Cultural differences in how Bulgarian and Turkish newspapers cover refugee crisis

March 16, 2018 • Jonathan McVerry

Daniela Dimitrova, Emel Ozdora-Aksak, and Colleen Connolly-Ahern

National newspapers in Bulgaria and Turkey frame the Syrian refugee crisis differently, according to Page Center-funded research recently published in American Behavioral Scientist. The study found Turkish papers were more likely to depict refugees as victims while Bulgarian newspapers offered a more distanced portrayal often through an administrative lens.

Page Center scholars Daniela Dimitrova, Iowa State University, Emel Ozdora-Aksak, Bilkent University, and Colleen Connolly-Ahern, Penn State University, examined nearly 150 crisis-focused articles to see how both country’s newspapers covered the refugees. Two national newspapers with high readerships from each country were used in the study.

“Media play an important role in defining how people regard the crisis and whether people have a more understanding or dehumanizing view of the refugees and displaced persons,” Ozdora-Aksak said.

With cultural, religious and geographical differences in mind, the researchers expected a humanitarian and personal angle from Turkish newspapers and a less personal, more threatening angle in Bulgarian newspapers.
The scholars based their expectations on public opinion polls, which listed a number of refugee-related issues as top concerns among its citizens. According to a Gallup poll, only 9 percent of Bulgarians thought refugees could help their country. The research also relied on previous studies of immigrant portrayals that showed how domestic media tend to frame refugees as outsiders, threatening local culture, jobs, and social cohesion.

Another point of contention is that Syrians are predominantly Muslim, while Bulgaria is a majority Christian country. Turkey, which neighbors Syria, is also Muslim and shares many cultural similarities with Syria.

“Because of our common history and religion and shared cultural characteristics and geographic proximity, Turkish media seem to have used a more personalized approach while covering the crisis,” said Ozdora-Aksak, whose university is in Turkey. “The discourse is more inclined toward seeing the refugees as victims.”

The frames that focus on threats, common in the Bulgarian papers, tend to avoid stories about individuals or families. They often address refugees collectively as “invading,” “flooding” or “illegal” and focus on the administrative paperwork or logistical challenges facing the refugees.

“We were surprised to see that a number of the Bulgarian articles appeared in the crime section,” said Dimitrova. “This journalistic placement and focus on threat themes likely reinforced the negative perceptions of refugees among the Bulgarian public, creating a vicious circle.”

Ozdora-Aksak suggested that coverage that helps readers understand the suffering displaced people experience (humanitarian frames) might be a better approach for Bulgarian newspapers and newspapers around the world. She was happy to see Turkish newspapers focus on more personal accounts and individual stories. “We need to have more empathy,” she said.

“Anyone can be a refugee. It’s not always something you can control. We—especially the media as opinion leaders—need to leave aside the us-and-them oppositions, and try to be more inclusive and understanding.”

This research was funded by the Arthur W. Page Center as a part of its Refugee Communications Initiative. The study was among a series of research projects (from a 2015 call for research proposals) on refugee crises occurring across the globe