The Refugee Crisis in Canadian News Media

A closer look at how the refugee crisis has been represented in Canadian news reveals how powerful the media can be in the reporting of global crises.

Since the Syrian Civil War began in 2011, millions of people in Syria and surrounding war zones have fled their homes. They have sought asylum in neighbouring countries, nations in Europe, and countries as far away as Australia and Brazil. This mass displacement of people to different parts of the world can be considered not only a refugee crisis, but a global crisis.

A global crisis occurs when internationally legitimate humanitarian, political or military intervention is needed to resolve it (Shaw 1996). However, it can be asserted that crises today are principally defined and dramatized in and through media and communications (Pantti et al. 2012) and “it is mainly through media reports that the world perceives international crises” (Joye 2009: 3). Therefore, when analyzing global crises, it is crucial to look at how they are reported in the media.

To demonstrate how the global refugee crisis is represented in contemporary news, I have chosen Canada as the case study. Reporting of the refugee crisis in Canada has significantly evolved over the past seven months; the case study thus provides an opportunity to refer to several academic theories in support of the literature on global crisis reporting.

Three distinct examples – taken mostly from newspaper articles – will be described and discussed to highlight general themes that point out how the migrant crisis is represented in Canadian news. Directly following each of these examples, I will refer to previous studies in order to explain why the migrant crisis might be represented in Canadian news in this way.

The first example to illustrate coverage of the refugee crisis in Canada dates back to 3 September 2015, when a newspaper article in the Toronto Star featured the headline “It’s time for this to end” on its front page. The photograph below the headline pictured a dead body being carried away by a police officer on a Turkish beach. The body belonged to a three-year-old Syrian boy named Alan Kurdi, whom one day earlier had drowned in the attempt to escape the war in his native land.

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Alan Kurdi was a Syrian migrant boy who died in the Mediterranean Sea. Photo: AP Photo

Though this event was tragic in itself, the reporting of it is likely what triggered international responses. Canadians would not have shamed Stephen Harper – the Prime Minister of Canada at the time – for taking in too few Syrian refugees had it not been for images of Kurdi’s lifeless body in the news. Canadians were particularly outraged since some news reports had declared that Kurdi and his family had actually applied to immigrate to Canada but were denied by Harper’s government.

After Kurdi’s death, headlines across the nation implied that it was necessary for the Canadian government to do more. Refugee crisis needs quick action and Harper at odds with Canadian instinct to help in Syrian refugee crisis were headlines which reflected the sentiment that it was Canada’s obligation to accept more refugees.

Powerful images of Alan Kurdi’s death brought the horrific tragedy of the refugee crisis to light for many Canadians and referencing previous studies may help to explain why.

According to Hoijer (2004), photographs in the media are often perceived as truthful depictions of reality. Chouliaraki (2006) adds that the feeling of pity for distant others is grounded in the visualization of human suffering and the placement of spectators in the position of witnesses.

Thus, I contend that especially upon seeing the photographs in this story, Canadians felt as if they were physically present in the refugee crisis and no longer just faraway onlookers. Kurdi’s death further resonated and “hit home” emotionally (Pantti et al. 2012) for them because he was so young. After all, children can symbolize human vulnerability in the face of evil, danger and suffering (Machin 2007) and in the perspective of compassion, a child is the most ideal victim (Hoijer 2004).

The Canadian media arguably aimed to evoke strong emotions of pity and compassion in its audience for a reason. Through pictures of the loss of a young life and persuasive headlines, they sought to “prompt changes in foreign policy” (Cottle 2009: 127) – a notion which is consistent with Philip Seib’s view of the ‘CNN Effect.’

Whereas the CNN Effect is the idea that 24-hour scenes of human suffering broadcast by global corporations can play a role in politics (Cottle 2009), Seib (2002) believes that the most news coverage can do is wield influence in the democracy between public and government.

In a similar vein, I suggest that vivid photographs of Kurdi’s death and implicit newspaper headlines “thrust the debate over Canada’s immigration policy into the spotlight” (Black 2015) and encouraged democratic action between the government and the Canadian people. The media possibly intended to put pressure on the government to raise the nation’s quota of Syrian refugees. As a result, the decision of whether or not to support the increase of this quota became a heated issue for the candidates running in Canada’s federal election at the time.

One and a half months after images of Alan Kurdi’s death first appeared in the press, reporting of the refugee crisis in Canadian media notably changed after Canada’s election of a new Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, and his government’s decision to increase the nation’s quota of Syrian refugees.

The second example to show how coverage of the migrant crisis in Canada evolved points to Trudeau’s generous welcome of refugees in Toronto directly after they landed at Pearson airport on 10 December 2015. The following day, the story made international headline news. In Canada, Trudeau’s warm embrace of Syrian migrants was reported in much of the nation’s mainstream press, including publications all across the country such as Maclean’s, Ottawa Citizen and the Vancouver Sun.

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Justin Trudeau’s warm welcome of Syrian refugees on 10 December 2016. Photo: CP

In the subsequent months, Canadian news outlets focused on how much Canadians were doing in the collective effort to help the refugees arriving in their country. Headlines such as Montreal factory welcomes Syrian refugees with jobs, French lessons and Sackville set to welcome three Syrian refugee families are examples of “good” stories that are newsworthy because they have “positive overtones” (Harcup and O’Neill 2001: 279).

However, according to Seib (2002), the journalist’s job is to keep the public apprised of what is going on in distant places, which was not the case with the media in Canada. Few stories about the realities of the refugee crisis affecting a large number of European countries, for instance, could be found in newspapers. The stories being reported had shifted to focus instead on the generosity of Canadians.

Findings from previous studies may account for why portrayals of selfless Canadians helping newcomers from Syria dominated the media after Trudeau’s election. Kamalipour (2002), cited in Joye (2009), asserts that Western news media’s international coverage of disasters is often nationalistic and ethnocentric. Pantti et al. (2012) agree to an extent. They reckon that the media are “routinely accused of interpreting events through a national prism” as well as focusing on national generosity (Pantti et al. 2012: 128).

Likewise, Canadian media looked inward and paid more attention to the charitable deeds of citizens within the nation’s borders. In doing so, they appeared to lose sight of evaluating the refugee crisis from an international prism.

In late December 2015, The Canadian Press (2015) named Justin Trudeau Canada’s Newsmaker of the Year. Understanding Trudeau’s influence on the media and how a story about Syrian refugees became a story about the generosity of a nation’s leader can be interpreted by referring to a study on the concept of news values carried out by two researchers.

Harcup and O’Neill (2001: 15) found that though a story with a good picture opportunity was often included in the news, “when combined with a top celebrity or a royal, the combination seemed to almost guarantee inclusion.” It is consequently not surprising that Trudeau’s personal welcome of refugees to his country – specifically at a time when other Western nations were being criticized for refusing to increase their quota of Syrian refugees – secured a superb picture opportunity for the media. The well-known and powerful man’s mere presence seemed to guarantee that the story would be newsworthy.

Another theory to explain why news reporting in Canada shifted away from the refugee crisis and onto Trudeau and Canadian citizens takes the concept of celebrities in the media in an alternative direction.

In an analysis of celebrities and the reporting of humanitarian crises, Chouliaraki (2013) found that while a celebrity figure can bring human suffering as a cause for solidarity to the fore, this does not guarantee that the celebrity engages viewers with the condition of suffering others. The possible outcome of this, Chouliaraki (2013: 104) warns, is a “narcissistic solidarity obsessed with our own emotions rather than oriented towards action on suffering others.”

According to this argument, Trudeau can be seen as a celebrity figure who took a stand against human suffering in a humanitarian act which generated overwhelming emotion in Canadians. Yet this act also succeeded in diverting their attention away from the crisis to instead, pay attention to Trudeau. Canadians thus banded together in awe of their own charitable actions – another interpretation for why news reporting had less to do with the refugee crisis and more do to with the compassion of Canadians at the time.

The third example that embodies how the migrant crisis is represented in Canadian news cannot be evidenced in one particular newspaper article. Instead, the overall lack in coverage of the refugee crisis in Canadian news today will be the theme for the final example in this case study.

Four months after Trudeau’s altruistic welcoming of Syrian refugees to Canada, neither stories about refugees nor stories about Canadians helping refugees are currently leading the headlines. Under the ‘International News’ headings on the websites of Canadian publications such as National Post and La Presse, for instance, sections devoted solely to the refugee crisis exist, though coverage is not in-depth.

Although the global crisis remains, newspaper headlines reporting about the crisis have faded.

Research carried out by academic theorists may be able to explain why coverage of the migrant crisis in Canadian publications has fallen out of favour. According to Tester (2001), a phenomenon called ‘compassion fatigue’ might be the reason why.

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‘Compassion fatigue’ argues that there are limits to one’s capacity for compassion.

The media in Canada have become “so used to the spectacle of dreadful events, misery or suffering” associated with the refugee crisis that they have stopped noticing them and feel that nothing more can be done to help the distant sufferers (Tester 2001: 13). Moeller (1999) attributes compassion fatigue to the public’s short attention span and the media’s boredom with international news.

The Canadian press, correspondingly, are not following the ongoing story of the refugee crisis closely and their reports about it are simplistic because they have already moved on. This is despite the fact that “what the news media don’t say may prove more informative than what they do say” (Fleras 2011: 147).

Manning (2001) adds to Moeller’s theory about the media’s limited capacity for interest in foreign news in his suggestion that viewers are less interested in events that happen in remote parts of the world than they are in domestic news.

In the classic study on the structure of foreign news, Galtung and Ruge (1965: 4) point out that news which fits into the media organization’s “frame of reference” is more likely to be selected. Cottle (2013) expands on this and maintains that geographically and culturally, people suffering abroad are given much less attention than more proximate ones.

Thus, the migrant crisis has fallen off the radar for the media in Canada perhaps because news outlets feel too far away and too different in terms of values and lifestyle from people suffering in the Syrian war overseas. If, for instance, there existed an ongoing humanitarian crisis in the USA, I argue that the story would be privileged as worthy of Western emotion (Galtung and Ruge 1965) and still be covered in Canadian newspapers today. Americans and Canadians speak the same language and share the longest border in the world, after all.

The final theory I will mention to interpret why there is current shortage of refugee crisis news reports in Canada once again touches upon the concept of news values. The Canadian media probably deem the crisis unworthy of reporting because although it is a “follow-up” story (Harcup and O’Neill 2001: 279) that is rooted in a war that has been going on for years, it is not “fresh, unpublished, unusual and generally interesting,” which is what Randall (2000: 23) believes news should be.

Furthermore, it seems it is difficult for the refugee crisis to compete for coverage with timelier stories that have more immediate impact today, such as the recent acts of terror in cities such as Paris and Brussels. Cottle (2016) might contend this is because of the media’s selective fascination of death. The “crude body counts” (Cottle 2009: 47) of sudden terrorist attacks can be said to be more transfixing for consumers of Canadian media than the fact that there are fewer refugees like Alan Kurdi drowning in the Mediterranean Sea.

However immoral this concept may be, it is but one possible reason why reporting of the refugee crisis in Canada has diminished considerably over the last few months.

In sum, the three examples in this case study have shown how reporting of the refugee crisis in Canadian media evolved considerably within a span of several months.

Canadian news outlets went from publishing photos of Alan Kurdi’s tragic death and shaming their government for accepting too few refugees to becoming distracted by the humanitarian deeds of Canadian citizens and losing sight of reporting the migrant crisis. Afterward, coverage of the crisis altogether dwindled.

By referencing previous studies to account for why reporting of the refugee crisis developed in Canadian news the way that it did, I have found that the existing literature seems to support how global crises are often reported. Images published in newspapers can have emotional charge (Pantti et al. 2012) and spur constructive responses from governments (Seib 2002). News reports can also divert the focus of stories, shape them or even silence them (Cottle 2013).

Though this case study focused solely on Canadian media, when placed in the wider discussion of how global crises are reported worldwide, it is worthwhile to question whether the media in other countries have reported the refugee crisis in a similar way.

Whereas it may be too bold to declare that disasters only exist when they are reported in the news (Franks 2008, as quoted in Joye 2009), I maintain that the media can be influential and even problematic. In the reporting of global crises, the fundamental choices journalists make are indeed pivotal in how their audiences understand and perceive issues.

A full list of references can be provided upon request.

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