In 2014, a boat of 243 refugees attempting to enter Europe from Libya (the refugees were Eritrean and would have journeyed on land to get to Libya) completely vanished. This is an unusual occurrence. The boat was quite large and was on a common, regularly watched migration path. It’s strange that there’s no evidence at all as to its likely whereabouts or fate.
You may not have heard of the story, despite the fact that it happened at a similar time to and involved more people than the disappearance of the flight MH 370, which you probably did hear about. Different disappearances get more attention than others. I’ve written about this before in terms of race, gender, and socio-economic status – in general, media coverage of missing persons is disproportionate, and suffers from “missing white girl syndrome”. We find similar disparities in concern and media coverage between missing citizens and missing refugees. Jan Egeland wrote for an Ethical Journalism Network report that:
our appeals for wider media attention [regarding the refugee crisis], with some notable exceptions, fell on deaf ears with an apparent lack of interest on the part of the vast majority of television and radio companies and major newspapers… Humanitarian disasters that deserve our attention often go uncovered because there is no photographer or journalist on the ground to tell the story. Only a couple of conflicts receive our attention at any given time, while most dramas get none at all. Why is that?
The reasons are complex. It is not just a lack of humanity on the news agenda or a matter of luck or a matter of caring more about some people at the expense of others. We need a broader lens to see what really is going on.
…But there is an important truth in all of this – decision makers pay attention to the media, and independent journalists reporting with care, humanity and professionalism have enormous power to tell stories that create a new path.
Writer Eric Reidy says of the disproportionate coverage between the airline disaster and the boat disaster:
The people who fly in airplanes are affluent — rich enough to afford a plane ticket, at least — and have the legal status to board flights and cross international borders. They are not running, desperate for their lives because of oppression, war, or violence. They fly because they are professionals or vacationers, they are people who have purchasing power, they are the target audiences of advertisers on media outlets. They are our policymakers, the people who guide the contours of our media conversations. And if you live in the West, or any industrial nation, they are you.
All of this makes it so much easier to picture yourself going to the airport and boarding a passenger plane that disappears than it does to imagine yourself clambering onto a cramped boat to be smuggled across the sea.
He argues that if you can’t imagine yourself as the victim of a terrible event, you’re probably less likely to be drawn towards media coverage of it. But there was hardly any coverage of the missing boat to begin with.
“Ghost Boat” can be understood as a journalism project designed to redress disproportionate media coverage of the refugee crisis. Essentially, it is a 10-part long-form journalism series which utilises crowdsourcing – getting readers to sift through available data about the missing group and the missing boat – in order to try and find the boat.
Spoiler alert: while the project started in 2015, the boat, as it stands, has not been found. There are some leading theories, but no definite conclusion. But the project is nonetheless both interesting and helpful. For one thing, it encourages readers to get invested in the stories of refugees, stories that are often neglected in reportage, and stories that are otherwise easy to turn away from. The series also examines the experiences of the family members of those missing, the ambiguous loss, the questions they have, their ongoing concerns, and how they encounter new leads and rumours. The stories of those left behind are likewise often neglected, so anything that opens up readers’ empathy towards those experiences is valuable. There was a study from the University of Pretoria last year which found that when family members and friends of missing persons utilise crowdsourcing in search efforts, the benefit might not be in actually finding their loved one, but in finding support. The study was done in a very different context to this – those involved were not relatives of missing refugees – but the same may be true here as well.
Sometimes I feel a bit unsettled by the way missing persons cases are treated by the public. It’s not just people who create hoaxes and false leads and troll families who behave problematically, it’s also sometimes people who genuinely want to help. There are people out there, known as websleuths, who solve cases using online technologies as a hobby. It’s not a bad hobby to have, it could prove to be vitally helpful. Sometimes, they actually solve cases! At the same time, you see discussion boards and amateur podcasts and so on where people are practically licking their lips with glee when they dissect the details of the case, linger over every fact, and speculate wildly, as though the case is just a puzzle rather than reflective of a real, complex person. Alternatively, they may take some cases too personally, taking on the family’s grief as their own or interfering in the family’s life or even in police investigations – all of which are completely inappropriate. Sometimes the sleuths even veer towards vigilantism. Although I was afraid Ghost Boat would take on those dimensions, I think part of its success is its commitment to showing the humanity of those missing and of those desperately looking for them. The case is portrayed as painfully real. And I think that’s needed.