Photo via Hellenic Coast Guard
"It’s sad that human life appears to have a relative value" – Reporting on migration in Europe

ECPMF

07 November 2023

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Giorgos Christides is a Greek journalist with bylines in outlets including Der Spiegel, the Guardian, BBC, and Solomon. His recent work includes a joint investigation into the circumstances which led to the catastrophic shipwreck off the coast of Pylos, in south-western Greece, which left an estimated 600 migrants dead. In October 2023, the investigation won the Daphne Caruana Galizia Prize for Journalism.

Our first question is about the Pylos shipwreck, a story that arguably didn’t get the attention it deserved. It’s often the same case with these stories about migration and associated tragedies. How do you overcome audience apathy when it comes to stories like this? 

I think the Pylos shipwreck did get a lot of global attention, though arguably less than the concurrent 24/7 coverage the Titanic submarine tragedy received, as former US president Obama commented at the time. I don’t think there was a single major outlet in the world that did not report about it, including with some truly excellent investigative reporting. Having said that, it is true that this was the exception. The magnitude of the tragedy played a role. Then, the media will often display herd-like behaviour. If a story is picked up by one major outlet, other media may feel compelled to follow, even if editors might have been reluctant and dismissive before they saw it in some competitor’s website. Another factor that drew the spotlight was how the tragedy unfolded. Typically, these sorts of disasters happen under the radar. Few know what’s happening and even fewer will read about it in the papers. Whereas in the case of Pylos the public knew from early on that authorities were alerted about the migrant trawler. There was this horror in people’s minds, how is it possible to know that there is an overpacked, unseaworthy vessel out there, several hours before it finally sank before our eyes. It was inconceivable. But other stories make few headlines and turn even fewer heads. It’s sad that human life appears to have a relative value. 

 

How do you motivate yourself to keep telling that story when not everybody listens? 

I often say this is the last time. It takes a toll, physically and psychologically. You know you will face strong backlash, especially as Europe is taking a clear anti-migration turn. I often tell colleagues and editors that, politically speaking, any story about human rights violations in the EU is ultimately doing most governments a service. They’ll say they respect human rights, but domestically they are mostly either celebrated or criticised by many for not following even harsher policies. People insisting on raising such issues are often targeted by well-oiled machines and armies of online trolls. Be that as it may, these stories need to be told, even when they don’t seem to make a difference in the policies followed. People need to know what is happening. Migration and refugee flows is a major issue that will only become more vital to address in a humane way in the years to come. 

 

How do you mitigate the impact this has on you personally? 

I do therapy, I‘ll drink a beer, I’ll walk my dog. I try to exercise, eat well. I don’t know, it’s a combination of things that sometimes work and sometimes don’t. Sometimes I think I just want to become a farmer before I remember that I suck at everything involving any kind of dexterity. It’s a struggle. Colleagues on the same beat are very close with each other and form an important support network. Many are dealing with anxiety, depression, fear, intimidation on- and off-line. Then there’s of course the social impact. Even close friends often don’t get what you are doing. But you can at least go to bed and say you did your job as best you could and didn’t avoid covering issues out of fear they might make your life more difficult. If one person is helped, if one reader becomes more thoughtful and reflective, it is worth it. 

 

What about physical, legal, and digital safety? 

First of all, I try to be beyond reproach. Pay my taxes, follow the law, not miss a parking ticket and I’m not remotely rich. My work is my only source of income. Another insurance is that I have the good fortune of writing for well-known media. People in power will more easily go against smaller media and less protected individuals. About digital safety, it’s always a challenge. Many of us have become much more vigilant about the risks, and knowledgeable about ways to mitigate them. I don’t open links, I use a VPN when necessary, I try to follow experts’ advice, use safer encrypted messaging apps like Signal, but the threat is always there, always on your mind. 

 

You work with people in extremely vulnerable situations, what are your thoughts on your role – i.e. you writing the story, you controlling the narrative, and what are the dangers and your ethical considerations on this?

I never make promises, I make it clear that I am a journalist and all I can do is tell their story. I will not pressure anyone to tell it and always explain where, when, how and under which protections (e.g. anonymity) their accounts can be used. Or we will change their names and not publish any photos. I also try to keep in touch with people, though it’s impossible to do it with everyone you have ever covered. I try to ensure that I don’t just do an interview, get what I want, and then move out. 

There are also lawyers who are very well versed and sensitive, and I’ll consult with them about legal and other issues. You don’t always get it right, but this is the goal. 

 

Does it make it difficult – if you’re speaking to them regularly as subjects of the story but also just as people – to separate normal life and work?

Yes, you get dozens of messages, sometimes daily. One day, a person we had reported about called me and said “Hey man, thanks for all, I’m committing suicide. Bye”. It was late at night and he was far away. I asked the police and they said they could send someone over. I was frantically calling him back. People think you have some sort of power as a journalist, but you don’t really. The only power you have is bringing what’s happening out to the world. As my shrink says we shouldn’t have this “saviour syndrome”. You can’t solve everyone’s problems all the time and should be able to live with it. 

 

How do you keep yourself sane in these situations? 

I don’t. I have problems, like anxiety or the occasional panic attack. For example, I move my leg all the time and apparently there’s a diagnosis for that – restless leg syndrome. There’s triggering stuff that can be as little as the sound of incoming messages, which makes me wonder what catastrophe has happened. As I mentioned, reporters are often dealing with this kind of thing. At first, you don’t want to acknowledge it, or feel guilty about it, considering how much worse other people have it, including those you report about, but more knowledgeable people say that it doesn’t matter, you have your own stuff happening and that’s fine too. This helped me a bit. People in this profession have problems. In some countries and work environments there’s still a stigma, or admitting to having problems is considered a sign of weakness. 

 

Do you have any hope about the field and public stances?

 I am, unfortunately, by constitution pessimistic. But if there’s one person who listens, or one person who does a Google search because they read or watched your work, I think it’s worth it. 

Giorgos Christides was a fellow of ECPMF’s Journalists-in-Residence programme in 2023. Read more about our Journalists-in-Residence programme here.

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