Research in Progress: The role of media discourse and NGO advocacy for marginalized populations

September 23, 2019

Daniela Dimitrova and Emel Ozdora Aksak

By Daniela Dimitrova, Iowa State University and Emel Ozdora Aksak, Bilkent University

We’ve all seen the pictures—the tiny body of a boy drowned on the way to Europe or the veiled, desperate mother separated from her child inside a refugee camp. This is how most people learn about the Syrian refugee crisis, among the biggest humanitarian calamities of our time with millions of displaced Syrian nationals migrating to the Middle East and other countries around the globe.

And yet few of us stop to think about why the news media cover the refugees in these particular ways, often perpetuating negative stereotypes and indirectly fostering antagonism and hate speech. This begs the question, what factors contribute to creating unbalanced and often distorted media coverage? What are the potential impacts of the coverage on public opinion about the refugees who continue to face a variety of integration challenges in their host communities?

A growing body of research on coverage of refugees shows that news media play a critical role in shaping public perceptions. Refugees are often portrayed as intruders, threatening and dangerous for the location population. National media’s depictions of asylum seekers tend to be negative, entering the host country illegally and en masse.

Portrayals of the refugees as victims and employing humanitarian lens tends to be less common. These media representations may negatively shape how host nations perceive and treat refugee communities. The negative representations in mass media coupled with what political sociologist Hande Paker said is “the social and political context within which civil society acts” may shape public attitudes in certain ways and potentially lead to public resentment towards refugees.

Understanding the overall discourse surrounding the issue of refugees is important for evaluating how different national actors have positioned themselves in regard to international migration and refugee status.

These concerns are especially relevant in nations that have experienced a large influx of
refugees due to their geographic proximity to the Syrian crisis, including Turkey – a direct neighbor and Bulgaria – one of the first entry points to Europe. Our research focuses on NGOs working with Syrian refugee populations in both countries. These NGOs, as active civil society actors, work in areas of emergency relief and protection, providing education and health services, and fostering coexistence. In addition to examining NGO advocacy for marginalized populations, our research will also investigate the role of media discourse in the two host nations.

The first phase of our Page Center-funded research involves in-depth examination of media portrayals of refugees through a discourse analysis of Turkish and Bulgarian news media. The second phase of the research focuses on investigating the views of international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) and local NGOs who work with marginalized populations in the region to improve integration in host communities. Using in-depth interviews, we will analyze and evaluate NGO advocacy efforts and relationships with local media.

Why does this matter?

Understanding media discourse about refugees can help journalists produce more fair and balanced coverage of marginalized groups. Our findings can also help NGOs understand how to shape or alter media messages regarding the refugees.

Ultimately, our research can be used to develop best practices for news media to cover the refugee crisis more accurately as well as assist NGOs with their advocacy efforts in developing ethical and effective messages vis-à-vis marginalized populations.

For further information on this study, please email Daniela Dimitrova at or Emel Ozdora Aksak at Results from the study will be available next year. This project is supported by a Page/Johnson Legacy Scholar Grant from the Arthur W. Page Center