Master Thesis: The Impact of Images in Reporting the Refugee Crisis

The refugee crisis is arguably one of most urgent political issues facing European countries in recent history. Refugees fleeing war-torn countries are flocking to Europe in mass waves, resulting in heated debates on how to handle this influx of people. Host communities are split between supporting and resenting the acceptance of refugees into their countries and villages (Yardley, 2016). Europe has witnessed an increase in anti-immigration sentiment, prompting a reaction by right-wing groups to campaign against refugees in countries such as Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands (Scally, 2016; Deutsche Welle, 2016; The Economist, 2016; Sims, 2016). At the same time, the voice of counter movements in solidarity with refugees coming to Europe has also gained popularity (Brammall, 2015). Examples of such initiatives include the Refugees Welcome movement across Europe and the many active NGOs that provide help for refugees in their communities and abroad, such as Refugees Welcome accommodation share that started in Germany and spread across other European countries. Several organizations were established in the Netherlands and are now operating both inside and outside of the country such as Movement On The Ground, Boat Refugees (Boot Vluchteling) and Because We Carry.

Local and international media outlets have devoted extensive attention to this topic, covering news about refugees crossing borders, refugees’ living conditions in different European countries, and clashes between refugees and authorities. Media has multiple options in how to report the refugee crisis and what aspects they choose to emphasize, or neglect. Amidst all media coverage of the crisis, there was one powerful turning point, the release of the picture of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian toddler whose body washed up on a Turkish shore after the boat he boarded with his family sunk. The image of his body lying face down in the sand was so powerful that it was widely circulated and triggered an international response: humanitarian aid and political debates on immigration policies. His image has been recognized as a symbol of the refugee crisis that represents many children and people making the dangerous journey to Europe. But why was this picture so powerful? And what effects did that picture have on people for them to react the way they did on social media and in news articles?


Each image, sentence, or video constructs a message in a certain way and presents a frame, a method of composing and delivering a specific message in a certain context. The way a message or an issue is presented has different effects on different people. Extensive research on framing effects has sufficiently demonstrated that frames in the media influence people’s emotions, attitudes and behaviors towards issues (e.g. Scheufele, & Iyengar 2012; Berinsky & Kinder, 2006; de Vreese and Boomgaarden, 2003; Brantner, Lobinger, & Wetzstein, 2011). More specifically, studies showed that immigration has been covered in the media using different and possibly opposing frames (e.g. Van Gorp, 2005), and such frames affect how audiences feel about immigration. Emotions towards certain issues also have a mediating effect on how people’s attitudes are formed (e.g. Lecheler, Bos & Vliegenthart, 2015). However, despite the multitude of studies focused on framing and framing effects, scholars argue that research is drifting away from the original meaning of framing and framing effects and confusing it with other theories (Scheufele & Iyengar, 2012). Therefore it is important to expand framing effect research to include non-verbal visuals, to return to what scholars argue is the traditional understanding of framing research (Scheufele & Iyengar, 2012 p.2). Yet, visual framing has received less attention than textual framing, leaving a distinct gap in visual framing research, and its effects on the public (Schuck & Feinholdt, 2015; Coleman, 2010). One of the main reasons visual framing has received less attention is the difficulty in identifying visual frames (Rodriguez & Dimitrova, 2011).


Although immigration has been studied before, little attention was paid to the visuals used to cover immigration or the refugee crisis. The refugee crisis is relatively recent, and there have been no studies examining the use of images in different frames in this crisis, and how they affect audiences. Yet, there has been discussion and public debate on the way media portrays refugees coming into European countries, and an even more heated debate on whether member states of the European Union should allow large numbers of refugees to enter, or instead close their borders. In 2015 alone, there were 43,093 asylum applications in the Netherlands (VluchtelingenWerk Nederland). Although the Netherlands is a relatively small European country, it has witnessed an anti-refugee sentiment supported by right-wing politician Geert Wilders (Sims, 2016). Because of this conflicted environment, it is interesting to use the Netherlands as a case study to see how people react to different visual frames of refugees. Framing specifically is important to examine within this topic because the Netherlands enjoys a high level of press freedom, ranking second worldwide (RSF, 2016). This makes the refugee crisis an even more critical issue to cover in the media given that Dutch media has greater freedom to choose how to report on it and what frames to use in their coverage. This, in turn, gives them power, to influence the public opinion in the country regarding the refugee crisis.


An experiment to test the impact of images portraying refugees on people’s emotions and attitudes in the Netherlands. Visual framing is deemed to be powerful, and it is up to the journalist or visual editors to make choices that can influence the public.


Prior research has shown that there are indeed some radically opposing frames used to cover immigration topics, for example, Van Gorp (2005) who used the news coverage of asylum seekers, refugees and illegal immigrants in Belgian newspapers as a case study to examine two issue-specific frames: the intruder frame and the victim frame. This study derives from framing, framing effects and mediation theories, but deviates from the traditional textual frames and focuses on visual frames instead, building on the work of Van Gorp (2005). Besides looking at framing effects on emotions such as anger and empathy and people’s anti or pro-refugee attitudes, I will take a further step into examining how emotions mediate the impact of visual frames on attitudes. Thus, this study tackles the research question: What are the effects of visual frames portraying refugees on people’s emotions and attitudes towards refugees in the Netherlands?

Read full paper here: refugees-in-the-netherlands-victims-or-intruders-1


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