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April 28, 2015, 10 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Collaborating across borders: European journalists band together to track the migrant crisis

Language barriers make cross-border work tricky, but for complex multinational topics, it can one of the only ways to get the true measure of a story.

— Before a dramatic capsizing sent European leaders scrambling to address an epidemic of migrant drownings, a team of independent journalists was quietly tracking the problem — and offering an example of cross-border journalism that’s rare in Europe.

The journalists — a loose association of investigative reporters from across the continent — joined forces in 2013 to answer a seemingly simple question: How many people are dying trying to migrate to Europe?

It turned out no one was tracking that data, according to French journalist Nicolas Kayser-Bril. Kayser-Bril led a team of journalists to create The Migrants Files — a database and map showing how, when, and where migrants are dying.

Over 28,000 people have died trying to enter Europe since 2000, the group found. That was before April 18, when a boat of 950 Libyan migrants capsized in the Mediterranean, killing at least 800, and prompting European leaders to hold an emergency summit in Brussels and ramp up search-and-rescue efforts.

The Migrants Files was the “biggest ever investigation into the deaths of migrants seeking refuge in Europe via the Mediterranean Sea,” according to the jury of last year’s Data Journalism Awards, which selected the project as the “best story on a single topic.”

The project highlights the kind of journalism that’s often missing in Europe’s fragmented media market — and the kind of information that’s key to understanding and responding to a deadly epidemic. The project also raises the question: Can there be a European ProPublica? Five European journalists discussed that question, and showed off two cross-border collaborations, in a recent panel at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy.

The idea for The Migrants Files arose in 2012, when Greece built a fence on its border with Turkey to block immigrants traveling by land, said Kayser-Bril, who runs a data journalism startup called Journalism++. Kayser-Bril and fellow journalists wanted to know: “How many people, because of the wall, now come by sea?”

“We realized that there was no data,” he said. “No European institution, no international organization, nor any member state was collecting data about the number of refugees and migrants who died trying to come to Europe. So we decided to collect the data ourselves.”

He set up a team of 10 journalists in six countries to do so. Cross-border collaborations are relatively uncommon in Europe, in part because of the obvious language barriers. As The Guardian’s Wolfgang Blau recently pointed out, there’s little examination of problems from a European perspective. (Blau put it this way in a keynote speech at the conference: “500 million E.U. citizens, 28 member states, and a crisis, but still no pan-European media. Are we nuts?”) Funding for collaborations is scarce: Europeans lack the philanthropic infrastructure that has supported so much of the nonprofit journalism in the United States.

The Migrants Files relied on a €7,000 grant from, which supports cross-border investigations in Europe. Working on a limited budget, the team never met in person, connecting through Skype and Trello.

“The way we managed to do so much with so little money,” Kayser-Bril said, is being a collaboration between individual journalists, not between media outlets. “I think that makes all the difference, because we don’t have to manage the overhead of talking to the bosses.”

The journalists are mostly freelancers; they met through Twitter and informal networks. Language remained a barrier; the journalists speak six different languages. Even numbers can get messed up in translation: A comma in one country is a decimal mark in another. To keep costs low, the group decided to do its work in English and leave the translation work to the journalists in each country, Kayser-Bril said. With help from students from the University of Bologna in Italy, the group stitched together data from different sources, including news reports, NGOs, and court testimony. They scraped and cleaned data with OpenRefine and stored it on shared spreadsheets.

Their findings were published simultaneously on the project website and in six news outlets: Italy’s L’Espresso, Greece’s RadioBubble, Switzerland’s Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Sweden’s Sydsvenskan, France’s Le Monde Diplomatique, and Spain’s El Confidencial. They later spread to six other news sites. The stories catered to each country’s concerns: Daniele Grasso in Spain focused on border cities like Ceuta and Melilla; Italian journalists highlighted deaths near the island of Lampedusa. But unlike previous local coverage, the stories also offered a wider, continental view of the epidemic.

The €7,000 grant, split six ways, was “nowhere near the money to cover the work,” said Jacopo Ottaviani, an Italian freelance data journalist who worked on the project from Berlin. Some journalists in northern Europe “were able to sell their stories several times and cover their costs,” Kayser-Bril said, but journalists in southern Europe were less successful. Kayser-Bril said the money didn’t cover much of the costs for his company, Journalism++, which coordinated the project.

Despite the financial hurdles, the collaboration stuck. Ottaviani and several other members of the team went on to work together on a project called Generation E, a crowdsourcing effort that examines why young people are fleeing Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Greece.

The Migrants Files team this month won a €10,000 European Press Prize, which will allow journalists to continue their work. Ottaviani said the money could support journalists directly reporting from immigration “hot spots”; their work so far has focused on the data, not on human stories on the ground.

Ottaviani said Migrants Files and Generation E show that despite the many obstacles, cross-border journalism can work in Europe. This kind of pan-European collaboration “could be systemized, repeated, replicated, and adapted to other topics,” he said.

“We have a network of young enthusiastic data journalists who would be ready to run a European ProPublica-like media operation [and have] knowledge and experience,” he said. “We have everything we need except funds.”

Melissa Bailey is a 2014-15 Nieman Fellow. She was previously managing editor of the New Haven Independent.

Photo of migrants boarding the Italian rescue vessel Denaro off the Libyan coast April 22, 2015 by Alessandro Di Meo/ANSA.

POSTED     April 28, 2015, 10 a.m.
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