Posted on / by Saikiran Kannan / in Long Story

Unraveling Bias: Western Media’s Coverage of Syrian and Ukrainian Refugee Crises

An in-depth study unveils media bias, victim vs. threat portrayal, and cultural/geopolitical impact in reporting Syrian and Ukrainian refugee crises. Western media’s role and the importance of diverse newsrooms become evident.

In today’s world, the profound influence of the media on public perception and global narratives is indisputable. Particularly in times of humanitarian crises like the Syrian and Ukrainian refugee predicaments, media coverage wields the power to shape understanding and empathy. A nuanced and impartial narrative is imperative to unravel the intricacies and gravity of these crises, enabling audiences to fathom human suffering and geopolitical complexities. 

To identify the reporting patterns, narratives, and biases of the Western media while reporting stories, we focused on the peak of the Syrian War refugee crisis between 2014 and 2015, and 2022 with the Ukrainian conflict. 

A total of 4,115 articles were selected to be subjected to analysis. We could identify insights and findings that gave us a fair glimpse into what we intended to unravel. 

High-level findings:

Coverage of the Syrian crisis:

  • Article length correlates with increased negativity in EU content, while the opposite holds for US articles. 
  • The US-media-authored pieces exhibited more negative sentiment compared to their EU counterparts. 
  • The US media not only produced a greater volume of articles but also showcased a higher average story length. 
  • When it comes to article headlines, those originating from the EU displayed a more negative tone.

Coverage of the Ukraine crisis:

  • In both the EU and the US, extended articles exhibited elevated positivity. 
  • Conversely, articles originating in the EU trended more negatively than those from the USA. 
  • The US media excelled in quantity, measured by article count, and the average length of stories. 
  • Significantly, headline sentiment leaned more negatively in US articles, underscoring the nuanced contrast.

Analyzing key aspects of the Western media’s coverage sheds light on issues and concerns linked to skewed, biased, or sensational portrayals of such conflicts, requiring a deeper analysis that moves beyond qualitative critiques to quantitative analysis. Rigorous data collection during peak crisis periods followed by analytical modeling will provide insights into the extent of bias.

How do the reporting nuances differ?
At the heart of media bias lies a pivotal aspect: the art of framing crises, exemplified in the depiction of refugees as either victims or threats. Presenting refugees solely as victims elicits compassion and empathy, yet inadvertently reinforces stereotypes that eclipse their individual agency and resilience. Conversely, depicting refugees as potential security risks fuel apprehension and xenophobia, potentially steering policies that deepen their exclusion. The crux lies in achieving equilibrium—humanizing refugees, honoring their agency, and recognizing their role in enriching host communities—a narrative that befits a more all-encompassing, compassionate perspective.

Unveiling the extent of coverage consistency across these conflicts demands delving into the intricacies of reporting within the entirety of articles. Informed by precedent analytical studies of comparable subjects, our approach draws inspiration from scrutinizing the deployment of specific keywords—a lens through which we glean insights into the prevalent narratives encapsulated within the majority of articles addressing the Syrian and Ukrainian crises.

The below six were selected:

  • Migrants
  • Terrorism
  • Racism
  • Discrimination
  • Illegal
  • Housing

While both the fleeing Syrians and the Ukrainians were migrants, the analysis showed that a far higher percentage of mentions of the word “migrants” was used among articles in the EU and the US describing the Syrian conflict. 

One of the reasons for this could have been the gender dynamics that played a part among the asylum-seekers. The disparity in the gender ratio of the Syrian refugees seeking asylum was very visible across Europe, especially in Germany. While roughly half of all displaced and refugee Syrians are female, around three-quarters of the estimated 550,000 Syrian asylum seekers who have arrived in Germany since the outbreak of the conflict are male. This gender imbalance is mainly due to the dangerous flight routes to Germany and the high costs of smugglers.

This was inversely true in 2022, where women and children made up an estimated 90 percent of Ukrainian refugees and a high percentage of the men stayed back to contribute in some manner or the other in their country’s fight against Russia. (UNHCR, 2022). This may have played a significant part in the below findings and the media portraying the Ukrainian refugees in a better light.

A similar pattern was noticed for the term “terrorism” which again heavily features in articles describing the Syrian conflict.

Within the dataset, a compelling revelation surfaces: the term ‘racism‘ emerges more prominently in articles concerning the Ukraine crisis in contrast to its occurrence in narratives addressing the Syrian crisis. This intriguing observation underscores a nuanced inclination within Western media—a proclivity that appears to lean favorably towards Ukrainian refugees while potentially sidelining their Syrian counterparts. An intriguing juxtaposition arises, given that the people of Ukraine, in terms of racial and cultural alignment for assimilation, exhibit a closer affinity than the Syrian refugees.

Turning to our subsequent term under scrutiny, ‘discrimination,’ a notable contrast emerges in its prevalence within articles centered around the Ukraine conflict. Numerous reports highlighted instances of minorities and foreign nationals in Ukraine facing discrimination amid their exodus following the Russian invasion. This context potentially shapes the observed data pattern. What surfaces as intriguing, however, is the potential dichotomy—while stories concerning Syrians possibly contend with a more profound spectrum of racism and discrimination, the term ‘discrimination’ itself is less prominent in their narrative portrayal.

The term ‘illegal‘ surfaced more frequently within media discourse surrounding the Syrian conflict, in contrast to its usage in the coverage of the Ukraine crisis. This observance dovetails with pervasive stereotypes that often dichotomize Asian refugees from their European counterparts. Notably, the arrival of working-age men in 2015 was cast under a veil of suspicion, hinting at an economic impetus driving migration, potentially overshadowing concerns about their homeland’s security.

The term ‘housing‘ garnered greater prominence in relation to articles discussing the Ukrainian crisis compared to those addressing the Syrian conflict. Significantly, the earlier hesitations surrounding the influx of young refugee men seeking employment in Europe, particularly in 2015, underwent a notable transformation by 2022. Ukrainian refugees, in particular, were embraced as a potential catalyst for rejuvenating sluggish economies. This shift was accompanied by systemic efforts to alleviate barriers to employment, encompassing challenges like childcare demands and the streamlining of professional licensure.

Now, how do we interpret these findings?

A 2023 report by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) carried out a similar study which suggested that articles in which migrants and asylum-seekers were referred to as “economic migrants”, “illegal migrants”, or “illegal immigrants” were, on average, significantly more negative than articles in which those terms were not used. The report also suggests that the Media in 2022 covered topics of support and integration (such as housing, community volunteering, or livelihoods) at much greater rates than did media in 2015, whereas 2015 saw high coverage rates discussing border crossings and migrants as threats.

Regarding the prominence of terms such as “illegal,” “terrorism,” and “migrants” in articles detailing the Syrian context, this pattern resonates with the prevailing apprehensions of 2015. These anxieties were intertwined with the EU nations’ national security, given the proximity to terrorism. The media continuously deliberated on the potential for asylum-seekers to be affiliated with extremist organizations, a discourse that gained traction, particularly in the wake of the November 2015 Paris attacks, and persisted in the subsequent months.

In contrast, despite 2022 witnessing an aggressor on European soil, discussions about potential threats linked to Russian operatives concealed among Ukrainian asylum-seekers found limited space, primarily within tabloid coverage.

The overall positives, or negatives:

From the broader perspective, the articles delving into the Syrian conflict exuded a significantly heightened sense of negativity compared to their Ukrainian counterparts. Furthermore, the portrayal in the U.S. media was distinctly more pessimistic than that conveyed by their EU counterparts with respect to Syrian narratives. Conversely, this dynamic shifted when addressing the Ukraine conflict, aligning seamlessly with the intricate geopolitical considerations that the USA held within the Ukrainian context.

The marked disparity in the prevalence of negativity within the coverage of the Syrian conflict can be attributed to several EU nations, including the UK, framing the situation predominantly through the lens of border control rather than a crisis stemming from conflict-induced displacement. A report commissioned by the UNHCR highlighted the United Kingdom’s press coverage in 2015 as being the most pessimistic and polarizing among the assessed countries.

Furthermore, these findings shed light on the complex ambivalence exhibited toward asylum-seekers and migrants in 2015, as compared to the notable solidarity extended to displaced Ukrainians in 2022. Notably, negative scores can originate from both anti-migrant discourse and emotionally charged language discussing conflict and the experiences of asylum-seekers. This nuanced interplay likely contributes to the overarching negative inclination observed in articles from both 2022 and 2015, notwithstanding the robust support identified for Ukrainian asylum-seekers in the more recent timeframe.

Examples of reporting styles?

Media coverage of both conflicts diverged significantly across various dimensions and themes. Notably, the disparities were evident in the context of employment coverage, exhibiting a sharp contrast between 2015 and 2022.

In 2015, Politico cited a Pew Research poll, spotlighting that 82 percent of Hungarians perceived refugees as an encumbrance on their nation, attributing it to job displacement and social welfare utilization. This sentiment was coupled with a belief held by 76 percent of respondents that refugees could heighten the threat of terrorism within their country.

In stark contrast, coverage of the Ukraine conflict featured quotes from government officials in neighboring nations who enthusiastically welcomed refugees, offering them employment opportunities, access to education, and sustainable housing.

Religious and cultural assimilation were prominent discourse points in both crises. Amid the peak of the Syrian conflict, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán notably remarked, “We mustn’t overlook that those arriving bear a different religion and represent a wholly distinct culture. Most are not Christian but Muslim.” In subsequent years, Orbán escalated his rhetoric, labeling non-European refugees as “Muslim invaders” and asserting that preserving Hungary’s cultural and ethnic unity necessitated rejecting refugees from diverse backgrounds.

Conversely, Ukraine refugees often found acceptance as kin within the EU. The Guardian posited that by 2022, Germans’ willingness to share living spaces with Ukrainian refugees may have been influenced by factors like religion, ethnicity, and gender.

Interestingly, Viktor Orbán’s stance shifted as the Ukraine crisis unfolded. In the wake of the Russian invasion, Orbán declared “We’re letting everyone in” in what was seen as a more open-door policy near the Hungarian-Ukrainian border. Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov echoed a contrary discourse, lauding European refugees as intelligent, educated individuals, distinguishing them from past perceptions of refugees as uncertain in identity or possibly even terrorists.

It is imperative to acknowledge that our analysis provides a snapshot that underscores vast disparities in media coverage, narrative framing, and global responses to two distinct conflicts. Strikingly similar in terms of the shared need for compassion, empathy, and support, the Western media’s portrayal of Syrian refugees often resulted in stereotypes and vilification, portraying them as threats and potential terrorists. The interplay of race, gender, religion, and demographics extended beyond the refugee population, influencing newsrooms and thereby contributing to the contrasting narratives observed above.

In the future, a more diverse set of newsrooms and editorial boards may help change this. We hope.

Shashank contributed to this report.


  • Saikiran Kannan

    Saikiran Kannan is a Data Analytics, Data Privacy, & AI/ML SME, and an Independent Journalist covering conflicts, global affairs, counter terrorism and data stories. He has a Masters in Data Analytics from the Singapore Management University and is a Harvard Business Advisory Council member.


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