Research identifies differences in how overseas newspapers frame refugee crisis

January 7, 2016

Daniela Dimitrova, Emel Ozdora, and Colleen Connolly-Ahern

This blog post is the first in a series highlighting research from the Page Center's Refugee Communication Project and call for research on the refugee crisis occurring across the globe. We will feature projects from this call in the blog throughout the month of January.

By Daniela Dimitrova, Iowa State University, Emel Ozdora, University of Bilkent and Colleen Connolly-Ahern, Pennsylvania State University

The Syrian refugee crisis is the worst humanitarian crisis in modern history. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that more than 4 million Syrians are currently refugees, while another 6 million are displaced inside Syria itself. With conditions in the region likely to be volatile for some time, it’s particularly important to understand how the refugees are being covered by news organizations in countries impacted by the crisis, because news framing influences citizen’s perceptions and attitudes toward events that impact society. For those dealing with the trauma of escaping a civil war, finding a safe and welcoming place to call home is a critical first step to healing.

Our part of the Arthur W. Page Refugee Communication Project was focused on the media framing of Syrian refugees in two countries that were impacted by the crisis almost immediately: Turkey and Bulgaria. Syria’s long – and sometimes porous – border with Turkey, along with the cultural proximity between the two countries, has made it a logical point of escape for Syrians fleeing the effects of the civil war. More than 1.5 million refugees are now in Turkey; many others have chosen to leave and head for Europe. While most try to enter Europe by a short but hazardous boat ride to the Greek Islands, some 1,000 refugees per month cross the Bosphorus and enter Europe through neighboring Bulgaria. Most refugees are trying to pass through Bulgaria to get to what they see as the richer and more accepting EU countries of northern Europe. Still, more than 10,000 refugees applied for asylum in Bulgaria in 2015.

We studied patterns and trends in media coverage in the two countries through content analysis of two leading newspapers from each country: Hürriyet and Cumhuriyet in Turkey and Dneven Trud and Standart in Bulgaria. The two countries were chosen because they are situated close to the crisis, yet have very different cultural histories. Turkey is an Islamic democracy and NATO member, and Bulgaria is an Orthodox Christian democracy, with an economy building after years of Soviet domination, and one of the newest members of the European Union. We expected that the cultural differences between the two countries would translate into very different news coverage of the refugees.

Our preliminary results indicate that there are indeed significant differences in the news coverage in the two countries, with the Turkish coverage being generally more positive toward the refugees than the Bulgarian coverage. The Turkish press was also more likely to emphasize the victimization of the refugees. Still, Turkish coverage of the refugees was also far more likely to de-humanize them, talking about them as a group rather than individuals, and emphasizing their Syrian – and therefore foreign – identity. Bulgarian coverage, on the other hand, was far more likely to focus on the refugees as a threat to the country, and focus on their “illegal” status. It presented the refugees from a predominantly administrative frame, focusing on logistics and local bureaucracy rather than the humanitarian aspects of their journey. 

Our research suggests that journalistic coverage of the refugees in affected countries may be contributing to the fear of and lack of sympathy for them by emphasizing their status as outsiders. This is particularly salient in Bulgaria, where their presence is often framed as a threat to the country’s well-being. In the coming months we will be adding to the current data with coverage from both Spain and Germany, to see if the patterns we have seen are consistent throughout the European Union. We hope our work will serve as a reminder to journalists that the way they discuss refugees has long-standing implications for the acceptance and treatment of vulnerable people.