The news media can play a critical role in reflecting and also shaping public attitudes toward conflicts and those seeking asylum from them. Since the outbreak of war in Syria in 2011, Canadian networks have been inundated with depictions of a country in crisis. The coverage has also highlighted the heated debates over Canada’s position on the resettlement of refugees. Recognizing the importance of news reporting in shaping public perceptions of refugees, the question of how the Syrian refugee crisis was framed in Canadian media is an important one. What were the critical issues? Did these change over the course of the conflict?

Examining news articles on the refugee crisis in eight English-language Canadian major dailies from January 1, 2012 to December 31, 2016, my new study explores the framing of the Syrian refugee crisis in Canadian print media. Using automated coding and cluster analysis technologies to uncover central themes or frames that emerge over the course of the conflict, the results of the media analysis suggest that there were six core themes in the stories about the refugee crisis: conflict, citizenship, services, religion, families, and human rights. These themes, broadly speaking, serve as lenses through which the crisis was understood and, in highlighting certain elements of the issues, draw attention to particular concerns about the war and the refugee resettlement effort.

The conflict theme, which focused on issues pertaining to the war, security, terrorism, ISIS, and foreign aid, was the most prominent theme in the news coverage in the whole period, but particularly in the period leading up to the 2015 election. Not surprisingly, coverage of the war increased markedly following the closing of the Canadian embassy in Damascus in 2012, and a large number of stories centered on questions about ISIS and security in the region.

Former foreign affairs minister John Baird, left, and his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu speak to the media. Baird was in Turkey in September 2013 for talks on security issues including the ongoing situation in Syria. (AP Photo)This pre-election period also saw a considerable focus on religion, perhaps stemming from concerns about the refugees’ religious identity. Coverage of questions related to citizenship and integration was quite limited during this period, and the topic of human rights was notably under-reported. Refugees were portrayed as outsiders embroiled in a far-off conflict.Underlying this type of coverage were questions about refugee claimants’ legitimacy, and many stories suggested that Syrian refugees, through possible connections with terrorist networks, represented a threat to Canadians.

Former foreign affairs minister John Baird, left, and his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu speak to the media. Baird was in Turkey in September 2013 for talks on security issues including the ongoing situation in Syria. (AP Photo)

In the early weeks of September 2015 the focus of the coverage shifted markedly with the devastating photo of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, whose lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach after he and his family attempted to flee from Syria to Europe.

A paramilitary police officer investigates the scene before carrying the lifeless body of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi from the sea shore, near the beach resort of Bodrum, Turkey in September 2015. (AP Photo/Nilufer Demir, DHA)

Following the release of this photo, attention in the news turned decisively toward thinking about refugee intake and resettlement services. In the weeks that followed, there was also a significant increase in stories that centered on the status of refugee children and families. News coverage of terrorism and security decreased as politicians and the public increasingly focused on humanitarian concerns and resettlement plans for Syrian families.

With the election of the Liberal government in October 2015, attention in the media had shifted to the government’s promise of welcoming 25,000 refugees by February 2016. When this goal had been met, news coverage explored the refugees’ new lives in Canada. Stories highlighted refugees’ experiences in employment, housing, education, and language-training, and many articles covered refugee children’s integration in schooling and social life.

Quebec immigration minister Kathleen Weil, second right, speaks with refugees during an event in Montreal, Sunday, December 11, 2016, to mark the one year annivesary of the arrival of Syrian refugees to Canada. THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Graham Hughes

The emergence of the heart-wrenching Kurdi photo was a pivotal moment and shifted the conversation away from refugees as threatening or dangerous toward a more humane view ─ their safety, well-being, resettlement, and their overall integration into Canadian life.

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Another important measure when examining news coverage on conflicts is the general tone or sentiment in the article: Does the article convey a more negative or positive viewpoint in regard to the topic at hand? Negativity measures the use of terms or phrases that describe the topic in a more pessimistic, gloomy manner; conversely, positivity is a measure of the terms or phrases that describe the situation in a more light, upbeat manner. When we look at the general tone or sentiment of the news articles on the Syrian refugee crisis, we find that news stories become more positive in their outlook over the course of the period covered (2012-16). Although the tone of the stories on the whole is generally negative – which is not surprising given the tragic nature of the topic – the outlook is increasingly more positive and optimistic following the election as stories focus more prominently on refugees’ experiences in Canada.

Overall, news media play a significant role in the portrayal of refugees to the general public. My study shows that the news coverage shifted from the conflict frame in the pre-election period – showing the Syrian people as engaged in war that was taking place “over there.” This presented refugees as removed and distant at best, a potential threat at worst. However, the emergence of the Kurdi photo and the ensuing efforts by political parties to increase refugee intake led to stories that examined refugees’ families, hardships, and services.

We need to be aware of how public discourse about refugees is shaped and when it portrays them as “threatening” or “undeserving.” Journalists, politicians, and the broader public can shift the conversation toward more humanizing depictions of refugees’ lives. In this way stereotypes that are rooted in fear and distrust can be dismantled. Although my study focuses on big-picture trends in the news coverage, the themes convey the general news coverage that may have reflected and perhaps shaped Canadians’ attitudes toward Syrian refugees. They also highlight important aspects of our thinking about Canada’s role in the conflict and perhaps promote a deeper understanding of what’s at stake and what ought to be done. Analysis of news coverage on Syrian refugees will continue to be important in exploring the challenges that refugees face in adjusting to life in Canada, and we will need to constantly monitor whether news media justly address refugees’ experiences – good or bad – in Canada.

For a full analysis of this topic, please see a first view of Rebecca Wallace’s article in the Canadian Journal of Political Science.

Photo: Afghan and Syrian refugees practice sweeping during a refugee curling day at the Royal Canadian Curling Club in Toronto on Wednesday, March 15, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

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Rebecca Wallace
Rebecca Wallace is a PhD candidate and a Joseph Armand Bombardier CGS doctoral fellow in the Department of Political Studies at Queen’s University. Her primary research interests include Canadian social policy, political behaviour and political communication.

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