Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Study: Syrian refugee coverage surges, then plummets

An informal survey done by the Center for Global Peace Journalism at Park University underscores what researchers have been saying for years: that international coverage in American media is concentrated on only a handful of locales, and reflects the culture’s Eurocentrism. A case in point is the coverage of Syrian refugees. A revealing Lexis Nexis search shows that the issue was largely brushed aside until the “crisis” washed up on Europe’s shores.

The search of newspapers under “Syrian refugee crisis” picked up only 4 hits for the first week of April, 3 hits for the first week of May, four for the first week of June, and 17 for the first week of July. Then, coincidental to the uptick of refugees arriving in southern and southeastern Europe, newspaper coverage of the issue exploded. There were 320 hits under “Syrian refugee crisis” for Sept. 1-8, 608 hits from Sept. 9-16, and 492 hits for Sept. 17-30. This coverage tapered off to 345 newspaper hits for Oct. 1-15.

An in-depth analysis of these figures is needed. Several questions seem worth exploring. The first asks why the crisis got little coverage until Europe was faced with tens of thousands of refugees. The Middle East and Turkey have had a refugee crisis for years, but the study numbers would say that this had been little reported. 

The second question would explore the steep drop in refugee coverage between Sept. 1 and Oct. 15, from 608 to 492 to 345—a 70% drop over six weeks.  Can this decrease be attributed to media fatigue, the theory that news media have short attention spans and quickly lose interest in a story? In the Middle East Monitor, Henriette Johansen says, “Extreme donor and media ‘fatigue’ demands new ways to respond to and represent the growing refugee crisis.” The Monitor goes on to analyze how “media institutions and NGOs are faced with a growing de-sensitization regarding the Syrian revolution, which has turned into a vicious war…” (Oct. 2014). 

Peace journalism would look at the Lexis Nexis study and ask if there has been media fatigue, why? It certainly isn’t because there aren’t compelling stories to tell. Is there some market or audience research that shows that viewers and listeners are losing interest in Syrian refugees? If audiences have lost interest, it doesn’t mean that this stopped being an interesting or important story. No, it means the media haven’t done a good enough job of explaining and telling the story. If media can hit us day after day with Trump and with celebrity “news”, then surely they can put Syrian refugees on the radar, and keep them there.

As for the Eurocentric view of U.S. international coverage, peace journalists would instead seek broader, more consistent coverage that moves beyond a narrative that virtually limits coverage to a handful of Western European countries, Japan, Israel, and China. This narrative is fed by the (mis)perception that Americans don’t care about news from “other” regions. If audience surveys back this up, then again I’d blame the media, and media executives, for not doing a better job of explaining and “selling” important stories like the Syrian refugee crisis, regardless of where they occur.

Of course, even if we are able to get the consistently high levels of coverage that this story deserves, the second task is to improve the tone, content, and language used in these stories so that they more accurately portray the refugees and the situation without exacerbating tensions. 

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