Dart Centre Europe Hosts Workshop on Interviewing Refugees

At the Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum last month, Dart Centre Europe led a workshop that focused on the skills needed to report effectively on refugees across the globe. The panel featured journalists Mani Benchelah and Alex Hannaford, transcultural psychiatrist Dr. Iris Graf-Calliess and Save the Children’s Misty Buswell.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, we are in the midst of the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War, with over 59.5 million people forcibly displaced worldwide and four million refugees from Syria alone. 

The timely discussion, moderated by Dart Centre Europe Director Gavin Rees, explored why effective interviewing is the essential basis for journalists seeking to tell vivid, meaningful stories that rise above stereotypes and effectively communicate to audiences that may otherwise feel overwhelmed by such high statistics.

Click below to listen to an audio recording of “Involuntary Journeys: How to interview refugees in a digital age,” and scroll down for panel highlights:


Interviewing child refugees 

Interviewing children can feel like an ethical minefield. How does one balance the importance of hearing their voices, with the danger that can come with encouraging children to revisit horrific events? Mani Benchelah faced this challenge for his documentary about Syrian child refugees in Lebanon. The children in Benchelah’s film talk freely about how they are managing life in their new home, what they escaped from and what they feel their prospects to be. 

To achieve this level of trust and openness Benchelah knew he had to invest time with them and their families. “The point was not to go in, interview them and leave again,” Benchelah said. “I had to build a relationship with them, they had to trust me.” Their sense of safety was key: he discussed difficult issues when supportive parents were around and took care to stop the interviews before the children tired.

Rees suggested that Benchelah’s interviewing technique was effective because it hinged more on listening than on asking questions: “Mani is not digging, asking questions that put his interviewees back into the place of horror.” Instead, Rees said, he was giving the children space so that they themselves had the freedom to choose which details to divulge.

Trauma and interviewing refugees

Dr. Iris Graf-Calliess, Head Clinician at the Centre for Transcultural Psychiatry and Psychotherapy in Germany, defined trauma as an “experience of an existential threat to one’s physical safety, which is followed by intense fear.” Although not every traumatic experience leads to PTSD or similar psychological disorders, up to 85% of refugees suffer from PTSD symptoms. Dr. Graf-Callies explained that many refugees may not be able to give detailed and factual accounts of events, because “a dysfunctional memory is a typical effect of trauma.” Journalists need to be careful lest they jump to the wrong conclusions: inaccuracies in a source’s account are not prima facie evidence of deception. 

“As journalists we are used to questioning powerful politicians, but it’s different when we talk with traumatised and often disempowered people,” Rees said. A person who has lost everything and is still living in an uncertain situation, such as a refugee camp, is likely to feel disempowered for many reasons. In an interview we can give power back to them in simple ways, such as asking them where they would like to talk or where they would like to sit.

Managing expectations 

When we interview refugees they often share their most personal stories with us. In return they might expect our reporting to improve their situation. This is unlikely to happen over night. So what happens if the story doesn’t end up getting published or broadcasted? How can we manage the expectations of our interviewees? 

Alex Hannaford, a 2012 Ochberg Fellow, covered stories of refugees who had arrived in Calais’ refugee shelter. There he met Ahmed from Syria. Hannaford managed to stay in touch with him through Facebook and What’sApp, and asked him: “What do journalists get wrong when they talk to refugees? And when do they get it right?” 

In Ahmed’s opinion journalists “get it wrong” if they come with preconceived ideas. If they are only there to get a quote and a picture, then they add to people’s frustrations and resentments. Hannaford suggested that staying in touch is one way of showing that a journalist genuinely cares: “With today’s technology we can be in touch even with people in a refugee camp,” he said. “And it’s simply good journalistic practice.”

Protecting your interviewee

Publishing stories about people who are still in volatile situations may compromise their safety. Refugees fleeing physical violence run the risk of being identified by their enemies. Others, for example victims of sexual abuse, may risk being stigmatised for talking openly about their experiences. Misty Buswell, a communications director for Save the Children, explained her organization’s approach to balancing the duty to protect vulnerable children with the need to publicise their plight. “It’s crucial to get the voices of children heard, and to get their stories out there,” she said. In order to mitigate the dangers, she asks journalists to bear in mind “three pillars or risk.” No report can include the combined information of a full name, a recognisable face and the exact location of a child. 

To read more about the 2015 Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum, click here.