How Matter crowdsourced the migration story

November 11, 2015

Eric Reidy says he was in disbelief when he first stumbled upon the Ghost Boat story. A Pittsburgh native who has been freelancing from Tunisia for the past year, Reidy couldn’t imagine that a ship with 243 people aboard could disappear in the Mediterranean without a trace. There were no news reports that matched the ship’s description and no evidence of a landing, rescue, or shipwreck. But there were a dozen people missing loved ones who all told a similar story: Their sister, partner, or cousin had left home in search of a better life in Europe, paying smugglers to transport them across the Sahara to Libya, where they would all board the same boat for Italy.

That was in June 2014—they have not heard from their missing relatives since.

Soon after, one of the families in Eritrea received a call from an anonymous person in Tunisia claiming to work at a prison in the south of the country. The people from the missing boat, the man said, were alive and being held at his prison.

Reidy initially heard about the story from Meron Estefanos, a Swedish-Eritrean journalist who was in touch with the family who received the mysterious phone call. He quickly realized that tracking down 243 missing people was a gargantuan task, and that new narrative and data-driven techniques could supplement traditional reporting methods to give his search, and the story, far greater reach and depth. Early on, Reidy and Bobbie Johnson, his editor at the website Matter, turned to crowdsourcing and began asking readers for help.

There were troves of data to search through: Ship movements, maritime alerts, legal records, and geographical information all had to be combed for possible clues. By asking readers on Medium, the blogging platform on which Matter publishes, to aid with the search, Reidy and Johnson hoped to find answers, or at least to shed light on the missing. “It’s such a big story, and there are so many blind spots,” Reidy says. “Keeping our cards close would have taken us an incredible amount of time.”

For those reporting on migration from Europe or North Africa, the challenges have been philosophical, creative, and logistical. Sana Sbouai, a French-Tunisian journalist and a co-founder of Inkyfada, a French and Arabic-language publication based in Tunis, says the coverage often deals in stereotypes rather than human beings. “It’s always ‘Oh, these poor migrants, we need to help them,’ or ‘Oh, these terrible migrants, we need to get rid of them,’ ” Sbouai says, adding that even what many are now calling the migration crisis is something that has been going on for decades.

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What better use of technology could there be than to place our readers within a crisis that calls to us daily with great urgency and yet, because of the incessancy of the call, often fails to rouse us at all?


But news organizations are actively searching for new and different ways to approach this sprawling story. Last weekend The New York Times Magazine broke new ground in migration reporting, making three children fleeing conflicts in their home countries the subject of its first-ever virtual-reality film. Shot in 360 degrees and watched with a smartphone, the 11-minute film tracks three children as they escape conflicts in South Sudan, Syria, and Ukraine and features scenes entirely narrated by the children themselves.

At one point, it follows a nine-year-old named Choul to a refugee camp in South Sudan as people wait for an air drop of food. Through headphones, you hear the loud rumbling of a low-flying jet behind you. As you pan your phone up and to the left, following the sound, you see a plane fly low, dropping dozens of white sacks of food that land on the ground in a succession of heavy thuds.

VR journalism requires a kind of active participation that, at first, seems foreign. But it’s meant to bring reader-viewers into the story and allow them to experience far-flung events in a visceral way. “What better use of technology could there be,” asks Jake Silverstein, editor in chief of the Times Magazine, “than to place our readers within a crisis that calls to us daily with great urgency and yet, because of the incessancy of the call, often fails to rouse us at all?”

In writing the Ghost Boat series, Reidy tries to humanize the missing and draw readers to their faraway experience by augmenting his longform storytelling with first-person narratives. The series opens with a short essay by a man named Yafet, one of the story’s protagonists and the husband of Segen, who is thought to have been aboard the Ghost Boat. Part of the largest wave of people fleeing conflict since World War II, Yafet, Segen, and their children came from Eritrea, the third-most-common country of origin for people making the Mediterranean crossing, after Syria and Afghanistan. They fled to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, and decided that Segen and one daughter would be the first to head to Europe. The last time the couple spoke was on June 27, 2014, by phone. The Ghost Boat was to leave the next day.

Yafet’s frustration at not having answers is clear. “If you remember Charlie Hebdo in Paris,” he tells Reidy, “14 or 15 people, they got shot by some terrorists. The world stopped for them, but they were white people, Europeans. The same thing for Malaysia Airlines. All the world, all the countries, were trying to find what happened. But in our case, nothing.”

Reidy uses the testimonies of others to describe every step likely taken by those aboard the Ghost Boat. He traces their journey across the Sahara to Libya and from Libya to Italy by sea and documents what happens to those who make it to Europe, as well as to those who don’t. “We don’t know what Segen’s journey across the Sahara was like, exactly, because we can’t ask her about it right now,” Reidy says. “But we can talk to other people who have made a similar journey and reconstruct the world that she was moving through.”

The Ghost Boat likely left from northwestern Libya, the last known location of the 243 people on board. This area used to be the most common departure point for refugee boats headed for Europe, via Lampedusa, the Italian island just 70 miles off the cost of Tunisia. Now many more are making the relatively shorter crossing through the eastern Mediterranean to Greece.

The route from Libya to Lampedusa, Reidy explains, often skirts the Tunisian coast before heading toward the small Italian island. Lighthouses and oil rigs are used as waypoints along the journey. But now the smugglers who organize the trips put just enough fuel on board to get the boat into international waters; the captains are often given a satellite phone and told to send out a distress signal and wait to be rescued. Often, people on the boats also call for help from their cell phones.

But help doesn’t always come: If anyone on the Ghost Boat did call or send out a distress signal, there is no record of their rescue. Later interviews would reveal that, in this case, there was no satellite phone on board.

Readers have helped piece together parts of the Ghost Boat story in a way that could not have been done through traditional field reporting alone, Reidy says, and the format gives them an active way to participate. One Medium reader, Kirk Pettinga, found that ship movements noted on a database called VesselFinder had information on many of the cargo ships, fishing boats, Italian Coast Guard ships, and other vessels that could have crossed paths with the Ghost Boat. Pettinga used mapping software to plot out the location of these ships.


Reader Kirk Pettinga used the database of ship movements on VesselFinder to map out all of the cargo ships that could have crossed paths with the Ghost Boat.


Reidy and other reporters have also scoured resources like Watch the Med, which maps reports of distress signals in the Mediterranean; The Migrants’ Files, which maintains a record of people who have died while attempting to cross as well as a database of the money involved in policing and crossing Europe’s borders; and the International Organization for Migration’s Missing Migrants page, one of the most exhaustive online databases on migration to Europe.

The Ghost Boat presents a persistent narrative challenge: How do you tell a story when you don’t know its ending? Reidy and Johnson turned this problem to their advantage, deciding to report the investigation almost in real time, focusing each post on a different aspect of the trip. “The goal here is to find an answer to a question,” Johnson says, “and the process is everything that plays into that.”

By reporting each step of the investigation as it arises, Ghost Boat has developed into an ecosystem of smaller stories. Each article is a window into different aspects of the journey undertaken by hundreds of thousands of people each year. Together, the installments make a dismal, complicated story, with only fragments of available information, not just comprehensible but gripping. “If we tried to talk about the migration question in macro,” Johnson explains, “it’s too indigestible.”

“This story isn’t a nice, neatly packaged 45-minute read,” Reidy says. “You’re going through the emotional engagement with us as we’re writing it. And the reporting from this is happening live. I have no idea where this is going to go.”

Early in his inquiry, Reidy ruled out the possibility that the Ghost Boat had been rescued or had somehow landed in Italy. It’s very unlikely, he says, that those aboard would have made it to Europe and not contacted their families. That left three other possibilities: There was the lead from the Tunisian prison guard. There was, as Meron Estefanos, the Swedish-Eritrean journalist who originally brought the story to Reidy’s attention, notes in the fourth episode, the possibility that they had been kidnapped and sold into slavery in Libya. Or they could be 243 of the 3,000 people who died last year while trying to cross the Mediterranean.

The Tunisian prison lead turned out to be a dead end. Libya is in chaos and too dangerous to report from. And tracing a shipwreck is nearly impossible; Reidy discovered while reporting from southern Tunisia that bodies that wash up after a shipwreck are often buried in mass graves, unidentified. As he writes in episode three, “Not every sinking can be retold by people who survived.”

Still, the Ghost Boat investigation moves onward. He is now following new leads in Italy and looking into how to report from Libya. If he can’t find definitive answers about the fate of the 243 missing people, he says, he’ll still have documented the experiences of countless others. And like so many journeys, Reidy’s will have proved at least as valuable as his destination.

Zach Campbell is a reporter based in Barcelona. Follow him on Twitter @notzachcampbell