home April 2018 Visualizing Syrian Refugees

Visualizing Syrian Refugees

A year-long research project on media representations of Syrian refugees altered senior Mary Dellas’ perspective on journalistic objectivity and set her on a new career path.  Previously interested in working in fashion industry public relations, Dellas now plans to pursue a career in journalism.

The graduating senior carries with her quantitative research skills and a nuanced understanding of how the mass media influences public opinion and behavior.

Dellas and Rachel Somerstein, an assistant professor of journalism, co-authored the paper “Strangers in a Strange Land: Visualizing Syrian Refugees in U.S., Canadian and Lebanese Newspapers,” which Dellas presented at the Eastern Communication Association Conference in Pittsburgh this April.  The paper departs from current research on refugee representations in the news by comparing visual, Anglophonic coverage with coverage in Lebanon, a country with the highest concentration of Syrian refugees.

Senior Mary Dellas co-authored the paper “Strangers in a Strange Land: Visualizing Syrian Refugees in U.S., Canadian and Lebanese Newspapers” with faculty mentor Rachel Somerstein, an assistant professor of journalism.

The project began as a spring 2017 independent study. Impressed by Dellas’ keen insights in her “Press in America” course the previous fall, Somerstein invited her to collaborate on a project focused on the “visual silences” surrounding post-World War II displaced persons camps. The camps were not depicted in commemorative coverage of World War II, in newspapers or other media, despite being areas of significant renewal.

As coverage of the Syrian refugee crisis continued to dominate the headlines, the project evolved into an exploration of the news media’s visual and lexical framing of Syrian refugees. An estimated 5 million Syrians were displaced from their homeland following the 2011 uprisings against Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, prompting the largest refugee crisis since World War II.

The project draws from Robert Entman’s concept of framing, defined as “select[ing] some aspects of a perceived reality and mak[ing] them more salient in a communicating text” by defining headlines, captions and photographs as framing mechanisms used in media representations of Syrian refugees.  Dellas and Somerstein argue that such frames shape people’s perceptions of Syrian refugees, influence national discourse and impact the treatment of refugees in their new home countries.

The impossibility of capturing objective “truth” through photography served as a guiding principle. “Photographs are talked about as objective evidence…because they are traces of the real, but they all lie in that, even though they’re objective representations, they’re all the result of lots of decisions that the photographer has made,” noted Somerstein, whose research interests include visual culture, photography and collective memory.

The decision to position the camera at a particular angle, to shoot close to the subject or from a distance, to highlight women and children or to feature obscured, anonymous figures behind barricades are all choices photographers and news organizations make. These decisions, in turn, reinforce perceptions in viewers’ minds about the perceived weakness, helplessness, or dangerousness of people with whom they have no direct, personal experience.

Similarly, the decision to lexically frame Syrians as “migrants” rather than “refugees,” a class defined and protected under international law, can suggest that they are undeserving trespassers or outsiders, not a protected class of individuals escaping violence and civil war.

Somerstein guided Dellas through a literature review that explored visual framing of refugees in past conflicts, Western media’s tradition of stereotyping Muslims, and the dehumanizing and dehistoricizing of refugees in the mass media.

Dellas immersed herself in data collection over the summer, for which she received a Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) Award. She worked with Somerstein on a quantitative content analysis of photographs and captions from the online editions of The New York Times, Canada’s Globe and Mail, and the Lebanese newspaper Annahar. The journalist Omnia al-Desoukie assisted the team by translating the Arabic headlines and captions of articles published in Annahar.

The research team selected the three newspapers because of the different resettlement policies of their countries of publication. The U.S. took in just over 14,000 Syrian refugees between the fiscal years 2015 and 2016 and instituted an extensive vetting process. Canada resettled more than double that number over a similar timeframe and developed a program to expedite the processing of Syrian refugee applications. Lebanon resettled more than 1 million Syrian refugees registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees by spring 2014.

Articles and photographs were identified from online searches using the phrases “Syrian refugee crisis” and “Syrian refugee” within the date range of Sept. 1, 2015 to March 31, 2017.

In conducting the quantitative content analysis, the researchers designed a codebook with 18 variables adapted from their research on the visual and lexical framing of refugees. Their findings revealed concordances with the scholarly research, as well as some surprises.

They found that most photographs depicting Syrian refugees were long shots, which was supported by research that notes that photos of refugees are often taken from “the distance of a stranger.” Most shots, however, were taken straight on, rather than typical representations of refugees photographed from above, which suggests powerlessness.

The majority of the photographs depict male refugees, countering research that the media over-emphasizes female and child refugees. “Most of the studies that we looked at in the lit[erature] review talked about how women and children fit this expectation of helplessness, powerlessness and speechlessness, especially when photographed in crowds, but we saw the total opposite. We didn’t see crowds very often and we saw only men most of them time,” said Dellas.

In terms of lexical framing, the New York Times was more likely to use the word “migrant” rather than “refugee” in its headlines than the Canadian and Lebanese newspapers. Notably, The Times was less likely to use labels than the other newspapers, referring instead to refugees by name in several articles about the personal experiences of individual refugees and families.

Dellas and Somerstein suggest that differences in the newspapers’ depictions of refugees may reflect the nations’ refugee resettlement policies. The New York Times posted more photographs of refugees behind barriers than Globe and Mail, which was more likely to depict refugees being welcomed (notably by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Immigration Minister John McCallum).

The researchers found few photos of death, conflict or post-conflict settings, which supports research that the media dehistoricizes refugees by not depicting the political circumstances surrounding their flight. “When viewers in receiving countries see refugees but no danger, they might underestimate the urgency of the crisis and the dangers that led Syrians to flee in the first place,” they wrote.

Dellas and Somerstein also considered the implications of recent developments in U.S. politics, including the Trump administration’s “travel ban” on individuals traveling to the U.S. from Syria and other predominantly Muslim countries, efforts to reduce the refugee acceptance ceiling and the administration’s “overtly anti-refugee attitudes.”

They cautioned that the news media tends to “frame stories in such a way that reflects the political stances of government officials,” and noted that “anti-refuge framing could potentially result in nativist attitudes toward Syrian refugees.”

Somerstein praised Dellas’ collegiality and top-notch efforts during their year-long collaboration. “This is a master’s thesis level project” Somerstein noted. “The depth of it, the quality of it, the attention to detail and the rigor, easily would qualify for a master’s project.”

Dellas had never considered conducting original research before her collaboration with Somerstein, which she described as an “incredible learning experience.”

The project, coupled with insights she gained from the journalism courses “The Press in America” and “Media Ethics,” have made Dellas “a more informed and critical newsreader” and reinforced her decision to become a journalist. “I had this total shift in what I wanted to do. I would like to write,” she said.

With a significant research paper now under her belt, Dellas is already on her way.  In addition to her work on Syrian refugees, Dellas published several articles on art-related topics for New York Magazine’s women’s vertical The Cut during an internship this semester.