Seven things we’ve learned about adding a solutions focus to reporting on migration

Throughout May, The Local hosted four online sessions about incorporating solutions-focused reporting to the migration beat. Over the month 60 journalists took part, selected from more than 200 migration reporters who expressed interest in the training.

Seven things we've learned about adding a solutions focus to reporting on migration
Reporting only on extreme or exceptional events doesn't give the full picture.

We were lucky to be joined by reporters from 19 European countries, many of them with a migrant or refugee background and all of them with experience reporting on migration.

Here are seven takeaways from the discussions.

People admit they are uninformed about migration – and they know it

Just 39 percent of people in the EU think that the media presents immigrants objectively. Even fewer, 37 percent, say they are well informed about immigration and integration.

Those stats come from the Special Eurobarometer on Integration of Immigrants in the European Union, which also showed that most people significantly over-estimate the proportion of the population with a migrant background. It's our responsibility in the media to give people the full story.

Nuance is missing

While there are many publications producing excellent reporting on migration, it's still the case that reporting on migration is over-simplified. Migrants are often portrayed in the media as victims, as a threat, or as heroes.

Each of these over-simplifications can cause harm, by dehumanising people, by presenting their existence as a threat to others, or by suggesting that they need to do something exceptional to be worthy of attention or even acceptance. 

One participant based in Norway said that as a migrant, they were angry at these headlines and that this had pushed them to started their own online publication. Several others said the biggest problem they faced in writing nuanced migration stories was getting these stories accepted by editors.

We need to listen more

When writing about problems affecting migrants, or programmes that are supposed to improve things for them, we need to listen to the people affected. That's especially true if our newsrooms aren't representative of the community – which is all too often the case.

This means being in touch with migrant communities before, during and after reporting, in order to find out their priorities and realities, and build up trust which has been badly damaged by the mistakes outlined above.

“The media too often presents refugees as a uniform mass – as people to fear or pity. Our stories influence policies and how migrants are seen by the public,” said one journalist based in the UK.

“Normally migrants' and refugees' personal experiences and narratives are invisible, so it's important to share individual stories,” commented a journalist in Italy.

Reporting on progress can lead to impact

Not everyone was comfortable with the term 'solutions journalism', and it may be more helpful to think of this coverage as reporting on a response: not a perfect solution, but something that's working at least in some way (or in some cases, something that hasn't worked as well as hoped, but where there's evidence of how the response could be improved).

We aren't simply telling our readers everything will be all right, but we are showing them a way that some things could be better.

As the Solutions Journalism Network, one of the main organisations promoting this approach (and which has given The Local a grant for our solutions-focused coronavirus coverage) says, “it's not happy journalism, it's useful journalism”.

Success that's only possible due to a unique circumstance – like exceptional talent or a one-off donation – is unlikely to help others elsewhere. Solutions-focused stories go into detail about what results were achieved, how they were achieved (and therefore how they could be replicated), and they do not shy away from limitations. Others could adopt, improve, or campaign for similar programmes.

The goal is to give a realistic picture of what's working and why so that our audiences are equipped to act. Because we've already seen what happens when all they hear about migration is disasters, crimes and tragedies. 

“I think European media have a big responsibility in the irresponsible answer that the continent has given to migration issues in the last years, feeding populist and xenophobic speeches within the EU,” said a freelance journalist in Spain.

Focusing on solutions doesn't mean forgetting the problems

Some journalists raised concerns that highlighting 'solutions' could minimise the problems, particularly where the problem was a structural one and the response a grassroots or community-led initiative, or something that only fixed a small aspect of a major issue.

Solutions-focused reporting isn't always appropriate. When a problem is newly emerging and there is little data available on what's working to fix it, reporting should focus on exposing the problem.

But we do believe this type of journalism has a place alongside regular news, investigative and features reporting. When there is evidence of a promising response, reporting on this is part of giving the full picture. At other times, you might be reporting on a project, policy or scheme that was intended to solve a problem but failed – and highlight what went wrong and why. 

Think long-term

Migration is a long-term topic; it's a fact of life. Many of the problems migrants face today have been faced by migrants over history and around the world.

This means that there might be lessons to learn from how efforts to solve these problems have worked, or failed, in the past, and in other countries. We looked at this example from The Local, where results from previous integration efforts could be used to inform today's initiatives – but the reporter also looked at how the context had changed. Responses can rarely be copy-pasted.

We also spoke about the importance of looking at the long-term effects of proposed solutions.

Schemes that make life more bearable in a refugee camp are good, but they don't address the problem of displacement or necessarily help migrants find a secure home. And well-meaning projects can have unintended consequences; schemes to get new migrants into jobs could lead to segregation on the job market over time.

The work doesn't stop when the article is published

By exposing problems you can expose unfair systems, and by analysing potential solutions, you can show a template for change.

We discussed some of the ways of maximising the impact of journalism, from taking time to listen to feedback and questions to getting your article in front of decision-makers and a wider audience. We also shared resources on awards, grants, and publications that support this kind of journalism. And we discussed ways to start building relationships and trust with people who have been traditionally underserved by media.

Why did we organise these sessions?

The Local was founded in 2004 by two British immigrants to Sweden. Today, we operate news sites in nine countries in Europe, but our core audience is still people who cross borders. Our mission is to help our readers navigate their new countries, and make sure that their voices are heard.

We know that migration can be good, bad or everything in between, but too often the ‘everything in between’ is lost in public debate. This training is our way of using what we have learned about reporting on migration and solutions journalism over the years, and helping other journalists with this experience to share knowledge.

The curriculum has been developed independently by The Local journalists Jessica Phelan and Catherine Edwards, but it is made possible thanks to the EU-wide project MAX (Maximising Migrants' Contributions to Society). Funded by the EU's Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund, MAX aims to expand the public narrative around immigration in Europe and highlight stories of real people who have migrated and the communities they have joined.

What next?

If you're not a journalist, but are interested in hearing more about the sessions, get in touch. We're especially open to feedback from people with a migrant background. You can also contact our training organisers below.

Many of the migration reporters who participated were interested in keeping in touch and possible future collaborations. You can follow them on Twitter here.

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How tutor groups are trying to bridge the inequality gap in Swedish schools

In Sweden, every fourth student in compulsory education has a foreign background, which means that they were either born abroad or born in Sweden with both parents from abroad. However, students from Swedish families and their peers with foreign backgrounds are meeting less and less often in schools, in a result of increased segregation that is posing a challenge for many municipalities.

How tutor groups are trying to bridge the inequality gap in Swedish schools
Camilla Wennberg and Zamzam, one of her students. Photo: Private

This article is part of Changing the Narrative. Articles in this series are written by student or early career journalists who took part in The Local's training course on solutions-focused migration reporting. Find out more about the project here.

In 2019, Sweden's public broadcaster SVT surveyed 3,641 primary schools and reviewed data from Skolverket, the Swedish National Agency for Education, on the academic year 2017/2018. The results showed that the distribution of students from foreign backgrounds was very unequal, with some schools having almost only students from migrant families and others having as few as five percent. According to Skolverket, the concentration of students with the same social and migration background might be one of the reasons for an increased difference in school results, which poses a threat to the goal of offering equal opportunities for all.

The relation between segregation and difficulties in succeeding in school was pointed out by some of the migrant parents in study circles that Eva Lundgren Stenbom, a cultural producer, organised in Norrköping, central Sweden, in 2013. The very decision to found her own NGO, Imagine (what we can do), was motivated by an encounter with the mother of a girl who participated in a project Eva Stenbom worked previously. She wanted help to get to know more locals with whom she could practise her Swedish, because Eva was in fact the only Swede she talked to regularly.

Seeing how difficult it could be for a foreigner to establish relations and feel part of society, Lundgren Stenbom created the association and started the study circles, among other activities such as sewing workshops. The events were planned for locals and migrants living in neighboring areas of the city to meet once a week and discuss the everyday issues they faced in their community.

The meetings were attended mostly by adults, sometimes followed by their children. Topics on integrating into Swedish society and parenthood would often come up, and Lundgren Stenbom remembers many parents asking for help with problems that affected their children, especially in school. Thinking about the younger generations and hearing the demand from parents, she decided to expand the study circles to include children.

For the past four years, an increasing number of students with migrant background have enrolled on the tutoring programme organised by Imagine (what we can do). At first, the study circles took place in Lundgren Stenbom's home, located in a neighbourhood that is almost the perfect metaphor for the segregation between locals and migrants. On one side of the street is the Röda Stan neighbourhood, where most of the houses are owned by Swedes, while right across Värmlandsgatan many migrant families live in the Marielund buildings. The organisation started with the aim of creating places and opportunities for the neighbours to meet.

However, the study circles soon showed to be inefficient, Lundgren Stenbom says, because of the busy and loud atmosphere of several students sharing the attention of few tutors. “Sometimes there would be 10 or 12 students for two or three tutors, and it made it very difficult to advance in the lessons,” she remembers. A different system was needed.

The tutoring programme then became individualised, with better results, according to the NGO's evaluation. As it currently works, each student is paired with a tutor with whom they will work for at least one semester. The meetings usually take place at the tutor's house, which proved to be the best solution and one of the learnings the organisation had throughout the years. “Because many of the students live in families with more kids, very often it is more difficult for the student to focus and concentrate on the work without interruption,” Lundgren Stenbom explains.

The programme also recommends that the tutor/student pair set a schedule of weekly meetings on a pre-defined day and a time slot of one to two hours. Feedback and follow-ups are constant, but according to Lundgren Stenbom they lack data on how much the students' grades have improved after enrolling in the programme.

There are currently 35 pupils, mostly aged 11 to 19 years, receiving help with homework or preparing for exams, and another 20 people on the waiting list. Several of them have been in Sweden for almost 15 years, while some have moved to the country more recently. The goal, Lundgren Stenbom states, is to support the students so they progress to higher educational levels and get better opportunities on the job market.

One of the volunteers on the programme is Camilla Wennberg, an engineer who has tutored two students since 2017. Her current pupil is 14-year-old Somayo, from Somalia, with whom Wennberg has worked for the past one-and-a-half years. Before that, she taught Somayo's older sister Zamzam for two years.

Before stricter recommendations to lower the spread of the coronavirus came into effect in Sweden, every Wednesday evening Somayo and one of her parents would cross Norrköping by tram to go to Wennberg's house. The father or the mother accompanied her because they believe taking the tram alone at night is not safe, which Wennberg agrees with. During the weeks when social contact has been more restricted, tutor and student have met online.

The effort that Somayo and her family make to attend the tutoring session and the fact that she has been not only up to date with her homework, but a bit ahead of the class, is a sign for Wennberg that the Somalian teenager has high educational aspirations. “She is more ambitious,” states the proud tutor. 

Wennberg sees the language as a main factor for difficulties children from migrant backgrounds may have in school. “When it's just calculation it's easy, but when you have to understand what the question is asking for, then it is more complicated for her.” Sometimes they translate the questions to English, which helps.

Ann-Sofi Ringkvist and Madeleine Szente, who coordinate a programme by the Red Cross, which has provided support to schools in Linköping since 2011, also believe that improving language skills is an important feature of homework tutoring and one of the biggest challenges for migrant students and their families in the integration to the school system.

Although the programme was not created with the purpose of helping children from migrant backgrounds, but everyone who needs extra educational support, most of the students are currently from migrant families.

The three schools where the Red Cross is present in the city show the divide in the distribution of students with different backgrounds: in the Skäggetorp neighbourhood, the vast majority of students in the two schools participating in the programme belong to migrant families, while in Ekholmen the proportion of students who do not have a Swedish background is much smaller: around five per class. Ringkvist, who is herself a volunteer, believes that children benefit from a mixed class environment and stresses that several students need tutoring, independently of their family's country of origin.

The program is aimed at students from 8 to 16 years of age. In grades seven to nine, the tutoring takes place after school, while for younger pupils it takes place in a separate room during school time. Unlike the initiative in Norrköping, where the tutoring is requested by the families, the Red Cross volunteers collaborate with the school staff. The tutors, many of whom are retired teachers themselves, work with groups of students and follow the instructions from the teachers. During the sessions, two volunteers provide support for groups of 10 to 15 pupils, but there are times when as many as 25 young students are working together.

The large number of people attending tutoring sessions is seen by the organisation as both a challenge and a sign of success. Ringkvist explains that students wanting to receive tutoring is understood as a positive evaluation of the volunteer's work, but that many children in the same room can make it difficult for them to focus on school content.

“There are several goals, the main one is to make going to school pleasurable. We are not supposed to give them grades, we just want to help them, so maybe they find it easier to talk to a volunteer than to the teachers.They can feel more confident of themselves,” says Szente.


Although the adults involved in the homework tutoring programmes see language acquisition as one of the main challenges students with migrant background face in succeeding in the Swedish school system, what do the young students themselves think?

Somayo, who is being tutored by Camilla Wennberg, was unavailable to be interviewed because she was taking part in a two-week introductory programme to the job market and was working part-time in a fast-food chain. Due to her busy schedule, she was not able to attend the tutoring sessions when we spoke to Wennberg.

Somayo's absence did not seem to be a matter of concern, as her tutor stressed how important the work-training programme was for the teenager. Somayo's grades and accomplishments in maths can be understood as a sign of the programme's success, and alongside the fact that she was also doing part-time work, it can be inferred that her Swedish language skills might be much higher than it may seem.

One important aspect to consider, however, is the difference between the academic language skills required to pass exams such as the national high-school exam – usually a source of anxiety for young people, as it defines the educational pathway they are able to take – and the skills required for everyday interactions in informal settings or in lower-paid work.

The unequal representation of students from migrant families in Swedish schools may result in a daily experience of segregation for the young people who are trying to navigate a school system and a culture foreign to their parents. While governmental strategies to distribute students more evenly are being developed, volunteers in the homework tutoring programmes have been making individual efforts to orientate school children.

As Camilla Wennberg describes, her encounters with Somayo and her family are limited to the tutoring sessions, but these are occasions for her to answer questions from Somayo that go beyond mathematics. She thinks of their friendly exchange with her students as an opportunity she would not have had otherwise, something she values.

“It is nice to know her,” says Wennberg. “I think most people can help others teaching their own language, for example by correcting an essay. They just need to be open minded: whatever you can give, it is worth something.”

Myung Hwa Baldini is a journalist working in education and children's rights. She is based in Sweden.