratives

Guest Speaker:
Sep 13, 2018
6:00 - 7:30PM
Vancouver Public Library (Central Branch), Peter Kaye Room

Panel Discussion
The news media plays an essential role in how we perceive refugees and asylum-seekers, which raises the question of what is their responsibility when reporting their stories. This panel discussion will explore the current representation of refugees and asylum-seekers in the media, its positive and negative impacts, and the potential of journalism to transcend stereotypes.

Speakers include:

  • Jean-Nicolas Beuze, Representative for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Canada
  • Peter Klein, Emmy Award-winning journalist and Executive Director of the Global Reporting Centre
  • Alia Dharssi, Vancouver-based journalist and editor who has written widely on immigration and refugee issues.
Thank You To:
Partnership With:
Sep 6, 2018
Category: PeaceTalks
Time 2:
6 PM

Sensationalism in the Digital Age: The Impact on Refugees

Most of us remember the tragic image of Alan Kurdi, but why did Western mainstream media remain relatively silent about the human interest aspect of the Syrian refugee crisis until his picture was broadcast around the world?


The information age has ushered in a shifting media landscape. Traditional news outlets now have to compete with new media and we can see a steady decline in the size of newsrooms as well as the budgets needed to ensure responsible reporting on international events. Lack of funds in this case means that fewer journalists and photographers are available on the ground to report on humanitarian crises as they actually unfold. In a time when pageview journalism seems to be the new norm, the depth and credibility of a piece too often takes a backseat to the amount of advertising revenue a piece of content can generate.


Reporters who do work on the ground often put their lives on the line to report on conflicts and human rights abuses. They are increasingly targeted, much like humanitarian workers.


A lack of in-depth storytelling, coupled with a media environment that rewards sensationalism over quality and nuanced journalism has created the conditions for hate speech and anti-refugee sentiment to proliferate.


The fact is that Western nations are legally obligated to provide adequate refuge to those who are forcefully displaced. At the same time however, a simple Google search reveals that the media often depicts the crisis as a “flood” of so-called migrants into Europe and elsewhere who pose an imminent threat to the societies they try to enter. This representation is in spite of the fact that refugee resettlement is the least likely route for potential terrorists.  


Often the scope of the crisis, quantified by numbers of fleeing people, is reported on far more frequently than stories of individual suffering and persecution. It’s these stories that have the power to provide context to the crisis.


In 2015 the Ethical Journalism Network published Moving Stories, an extensive 100-page report that reviewed coverage of the worldwide refugee and migrant crisis. It is prefaced with the position that migration is an inevitable aspect of the human experience, and details the many shortcomings of the media covering these events. The report states:


There is a tendency, both among many politicians and in sections of the mainstream media, to lump migrants together and present them as a seemingly endless tide of people who will steal jobs, become a burden on the state and ultimately threaten the native way of life. Such reporting is not only wrong; it is also dishonest. Migrants often bring enormous benefits to their adopted countries.


However, the rise of nationalist politics worldwide—most notably in the recent US election of Donald Trump—has been mirrored by the same transformation in the media. Headlines of major media outlets are hijacked by racist, grossly reductive, and sensationalist remarks. Slanted news about refugees and immigrants has no doubt fueled xenophobia and obscured a well-rounded picture of events. Take, for instance, Trump’s oft-quoted assertion that the United States should “ban all Muslims” coming into the country. Stories of his remarks, whether positive or negative, almost entirely eclipsed the individual stories of refugees and immigrants during the course of the US election. Instead of a balanced, human, and nuanced perspective, media coverage has presented refugees and migrants as imminent threats that exist in a vacuum, unworthy of sympathy or refuge.


The United States is not the only country where populist rhetoric has hijacked media coverage. Anti-refugee sentiment can be seen throughout the European Union as well; Poland and Hungary are two notable examples. In Germany, false accusations regarding refugees have grown so numerous that two people set up a website known as Hoax Map to help dispel absurd rumors about refugees. Some of the debunked rumors ranged from stories of refugees killing and eating horses, to far more disturbing events involving sexual assault. When these unverified rumors hit the headlines, there are real-world consequences, like when protests are sparked in response to false accusations.


The fact is that journalists and news companies need to expand the scope of responsible and in-depth reporting to accurately disseminate information about important global events. While Syria is now dominating the headlines, the media remains relatively silent about other major humanitarian crises. News of the conflicts in Yemen and South Sudan and the famine in Ethiopia are just a few examples of underreported crises.


A greater emphasis on grassroots, individual storytelling is needed to paint an accurate picture of events, and refugees need the space to tell their own stories. Individual stories are powerful. Without them, these crises cannot be fully understood.


In the absence of well-rounded, factual stories, racism and anti-refugee sentiment is bound to continue en masse. The media is perceived as being objective, and as long as unsubstantiated claims about migration continue to spread, anti-refugee sentiment is bound to continue and the world will continue to turn a blind eye to the devastation of humanitarian crises.


Feb 6, 2017
Category: Thematic Issues

Breaking Through "Compassion Fatigue"

Compassion fatigue and apathetic reactions to distant suffering are two primary reasons people withhold empathy and resources when they’re needed most. Although not identical, compassion fatigue and a proximity-dependent sense of responsibility both impede our collective ability to address emergencies and systemic issues.

Compassion fatigue is a useful term, but when used to describe situations beyond its original meaning it becomes complicated and controversial. In the medical and emergency response fields, where the term originated, it refers to secondary traumatic stress (STS), a psychological condition marked by the lessening of compassion over time. The term has broadened, however, to encompass a much more general public reaction to, for example, the barrage of graphic images that routinely accompany media narratives of tragedy. 

Most of us probably experience compassion fatigue—hallmarked by emotionless reactions to each day’s reported horrors. No longer even surprised, we react only by sinking back into our lives, believing that the world is wicked, best avoided.

Sources of Compassion Fatigue

The old news moniker, “If it bleeds, it leads,” has never been truer. In the world of 24-hour news, there’s seemingly only room for viral videos and images of catastrophe. What’s the point of volunteering your time and resources if the world’s ills are beyond treating? In reality, the world’s ills are considerable, but not beyond the scope of our action. So, why do so many of us feel paralyzed by the tragedies we see represented in the media?

Images of suffering are bookended by political news, shocking gossip, sports and weather. Haiti in the wake of a destructive hurricane gets the cursory “bystander journalism” treatment—a few hours of demoralizing photos, quickly pushed to the back page by “Clinton this…Trump that.” There’s no reporting on the endemic poverty that makes Haiti uniquely vulnerable to disaster—no look at Haiti’s corrupt politicians, or mention of how the international community has no more compassion for Haiti—all of it “used up” after the 2010 earthquake.  Human suffering has become part of a nightly show—expected and inevitable.

Solutions to Compassion Fatigue

Without context and understanding—not easily included in our news broadcasts and sound bites, our empathy and any impetus to make a difference has no where to go. Little information about causes and a lack of focus on solutions is what we have come to expect and what our media usually offers us.

Journalism of attachment—journalism that cares and focuses on root causes and solutions is what the public needs. Images of starving children, wrecked houses, or evil warlords do not compel people to act, they are media shorthand—a morality play the public is used to, and no longer moved by. Journalism that’s aware of its responsibility, that won’t allow the audience to hide from what is happening, is a necessary but insufficient condition to motivate action. The audience must also understand the deeper causes of the problems it sees—and be offered a few possible ways to address those causes. 

Like the media, relief agencies must understand how they appear to the public. Despite the great work many NGOs do, much of the public watches disaster after disaster and cynically doubts their ability to impact emergency situations positively. Overwhelming disasters, reports on mismanaged organizations, and relief efforts that fail to reach those in need all conspire to create apathy.

Our anxiety that we obviously cannot help in the many instances of human suffering we are faced with can prevent us from helping at all. But we can break through this compassion fatigue. Public confidence in charity and aid organizations is critical. Without it, people feel powerless to address suffering and disasters.

The Proximity Dilemma

Proximity is one common reason we constrict our morality and empathy. In the book Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence, Peter Unger constructs a simple thought experiment about morality and proximity. To summarize its message, although everyone would surely say that saving someone drowning at your pool party is the moral thing to do, people use distance to remove themselves from responsibility when the person in need is not immediately nearby—down the street or across town, let alone in another country.

Inspire Hope

If we intellectually accept the concept that every human life matters equally, our compassion must not be diminished by overexposure or bounded by distance. 

Compassion fatigue resulting from one-on-one interactions, as between a trauma nurse and a patient, can be alleviated through stress reduction, anxiety management, and social support. The same approach works for more generalized compassion fatigue.  Anxiety-inducing images of suffering can be contextualized with a balanced worldview, greater knowledge about complex global emergencies, and insights into how such emergencies have been -- and may be -- addressed. It's important for media to offer the audience a chance at a balanced worldview -- by telling more of the positive and impactful stories that happen every day.

Although overused, the sentiment expressed in the quote commonly attributed to Margaret Mead should not be underestimated: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has. 


Photo: UNICEF Ukraine


Tester, Keith. Compassion, Morality, and the Media. Buckingham: Open U, 2001. MH Education. Open University, --. Web. 16 Oct. 2016.

Unger, Peter K. Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence. New York: Oxford UP, 1996. Print.


Oct 31, 2016
Category: Thematic Issues

How the media is strengthening ISIS’ cause

It’s no secret that journalism has been hugely impacted by the rise of digital media, and the rate of change in the industry was so rapid that it caught news publications by surprise. Over the course of a decade leading up to 2012, The American Society of Newspaper Editors reported a 30% drop in  full-time newsroom jobs. In 2013, hundreds of layoffs were felt at companies such as Gannet and Tribune as traditional media outlets struggled to build its online presence. In the new age of digital and social media, readers get what they want based on a pay-per-click model, where headlines that garner clicks and therefore show more ads earn money. This has changed many news outlets to target their reporting on what people want to read, when they want to read it versus a slower paced approach to journalism that focuses on uncovering stories.


Today, the media landscape is being accused of adding fuel to the fire when it comes to the threat of terrorism. The rise of ISIS has been heavily covered by the media, and arguable the extensive media coverage has aided in giving more ISIS traction. In March 2015, a list of 100 names of military personnel was released by what was thought to be ISIS and the media quickly took hold of the story making it go viral. The reality was the US authorities were doubtful the attack would ever take place and the threats were not made by the terrorists themselves, which was information lost in the reporting. Media outlets pumped out the propaganda that ISIS supporters released adding to the fear and perceived influence of ISIS.


Arguably, ISIS’s biggest strength in gaining traction and influence is its expert use of social media and modern day communication technology to spread propaganda. In 2014, ISIS placed in the top 10 Google searches in the US. ISIS is frequently trending on twitter, and uses apps like Dawn of Glad Tidings that once downloaded will automatically post ISIS content on the user’s twitter account for them. In 2015, the estimate of social media messages posted about ISIS were over 90,000 a day. ISIS is a sophisticated content machine that has learnt how to use social media, branding and western media outlets to it’s advantage. Despite it’s online social klout, the actual number of ISIS fighters is unknown, estimated anywhere between 30,000 and 200,000 with the land they occupy being mostly unpopulated.


After the Paris Attacks, President Barack Obama subtly warned the media that it was playing into the hands of ISIS by giving the group consistent coverage in the news:


‘The media needs to help in this, I just want to say. You know, during the course of this week — a very difficult week — it is understandable that this has been a primary focus. But one of the things that has to happen is how we report on this has to maintain perspective and not empower in any way these terrorist organizations or elevate them in ways that make it easier for them to recruit or make them stronger.”


Media outlets are playing catch-up in the digital age as new organizations are mastering it, leveraging free online tools and old school media to their advantage- in the case of ISIS not for the greater good. As media outlets struggle with profits and provide readers with sensationalist topics they want to keep reading about, they are in fact helping organizations like ISIS achieve their goals in gaining influence.

Paris attacks on November 2015 and Belgium attacks on March 2016 both took the media and social media by storm, but what was also highlighted was the disproportionate coverage of similar attacks in Turkey, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast and several more.  

Image source:

Apr 29, 2016
Category: Thematic Issues

PeaceTalks #29: Refugee Crisis and Media Hype

Guest Speaker:
Majd Agha, Shayna Plaut, Caroline Dailly, Zool Suleman
Nov 4, 2015
6:00 - 7:30PM
Hootsuite Offices

On September 2, 2015, the body of Alan Kurdi, a young Syrian boy, washed up on a Turkish beach. His body was photographed and the photo circulated worldwide.

In the coming weeks, a media blitz on the refugee crisis took the world by storm. Everyone was talking about the Syrian refugee crisis - what could be done, how individuals and governments could help, how the world could have turned a blind eye for so long.

But in the wake of all that coverage, what has changed? Did the media make a difference? Have we finally begun to give the biggest refugee situation since World War II the attention it deserves?

PeaceGeeksAmnesty International and Hootsuite present PeaceTalks #29: Refugee Crisis and Media Hype, a discussion of the refugee crisis and what can be done to effect real change.

Speakers include:

- Caroline Dailly, Manager at Immigrant Services Society of BC
- Zool Suleman, Immigration Lawyer & Policy Consultant
- Shayna Plaut, Simons Research Fellow, International Law & Human Security SFU
- Majd Agha, one of the first Syrian refugees to arrive in Vancouver

Thank You To:
Partnership With:
Nov 14, 2015
Category: PeaceTalks
Time 2:
6 PM
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