Re-Humanizing Refugees and Resettlement: Coverage of the Syrian Refugee Crisis in Canadian News Media

by Rebecca Wallace, PhD Candidate, Department of Political Science, Queen’s University, Kingston ON. 

When it comes to coverage of war in the international community, news media can play an important role in both reflecting and shaping public opinion towards conflicts and those seeking refuge from them. Since the outbreak of war in 2011, broadcasts regarding the Syrian refugee crisis have flooded Canadian news channels with depictions of chaos and depravity, inciting considerable public debate regarding Canada’s role in the conflict, particularly pertaining to intervention, foreign aid, and resettlement efforts. Stereotypical representations of violence and threats regarding the “other” have the capacity to inform and reproduce public attitudes toward Syrian refugees among the Canadian public.

However, emerging research on Canadian media suggests that the portrayal of Syrian refugees in print news is not stagnant and has shifted over the course of the conflict to explore more humanizing depictions of Syrian families’ resettlement in Canada. My analysis of coverage in eight Canadian English-language newspapers from 2012-2016 indicates that while initial coverage of Syrian refugees focused principally on issues related to conflict, security, and terrorism, there was a marked shift in focus toward citizenship, integration, resettlement, and refugee services that corresponds with the Canadian federal election in the fall of 2015.

Although the pre-election reporting largely centered on depictions of violence and the potential threats of resettlement in Canada, the election shifted the discourse toward increasing intake measures and providing services to families in need. Coinciding with the emergence of the devastating images capturing three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body on a Turkish beach in September 2015, Canadian news coverage experienced a major shift in focusing on the safety of children and families and expediting the resettlement process. Although a conflict frame remains a prominent lens for interpreting the refugee crisis in Canadian news media, the tone of the coverage is markedly more positive in the post-election period and continues to focus to a much greater extent on intake efforts, refugee services, and the status of Syrian families in communities across Canada.

While this evidence produces some optimistic results, it should be read in a cautious manner –  depictions of violence, threat, and terrorism still serve as dominant lenses for coverage of Syrian refugees and there are a number of issues pertaining to refugee settlement that have been neglected entirely by news media. However, my analyses results do suggest that news coverage is not static and can project more positive images of refugees in Canada. The findings of my study remind us that news media can serve as a powerful forum in informing and reproducing public attitudes and that politicians, journalists, and the general public have the capacity to re-humanize the coverage by dismantling stereotypes of refugees that are driven by threat and fear.

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