ThesisPDF Available

Framing Fear: A Critical Review of News Media’s Coverage of Migrant Issues

Authors:

Abstract

The mainstream media’s role in the construction of society is multifaceted: it facilitates understanding and shapes the issues that affect them, introduces and reflects established behavioural norms, and frames how different actors and institutions are perceived and understood. Thus, with the increasing anti-immigrant sentiment in Canada and around the world, this study aims to understand how contemporary Canadian mainstream media (MSM) constructed the discourse around migrants during the implementation of the federal government’s 2015 Welcome Refugees plan. Guided by agenda-setting theory and framing theory, a qualitative textual analysis was used to analyze select news articles from four metropolitan and national newspapers. Results show that although Canadian MSM has improved its portrayal of migrants, a lot of work is still needed for media coverage that fosters unbiased perceptions of migrants among the general public and refugees’ positive integration within Canadian society. Keywords: migrants, mainstream media, framing, agenda setting, refugees, otherization, discrimination, racialization
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Research Project
By
Sandra M. Riano
Framing Fear:
A Critical Review of News Media’s Coverage of Migrant Issues
May 29, 2017
Advisor: Dr. Virginia McKendry
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Abstract
The mainstream media’s role in the construction of society is multifaceted: it facilitates
understanding and shapes the issues that affect them, introduces and reflects established
behavioural norms, and frames how different actors and institutions are perceived and
understood. Thus, with the increasing anti-immigrant sentiment in Canada and around the world,
this study aims to understand how contemporary Canadian mainstream media (MSM)
constructed the discourse around migrants during the implementation of the federal
government’s 2015 Welcome Refugees plan. Guided by agenda-setting theory and framing
theory, a qualitative textual analysis was used to analyze select news articles from four
metropolitan and national newspapers. Results show that although Canadian MSM has improved
its portrayal of migrants, a lot of work is still needed for media coverage that fosters unbiased
perceptions of migrants among the general public and refugees’ positive integration within
Canadian society.
Keywords: migrants, mainstream media, framing, agenda setting, refugees, otherization,
discrimination, racialization
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Framing Fear:&
A Critical Review of News Media’s Coverage of Migrant Issues
In recent months, anti-migrant and anti-immigrant issues have dominated the political
and news cycle in Canada and around the world. For example, the recent mosque shooting in
Quebec City (Only 1 suspect in deadly attack, 2017) and USA’s attempt at a travel ban from
selected countries (Trump’s sweeping executive order, 2017) were attributed to anti-refugee and
Islamophobia motivations. Across the Atlantic, anti-immigrant and racist views were said to
have catalyzed Brexit (Travis, 2016). Similar sentiments have been attributed to the increasing
public support for far-right political parties in other countries, such as Germany’s Alternative for
Germany, The Netherland’ Freedom party, France’s Front National and Italy’s Northern League
(Slawson, 2017) among others. As a contributor to the public’s perception of geopolitical
realities, mainstream media (MSM) has a central part in the fair and honest presentation of
migrant issues to the public.
Mainstream media (MSM) plays an important role in informing the public about social
issues that affect them. When it comes to migrant issues, their responsibility to provide unbiased
coverage is pivotal because the refugee experience is often politicized (Bradimore & Bauder,
2011; McKay et al., 2011) and used to advance government policy (Bradimore & Bauder, 2011;
Greenberg, 2000; Khosravinik, 2009). In fact, although MSM is increasingly aware of the need
for unbiased and improved coverage, studies have found that news outlets often lack the
specialized knowledge and resources required to understand the nuances and complexities of
migrant issues (Greenberg, 2000; Bennett, 2013; Doherty, 2015; George, 2015; Dreher, 2010),
which leads to coverage driven by emotions and prejudices rather than by facts (Doherty, 2015;
George, 2015; Dreher, 2010). This is problematic because, in a post-9/11 world, inadequate
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media portrayals of migrants often promote the othering of refugees and promote fear, impeding
refugees’ acceptance and integration into their host societies (Doherty, 2015; Dreher, 2010).
As noted, migrant issues are often politicized and the latest 2015 Canadian Federal
Election campaign was no exception. The Conservative government’s response to the Syrian
refugee crisis was widely criticized for their repeated delays meeting refugee intake goals, their
focus on security rather than humanitarian considerations, as well as the heavy reliance on
private sponsors for Syrian resettlement efforts. Detractors named these and others factors as
evidence of a lack of commitment from Canada’s government to meet their humanitarian
commitments (Kennedy, 2015). Thus, when as part of their campaign’s main platform, the
Liberal Party announced their intention to quickly receive 25,000 state-sponsored plus increased
funding to support Syrian refugees fleeing the Syrian war, some attributed it as the deciding
policy point that ensure the Liberal majority win (“How the Trudeau liberals won,” 2015). The
Liberal Party leader, Justin Trudeau, framed the topic as a direct response to the conservative
government’s slow response by claiming that the party “was doing what is right as Canadians”
(Liberal Party, 2015). After the election, the Paris attacks sparked fears of ISIS-led terrorism, the
Liberal government decided to slow down their promised Welcome Refugees plan, plan citing
operational challenges and security-concerns. Thus, when the Welcome Refugees plan was
finally implemented in November 2015, migrant issues fueled intense media coverage in Canada
and sparked public discussion. &
Conventional wisdom would dictate that with Canada’s long history of migrants, there is
ample research about MSM’s expertise and knowledge covering migrant issues. However,
although there is a large body of research from developed countries, in Canada this type of
research is neither abundant nor recent. This research sought to fill this gap by studying the
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following question: How and in what ways does Canadian news media coverage of the Welcome
Refugees plan reinforce stereotypical views of refugees and promote fear of “the other.” This
study is guided by the critical paradigm and it uses a critical framing analysis (CFA)
methodology, via a qualitative textual analysis, to analyze selected news articles from four
metropolitan and national newspapers. Its purpose is to uncover the role MSM had informing
audiences about the Welcome Refugees plan and refugees and to that end, the analysis was
guided by agenda-setting theory and framing theory, discussed in the literature review below.
MSM has a powerful role in the social construction of migrant issues and how refugees
are received by the Canadian public. My research found that although portrayals of migrant
issues have improved, Canadian MSM's coverage of the Welcome Refugees plan continued to
fear and distrust of refugees by presenting poorly contextualized and thoughtless coverage, thus
promoting the othering, dehumanization and marginalization of refugees. Since their coverage of
social issues affects how the issues are received, it is vital to study the ways in which MSM
reinforces stereotypical views of refugees and promotes fear and prejudice in times of mass
migration. I believe stereotypical and harmful portrayals of refugees have been shaped, slowly
building over time. Therefore, I hope my study will help empower those underrepresented in the
MSM coverage of migrant issues—migrants and refugees—as they work towards helping
Canadian media outlets provide unbiased and contextualized media coverage of migrant issues.
Ultimately, I hope improved media coverage will foster unbiased perceptions of migrants among
the general public and refugees’ positive integration within Canadian society.
Literature Review&
The following literature review synthesizes existing research in mainstream news media’s
representation of migrant issues. This paper focuses on four specific areas of inquiry: the media
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theories informing my research question and methods; factors affecting MSM’s representation of
migrants, consequences of existing coverage, and previous efforts seeking better representation.
A summary of main findings highlights the need to address this topic from a practical, solutions-
focused approach within the Canadian context, since academic work has failed to provide
actionable communication strategies and recommendations to ensure migrant issues gain fair and
balanced representation in MSM. I start with a comprehensive exploration of agenda-setting
theory and framing theory, which provide the conceptual framework for the study’s analysis.&
Theoretical Framework&
Agenda setting and framing theory help explain the meaning, nature, and challenges
related to the area of study. Closely linked, these two theories work together by telling the public
not only what to think about, but how to think about it (Entman, 1993; McCombs, M. E., Shaw,
D. L., & Weaver, D. H., 2014). Agenda setting theory posits that MSM’s coverage choices affect
how the public interprets issues, the decisions they make about them, and which aspects of these
issues they consider (McCombs, M. E., & Shaw, D. L., 1972). By creating narratives that
highlighting and giving salience (through priming) to chosen linkages and attributes, they
construct a lens (frame) to emphasize, minimize, or ignore a topic. MSM’s agenda setting role
impacts on democratic governance by helping the public and policy makers determine the most
important problems and social issues affecting a democratic society (Kosicki, 2008). &
However, MSM is not solely responsible for setting agendas and framing social issues.
McCombs, Shaw, and Weaver (2014) state that audiences unknowingly merge agendas from
different sources (agenda-melding): vertical news media (traditional), horizontal news media
(niche and partisan), and their personal connections to create their own version of the world.
Audiences use this melded reality to set expectations about their chosen news media. This “two-
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stage agenda-setting process” (p. 790) works in two ways: news media affects the public first and
the public agenda affects news media second. Yet, this does not absolve MSM from
responsibility. In fact, if reinforces the need for ethical gatekeepers that provide unbiased
coverage of the social issues concerning their citizens.&
Ultimately, since media agenda setting means “the priorities of the media come to be the
priorities of the public” (Kosicki, 2008, para. 3), MSM also poses a risk to democracy if media
employ preferential or negative biases when reporting social issues. Entman (1993) states that
media’s framing of news events “influence[s]... human consciousness” (p. 51) because it helps
construct a reality by choosing certain aspects of an issue (making them salient), arranging them
in coherent and interesting ways and using this new “reality” to promote a selected perspective
about a topic. Entman posits that media frames have four distinct functions: “promote a
particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment
recommendation” (p. 52). Simply put, the choices MSM makes when covering an issue impact
how the audiences define the problem, who they think is responsible for the issue, how they
interpret it morally and what they deem as appropriate solutions or remedies for the situation.
Framing is especially powerful in communications because it works by consciously or
unconsciously “selecting and highlighting some features of reality while omitting others” (p. 53).
Also, frames can be found in four locations: the communicators, the texts, the receivers, and
culture. The communicators decide what to say based on other value systems and existing mental
frames. The text carries frames in the form of keywords, stereotypes, symbolisms and themes.
Receivers have value frames that guide how they receive and interpret other frames. Culture is
composed of pervasive and persistent culturally accepted frames (Entman, 1993). In fact, when
MSM uses the same framing devices time and time again when covering a particular issue, they
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help create and reinforce culture, ultimately helping affect public opinion about the same issue.&
Yet, framing alone does not help MSM affect public opinion. Framing and agenda setting
engage in a reciprocal process: a frame constructs a narrative, while priming emphasizes
elements of the frame that support that specific frame being promoted and vice-versa. Entman
(2007) also notes that scholars have claimed that at a fundamental level, MSM consistently
frames social issues through deeply entrenched hegemonic values, effectively helping “allocate
power in American society” (p.163). Entman warns that MSM is a powerful tool because the
groups it reports on favourably become more dominant while those who are not reported on or
are framed unfavourably, inevitably become “weaker, less free to do (or say) what they want.”
(p. 163). In fact, framing “. . . is the imprint of power” because frames reveal “the identity of
actors or interests that competed to dominate the text.” (Entman, 1993, p. 53). This
reinforcement and maintenance of power structures is evident in the coverage of migrant news.
With this study, I set out to uncover how negative portrayals of non-dominant groups drive
othering (placing one group as different than one’s own) and racialized (assigning attributes
such as civility and intelligence to an ethnic group) representations of refugees that are harmful
to civil discourse. &
Factors Affecting the Overall Presentation of Migrant Issues &
MSM’s far-from-perfect coverage of migrant issues is well documented. Researchers
point to several factors of journalistic practice that lead to journalists misrepresenting and
misreporting migrant issues: lack of relevant training, the industry’s lax ethical codes, and low
quality standards (Bradimore & Bauer, 2011; ter Wal, Lipiński, Fabiszak, & Krzyżanowski,
2013; Doherty, 2015; Dreher, 2010; George, 2015; Greenberg, 2000; Lawlor, 2015; McKay,
Thomas & Blood, 2011; Robins, 2003). Attributing this phenomenon to news outlets’
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dependence on generalists rather than specialized journalists, scholars claim a lack of knowledge
of international humanitarian laws and refugee laws (Greenberg, 2000; Bennett et al, 2013;
Doherty, 2015; George, 2015; Dreher, 2010) impede journalists from critically and fairly
reporting migrant issues. This has led to several harmful consequences: coverage that is
reactionary and superficial (Bennett et al., 2013), that lacks historical and socioeconomic context
(Bennett et al, 2013; George, 2015; Robins, 2003), and often times, focuses on sensationalism
rather than facts (Bradimore & Bauer, 2011; Esses, Medianu & Lawson, 2013; George, 2015;
Greenberg, 2000; ter Wal, Koeman, & d’Haenens, 2005). For example, during the 2009 Tamil
refugee migration in Canada, media coverage focused on the ship’s misrepresented ties with a
human smuggling operation rather than on the civil war in Sri Lanka from which the refugees
were escaping (Bradimore & Bauder, 2011). Sensationalized, decontextualized, and poorly fact-
checked, the refugees’ story was presented through what is called a “risk frame”, turning it into
an organized crime story that spread fear within the public.&
However, not all MSM is unaware of their negative framing practices nor of the need for
better coverage. Italy’s MSM’s Charter of Rome created a code of conduct for journalists for
optimal reporting of migrant issues (George, 2015), while the UK’s BBC created news producer
guidelines with similar goals (Bennett et al., 2013). Yet, some journalists cite other forces
driving unfair coverage: industry pressures, lack of newsroom diversity, and having to “avoid
accusations of political correctness” (Bennett et al., 2013, p. 261). Whether misrepresentation of
migrant issues is intentional or not, the repercussions of inadequate reporting of social issues
cannot be ignored. Thus, examining how Canadian MSM reported the Welcome Refugees plan is
pivotal in uncovering MSM’s role reinforcing stereotypes of refugees.&
Replicating rather than investigating. Yet, MSM’s inadequate coverage of migrant
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issues extends beyond who reports them but also how they are reported and why. Journalists
often present government reports and official statements verbatim and uncritically as a way to
claim neutrality (Doherty, 2015). However, content and source choices impact news coverage’s
tone and approach. By quoting or paraphrasing governmental agencies, officials and departments
solely, their coverage reproduces a security-driven state perspective. For example, within 48
hours of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre, Australian MSM reproduced government
sources that claimed that refugee boats “can be a pipeline for terrorists” and that “there is an
undeniable link between illegals and terrorists” (Doherty, 2015, p. 140). And although a couple
of days later other government sources debunked these claims, the same claims were later used
by the Australian government to advance a new policy: mandatory detention of refugees upon
their arrival (p. 140). Approaches such as this to covering migrant issues betrays MSM’s
responsibility as “active participant[s] in the creation of narratives” (p. 138) and helps advance
government policy rather than promotes understanding of refugees (Bradimore & Bauder, 2011;
McKay et al., 2011). Thus, understanding the level in which Canadian MSM investigates rather
than reproduces government reports can help understand MSM’s role reinforcing or challenging
stereotypes of refugees. &
Pandering to readers. However, even if they need to challenge stereotypes furthered by
the government, MSM has to respond to other stakeholders. News editors often present migrants
in ways that is palatable to their audiences in order to meet their commercial commitments and
remain profitable (Bradimore & Bauer, 2011; Doherty, 2015; Greenberg, 2000; Khosravinik,
2009; McKay et al., 2011). For example, Greenberg (2000) reported that in 1999, when a boat
with 123 Chinese refugees arrived at the British Columbia coast, the Victoria Times-Colonist
published a poll in which approximately 97% of readers felt migrants should be sent back
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immediately. Shortly after, other MSM outlets’ editorials reported the poll’s unscientific findings
as facts, effectively depicting the migrants’ arrival as an “insult to the integrity of Canadian
citizenship” (p. 1). Subsequent migrant arrivals were met with coverage using inaccurate terms
such as “illegal aliens” (p. 8) and “economic migrants” (p. 11) to identify refugees and stating
they would “bypass the immigration queue” (p. 18) and thus jump ahead of “legitimate” refugee
applicants (p. 10). Arguably alarmist reporting supported the audience’s othering of refugees by
reinforcing perceived cultural gaps. This study has investigated how and in what ways Canadian
MSM has reproduced, questioned and assuaged audience’s fears of refugees.&
Playing favourites. Also, MSM’s coverage of refugees is not completely value-free.
MSM is tied to the political process and often uses framing to support their own political
leanings be that conservative or liberal (e.g., Bradimore & Bauder, 2011; Greenberg, 2000;
Khosravinik, 2009). Majid Khosravinik (2009) compared the coverage of migrants in British
tabloid and broadsheets newspapers during the Balkan conflict of 1999 and the general election
of 2005. Khosravinik found that although during the 1999 conflict MSM’s portrayals of refugees
from Kosovo and Kosovar were positive or neutral, in the lead-up to the 2005 British elections
each newspaper’s position shifted to reflect the immigration policies of their respective political
affiliations. Although Canadian MSM do not declare their political affiliations, unlike in the
British media, they do so implicitly by supporting a specific political party. For example, in
“Toronto Star endorses Liberal Leader” (Toronto Star, 2015), the news outlet backed Justin
Trudeau for prime minister. Thus, it is clear the need to understand how the political affiliations
of Canadian MSM impact their coverage of migrant issues.&
Summary. In conclusion, there is room for improvement in MSM’s coverage and
framing of migrant issues. MSM knowingly or inadvertently helps perpetuate the narratives of
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dominant groups, reflects rather than investigates migrant issues, reinforces rather than
challenges their audience’s biases and lets their political alliances drive their coverage. Thus,
understanding how and in what ways Canadian MSM frame the coverage of the Welcome
Refugees plan will help understand if coverage of migrant issues has improved or whether further
work is needed to ensure adequate and unbiased representation.&
Consequences of Migrant Issue Coverage&
Inadequate coverage of migrant news can have harmful consequences. When MSM
uncritically reproduces anti-migrant rhetoric, whether they know or not, they help propagate
prejudice, racism, Islamophobia, etc., and help fuel events such as the recent anti-Muslim
Quebec City mosque attacks and the growing far-right nationalist sentiment around the world.
Although in principle, news media should be fair, factual, and nonpartisan (“Ethics Guidelines,”
n.d.), MSM often publishes reports that are criticized as having negative stereotyping,
racialization and othering of refugees (Bennett et al., 2013; Bradimore & Bauder, 2011; Doherty,
2015; Esses et al., 2013; George, 2015; Greenberg, 2000; Lawlor, 2015; Dreher, 2010; ter Wal et
al., 2005). Doherty (2015) claims that this type of irresponsible journalism has helped create an
empathy gap towards refugees, an ideological wall of sorts, which reinforces dehumanizing and
disenfranchising language, with MSM working as both a conduit and a catalyst for this coverage. &
Interestingly, this “let’s build a wall against refugees” language has been repeated
countless times throughout history, in different countries, during a range of socioeconomic
periods (Bennett et al., 2013; Doherty, 2015; Dreher, 2010; George, 2015; Greenberg, 2000;
Lawlor, 2015; McKay et al., 2011; Robins, 2003). Some of the tactics includes using “they” and
“them” pronouns to create distance; using quantifiers such as uncontrolled numbers, boatloads,
swarms, etc., to dehumanize refugees rather than depicting them as individuals; misnaming and
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misrepresenting them as economic refugees, jumping the queue, terrorists, etc., thus depicting
their refugee condition as a choice or an economic calculation rather than a necessity and driving
perceptions of criminality and feelings of contempt (Bennett et al., 2013; Bennett, 2013;
Doherty, 2015; George, 2015; Dreher, 2010); and, characterizing refugees as sources and
spreaders of diseases (Esses et al., 2013) and thus causing divisiveness and fear. The use of this
loaded language helps drive media racialization and contributes to social anxiety and uncertainty,
prejudice and moral panic (Bennett et al., 2013; Bradimore & Bauer, 2011; Doherty, 2015;
Greenberg, 2000; McKay et al., 2011), while the lack of representation of refugee’s perspectives
contributes to “heightened intercommunal tensions and an increase in racist violence,
discrimination, and harassment” (Dreher, 2010, p. 86). Thus, although this study is not
concerned with media effects, examining the frames and themes Canadian MSM used when
covering the 2015 government plan, both in anticipation of their arrival and during it, is helpful
in uncovering MSM’s role in spreading fear and prejudice towards refugees.&
Thus far, the literature demonstrates scholarly consensus that the media is a powerful
agent in promoting attitudes toward refugees. That is not to say that coverage has not marginally
improved. Scholars report a shift from discrimination and prejudice to mawkish and sentimental
human interest stories. However, the focus on human tragedy (George, 2015; Bennett et al.,
2013) or the infantilization of refugees (Robins, 2003) is just as problematic. Rather than
appealing for pity or emotional manipulation, MSM has a responsibility to provide unbiased
coverage that critically examines migrant issues, to help the public make educated and fact-based
inferences about refugees rather than fear-based judgments. &
Yet, although MSM has the power to shift the migrant conversation, their efforts alone
are not sufficient to improve how refugees are framed. Tanja Dreher (2010) argue that media-
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savvy migrant advocacy groups can provide the necessary context and issue background. She
reviewed Arab and Muslim communities’ strategies aimed at improving their post-9/11
representations in Australian media: presenting counter-narratives to dominant racist discourses;
media monitoring to identify pervasive news customs; building networks with novice and
professional journalists; developing their own news coverage, and education-focused
relationships with journalists, among others. She found that although efforts had varied levels of
success, simply being visible to the media is not enough, because “shifting the frame rather than
merely achieving visibility for news media change” (p. 97) is what is required.&
Non-dominant quoted sources like migrant advocacy groups or the refugees themselves
help drive the media agenda and framing of migrant issues. Bradimore and Bauer (2011) claim
sources quoted achieve this since their contributions “define the situation, determine which
terminologies are applicable, and establish the overall tone of the discussion” (p. 650). However,
Bennett et al. (2013) claim journalists often bypass using migrant advocacy groups as sources for
migrant stories due to cultural and language barriers, lack of press officers or quite simply,
inability to reach agents for volunteer-run, migrant organizations. Since using migrant sources
leads to less essentializing (attributing complex characteristics such as the level of civility and
intelligence) views of migrants (Bennett et al.; McKay et al., 2011; ter Wal et al., 2005) and
neutral coverage of migrant issues (Bennett et al., 2013; Dreher, 2010), it is vital that MSM
journalists has the tools and knowledge to do so. Thus, understanding to what extent MSM used
migrant sources, or their advocates, in the coverage of the 2015 refugee plan can suggest the
impact non-dominant sources have in the of stereotypical views of refugees.&
Summary &
The literature outlines the theoretical framework and scholarly findings about the way in
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which MSM covers migrant issues. Framing and agenda setting theory illuminate the role that
mainstream news media have in telling audiences how to think and what to think about. Around
the world and in Canada, MSM’s coverage of migrant issues varies in adequacy with some
scholars claiming improvements are underway and others that work is needed. However, in light
of the recent mosque shootings in Quebec City and of the rise of anti-migrant rhetoric globally,
the need for a concerted effort by all stakeholders, news outlets and agencies towards the
thoughtful and fair representation of migrant issues is more important than ever. Since the
Welcome Refugees plan of 2015 dominated the news cycle and political debate in 2015, it is clear
that research around this topic is needed, especially since there is no literature as of yet. Doing so
helps uncover the ways in which news coverage helps build and reflect stereotypical perceptions
of refugees, promoting fear or prejudice. &
Methods&
Research Design&
This study set out to uncover the frames Canadian MSM used to represent the migrants
within the context of the government’s Welcome Refugees plan of 2015. Through the critical
paradigm, this qualitative inquiry used frame theory through inductive textual analysis to
understand the discursive construction of migrants in Canada’s MSM. The critical paradigm
states that meaning is culturally and historically constructed and cannot be separated from power
structures (Merrigan, Johnston, & Huston, 2012). Qualitative inquiry lives within a critical
epistemology, which while subjective, allows for a deeper understanding of the cultural
construction of data and what it means. Qualitative text analyses are time intensive and focused
on a small sample of text that is investigated thoroughly and deconstructed in order to identify
the discursive frames used (Van Gorp, 2010). This aligned well with my study as I wanted to use
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my findings to uncover the socially constructed frames that perpetuate the othering of migrants. &
The research was undergirded by framing theory, following the work of Entman (1993)
on media frames. The review of literature revealed the multi-layered factors and actors that affect
how news media presents and re-interprets migrant issues to the public, with scholars leveraging
an array of analysis methods and approaches within the critical paradigm for their studies,
including critical discourse analysis (e.g., Bradimore & Bauer, 2011) and framing analysis (e.g.,
Esses, Medianu & Lawdson, 2013). While all methodologies had merits, I chose critical framing
analysis (CFA) because it helped me examine Canadian MSM’s coverage choices as seen
through their usage of syntax, semantics, script, thematic, schematic, among others. CFA also
helped me interpret the symbolic meaning of these choices and their role in the social
construction of migrants. Lastly, I chose CFA because if the researcher is affected by a study’s
phenomenon (as I am), using critical discourse analysis could potentially increase chances of
researcher bias (Janks, 1997).&
The research design was aimed to minimize the challenges of framing coding and
analysis. Frame analysis is interpretive by nature, and often is affected by the researcher’s own
cultural perspective and inherent biases. In manual coding approaches, frames typically emerge
from abstract and holistic – rather than topical – variables, generated from subjective criteria
(Matthes and Kohring, 2008). Thus, researchers risk “finding frames they are consciously or
unconsciously looking for” (p. 258 - 260). Yet, when using computer-assisted approaches, the
assumption is that all elements have one single meaning in every context, ignoring the “richness,
complexity and subtlety” (p. 262) human coders can pick up from texts. Deductive approaches
use pre-established frames, making it difficult to discover new frames from the data. Inductive
approaches rely on individual coders and often too small data making them hard to replicate (de
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Vreese, 2003, p. 33). Thus, to combine the benefits of the different approaches and minimize
their risks, this qualitative inquiry used inductive textual analysis through manual coding to
understand the role news media plays a role in the discursive construction of migrants in Canada
and the reinforcement of stereotypes of refugees. &
I used a qualitative approach to my text analysis. To guide it, I used the frames as
clusters of frame elements approach that Matthes & Kohring (2008) designed to increase
replicability and validity of frames. I used inductive reasoning via Entman’s (1993) four
characteristics – problem definition, causal attribution, moral judgement and treatment – to
manually identify the frame elements that contain issue-specific variables. This process relies on
the assumption that highly occurring variables systematically group in a specific way, thus
forming a certain pattern – a frame. This helps reduce coder bias because “frames are neither
identified beforehand nor directly coded with a single variable” (Matthes & Kohring, 2008, p.
264).&
Data and Data Collection&
Because my research is concerned with Canadian newspaper coverage of the Welcome
Refugees government plan, I collected news articles published during the specific time period the
plan’s delay was announced. Using a purposive sampling approach, I collected news stories from
four metropolitan and national newspapers (The Globe & Mail, National Post, The Vancouver
Sun and The Toronto Star). They were chosen because they have the highest national circulation,
their political leanings vary (National Post and The Vancouver Sun, conservative-leaning; The
Globe & Mail and The Toronto Star, liberal, liberal-leaning), and their circulation covers areas
with historically large amounts of immigrants or refugees’ intakes (Toronto, Vancouver). To
ensure a manageable data sample, I collected data from three dates: the Saturday the weekend
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prior to the announcement of the plan delay (November 21st, 2015), the Tuesday when the plan
was officially announced (Tuesday, Nov 24th) and the Saturday when the first plane with
refugees arrived (November 28th, 2015). &
Using LexisNexis, a fulltext news database, I collected all the articles in the selected
news outlets that matched the keywords “Syria*,” “refugee*,” and “Canada.” The search yielded
77 articles, which I downloaded to my personal laptop. Using a Google sheets document, I
entered all identifying information such as date, author, word, etc. I then read and categorized
them as relevant or non-relevant to my study, capturing said information in the same Google
Sheets tracking document. Letters to the editor, opinion columns, guest editorials, duplicates
were catalogued as non-relevant. The same was applied to articles that included only minor
mentions to the Welcome Refugees plan, as these articles proved to be largely incidental to the
migrant issue. The resulting 29 articles became the corpus for the analysis (The Globe & Mail,
twelve; National Post, four; The Vancouver Sun, five; The Toronto Star, eight). I subsequently
imported the relevant articles into the computer software nVivo for manual coding of the frame
elements and issue-specific variables. Using manual coding helped me detect the nuances and
ambiguities a machine alone would miss. Using NVivo for cluster formation helped ensure
robustness of results. &
Data Analysis&
To identify the media frames used to cover the Welcome Refugees plan, I conducted a
critical frame analysis, which involves conducting a qualitative textual analysis guided by frame
theory and agenda-setting theory. Textual analysis closely examines content or meaning of texts,
how they are structured and how meaning is produced and their nature. It investigates the context
and subtext of a text, including what is not being said. It allows the researcher to analyze the
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readily evident data (manifest) and the data that is implied (latent) suggested by the text (Given,
2008). I determined the overall frames to be analyzed using principles from Matthes &
Kohring’s 2008 model named frames as clusters of frame elements. In their model, a frame
consists of several frame elements—Entman’s four functions—and each frame element consists
of several variables and sub-variables that tend to group together. This model allowed for
inductive means of analysis through a three-step approach involving a) the analysis of the textual
content, b) identification of frames, and, c) interpretation of the manifest and latent meanings of
the data.
First, I selected the two lengthiest Day One articles to inductively identified initial
variables – both implied and explicit – following Matthes and Kohring’s framework. The goal
was to identify common patterns instead of pre-identified frames. For the “Problem definition”
frame element, I identified three variables: topic, themes, and actors. The topic refers to the main
issue or recurring argument proposed by each article. Themes are “underlying themes which,
unlike the topic, may be more than one” (David C.C. et al, 2011, p. 335). Actors are those quoted
or paraphrased: people, entities or groups. For moral evaluation, I identified the suggested
benefits and risks of both the Welcome Refugees plan and migrants themselves. For causal
attribution, the variables identified those whom the article deemed, indirectly or overtly,
responsible for the risks or the benefits of the plan. For treatment and based on the overall tone
presented, I coded each article as positive, mainly positive, neutral, mainly negative or negative.
Second, once these initial sub-variables were identified, I coded the remaining articles keeping
an open mind to allow any new sub-variables to emerge as I read each article. Once all the
articles were coded, I removed the low occurring sub-variables and summarized the remaining
variables into larger topics. For example, when coding for the frame element “moral evaluation,”
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a series of articles were coded under the high occurring variables “housing shortage,”
“implementation challenges,” and “understaffed schools,” among others. In this case, the “Risk:
Resource Depletion” variable was conceived to house this type of variables. I used the same
process for all variables within each frame element. Table 1 below shows the final variables for
each frame element along with a short description of the type of sub-variables they contained.
Lastly, a clustering of the variables was run to derive the highest occurring frames. Aided
by NVivo, I ran a hierarchical cluster analysis for all variables, choosing their preset Jaccard
coefficient metric. This metric groups co-occurring variables into larger groups, which became
the overarching frames to study. Analysis of those groups provided understanding of how news
media helped shape the public discourse around refugees.
Table 1.
Variables for Frame elements
Frame element
Variables
Description of sub-variables
Problem
definition
Topic/Theme: Morality
Topic/Theme: Resources
Topic/Theme: Security
Theme: Economy
Theme: Health & Safety
Theme: Compassion
Theme: Politics
Theme: Quality of Life
Theme: Sociocultural
Actor: Academics/Analysts
Actor: Advocates
Actor: Anonymous
Actor: Federal Government
Actor: Foreign Official
Actor: Other government
Actor: Politicians
Actor: Public
Actor: Refugees
National identity, humanitarianism, duty
Impact to infrastructure, housing, etc.
Threat, terrorism, jihadism, national security
Economic impact to society, government, etc.
Disease, illness, risk to public
Refugee experience, compassion
Partisanism, political aspects
Social services, community life, belonging
Contrasts, impact on Canadians
Academia, former officials
refugee advocacy groups, NFP, schools
Unnamed sources, observers
Acting federal government, policy-makers
Ambassadors, foreign leaders
Acting regional, local and provincial
Opposition parties
Public and public opinion
Refugees in Canada and abroad, Syrian/others
Moral evaluation
Benefits: Community Building
Benefits: Economy
Benefits: Humanitarianism
Benefits: Political leadership
Plan reunites families, strengthens communities
Migrants as a benefit to the economy
Plan protects vulnerable people, human rights
Plan fulfills government promise
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Benefits: Sociocultural
Risk: Burden to Economy
Risk: Discrimination
Risk: Health and Safety
Risk: National Security
Risk: Resource Depletion
Risk: Sociocultural Contrasts
Migrants beneficial to society and culture
Migrants as a burden to the economy
Migrants at risk of discrimination, racism
Migrants as risks to public health
Migrants as potential terrorists, jihadism
Burden to social system, infrastructure, housing
Migrants a risk due to cultural and social norms
Causal
attribution
Benefit Attribution: Advocates
Benefit Attribution: Federal
Government
Benefit Attribution: Refugees
Benefit Attribution: Other
government
Benefit Attribution: Public
Risk Attribution: Advocates
Risk Attribution: Federal
Government
Risk Attribution: Refugees
Risk Attribution: Other
government
Risk Attribution: Public
Refugee advocacy groups, NFP, schools
Acting federal government, policy-makers
Refugees in Canada and abroad, Syrian/others
Acting regional, local and provincial
Public and public opinion
Refugee advocacy groups, NFP, schools
Acting federal government, policy-makers
Refugees in Canada and abroad, Syrian/others
Acting regional, local and provincial
Public and public opinion
Treatment
Tone: Positive
Tone: Mainly positive
Tone: Neutral
Tone: Mainly negative
Tone: Negative
Plan is judged positively
Plan is judged positively with some caveats
Plan is judged neutrally
Plan is judged negatively with some caveats
Plan is judged negatively
Ethics&
I ensured the identity of non-governmental and non-official bodies, especially those of
refugees and the public, were obscured to help protect their privacy. As a migrant myself, I set
out to design a systematic and evidence-based research method that would reduce researcher
bias. I ensured that my personal connections with members of both organization advocating for
migrants and members of news media, did not pose conflicts of interest or impede with the
development of an effective and unbiased study. I ensured that my communications in relation to
the research were conducted with honesty and transparency.
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Results and Discussion
The dominant frames that emerged from the grouping of the variables within the frame
elements (problem definition, causal attribution, moral evaluation, treatment), demonstrate that,
although there were ideological differences in coverage between the liberal leaning and
conservative leaning news outlets, the Welcome Refugees plan and migrants themselves were
discussed through three overarching frames: Resource, Security and Morality. It is important to
note that more than one dominant frame was present in each news article. The data indicated that
although media representations of migrant issues in Canadian MSM are somewhat less
problematic than those found in the literature, their depictions still presented othering processes
within it such as reactionary coverage, reproduction of governmental rhetoric, and poor
contextualization of migrant issues, among others. A closer examination of the dominant frames,
offered next, allows understanding of the media agenda and framing practices during the plan’s
implementation, and how their choices of content, focus and sources, among others, contributed
to the negative discursive construction and representation of migrants in Canada.
Resource frame. The most prevalent frame within the data set was the Resource frame,
which was present in all of the articles in the dataset. This frame focused on the impact the
Welcome Refugees plan and refugees could have in Canada’s social and economic infrastructure
(problem definition) and included discussion of migration costs, social benefits, housing,
education, financial aid, resettlement assistance, etc. For example, the impact of the plan to the
Canadian system was defined using quantifiable language such as “planeloads of Syrian
refugees,” (Lelanc, 2015, para. 1), “welcome successive waves of families” (Woo, Hunter & Ula,
2015, para. 17) or simply referring to refugees as numbers to be “distributed” or “housed”
through around the country.
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This frame was seen prominently in news articles that dealt with the direct effect the plan
would have in the country’s regional and local infrastructure. Themes discussed included how
many refugees each province would receive and the impact to their established social, health and
welfare systems, the provincial funding allocated for settlement agencies and each region’s
availability or lack of real estate. The impact of the plan in the social, economic and cultural
system was demonstrated by references to the “cultural cliff” (Fisher, 2015, para. 14) refugees
would face due to Syrian refugees’ apparent “lack[...] [of] higher education or easily transferable
skill sets (para. 20). Yet, even when the plan was discussed in terms of their positive
contributions, similar language deeming migrants as an undifferentiated and quantifiable group
was used. As a case in point, one of the articles asserted, “Now along comes the potential to add
1,500 new faces, and not in a trickle, but in a relatively concentrated wave” O’Connor, 2015,
para. 13). Here the Resources frame was evident, helping to create the lens the public could use
to judge incoming refugees and their contribution, or lack thereof, to the Canadian infrastructure
and economy.
Similar to the literature findings (Bradimore & Bauer, 2011; Bennett et al., 2013; Dreher,
2010; McKay et al., 2011; ter Wal et al., 2005), quoted sources helped define how the Welcome
Refugees plan was discussed. Although the articles reinforced the risks over the benefits, the
overall judgement of the Welcome Plan was ambiguous (treatment). When the coverage was
presented in neutral terms, members of the public fundraising for or sponsoring refugees were
consulted and quoted. When it was judged mainly positively, so were government-funded
advocacy groups and local government leaders. When it was judged mainly negatively,
anonymous sources highlighted socio-cultural gaps the migrants would have to overcome and the
potential economic burden migrants posed for Canada and called for its stoppage. When it came
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to causal attributions, the federal government was portrayed as the main entity responsible for
the risks associated with the plan, e.g., stress in the social system, housing, health and mental
health services, child and youth care, etc. Local, provincial and regional government bodies were
deemed as benefiting from the plan due its potential as an opportunity for public goodwill (moral
evaluation). Advocacy groups were also portrayed as benefiting considerably from the plan, e.g.,
strengthening their established ethnic, social and religious communities, increased funding for
migrant resettlement efforts via donations and government funding. Overall, this frame
encompasses the view that the Welcome Refugees plan would become an undue burden in the
Canadian economy, logistic infrastructure and social system therefore posing undue stress in the
government, those sponsoring refugees and the communities that receive them.
Security frame. The second most prevalent frame was the Security frame. It was found
in 22 of the articles in the dataset and in general terms, this media frame defined the issue as one
of national defense (problem definition) against the threat posed by incoming refugees (causal
attribution). It portrayed the Welcome Refugees as politically motivated with the Canadian
public having to deal with its possible repercussions (moral judgement). This media frame
judged the Welcome Refugees plan mainly negatively calling for its delay or stoppage
(treatment). Following the November 13th terrorist attacks in Paris, conservative politicians and
most notably the Saskatchewan’s Premier, called for the Welcome Refugees plan to be suspended
for fears of similar attacks in Canada. Thus, when the plan’s delay was announced in the first day
of this study, November 21st, media coverage focused on this fear narrative. Since the plan and
its details were a pivotal part of the Liberal platform and of the 2015 federal election in general,
the main actors, risks, and benefits within this frame were notably politicized.
Heavily represented in the first two selected dates of the study, this frame portrayed the
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plan as rushed and improperly planned while portraying it as a sort of “political Trojan horse”
that would allow in multiple threats, placing responsibility for its risks in the Federal government
and the migrant themselves. Although, admittedly, the plan’s details were not fully fleshed out
until the end of the month, the articles’ choices seemed to reinforce the public’s feelings of
distrust and hesitation about the plan. For instance, a Toronto Star article from November 21st
titled “A 40-day plan to bring in 25,000 refugees,” detailed the government’s preliminary plan
using language that portrayed the government and the plan as lacking robustness, with repeated
references to the “Liberals plan” served to make the migrant issue a partisan one. In the first
section, the author stated the ownership and inadequateness of the plan with “That will leave just
40 days for the Liberals to carry out their plan” (Boutilier, 2015, para. 1) while later on it hinting
at the unfinished and tentative nature of the plan with “the government is putting out feelers to
private companies…” (para. 4). The rest of the article reinforced the partisan perspective with
more references to the party and quoting a seemingly nonplused Liberal premier. With language
such as “[...] simple arithmetic dictates that if the Liberals want to make good on their pledge,
they’re going to need to close to 1,000 refugees a day in December” (para. 6), and “Quebec
Premier Philippe Couillard downplayed the stress of accommodating an increased number of
refugees in a short period of time,” (para. 11), the author implied the plan was politically, rather
than humanitarianly, motivated. Using this language and politicization, the public’s security
concerns were reinforced and justified while migrant issues and refugees were positioned as
pawns in the political arena, removed from agency and devoid of rights.
Amidst the politicized post-election environment of 2015 and the aftermath of the Paris
attack, the Security-minded coverage by Canada’s mainstream media appeared to reflect their
political alliances. After the news of the federal government’s decision to extend their plan’s
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deadline by eight-weeks to allow for security and health screening to be completed overseas, not
in Canada, the coverage continued to display the Security frame; still represented in arguments
about the plan’s timeline, but this time, making direct connections to the November 13th terrorist
attack in Paris. While the liberal-leaning news outlets presented this frame just as prominently as
their conservative counterparts, the former’s primary arguments were often complemented by
humanitarian and infrastructure themes, while the latter were complemented with mentions of
the sociocultural differences between Canadians and the incoming migrants. For the most part,
articles in this frame quoted security specialists, counter-terrorism academics and members of
the opposition party to help drive the security perspective. Thus, this security frame was
demonstrated in the data with references to the possibility of jihadists among admitted refugees,
the threats of homegrown radicalization, the risks of lack of integration, and the physical and
mental health risks refugees could potentially pose to Canadians. While the consequences of the
Paris attacks were very real and painful, the Canadian MSM’s use of this Security frame
contextualized migrant patterns—during, before and after—as potential threats to receiving
countries. Since migrants movements—whether voluntary or not, internal or external—are
natural processes that will continue to occur, adopting this short-term framework served to foster
fear of the “other.”
Surprisingly, even when coverage was neutral, the possible contributions of the Welcome
Refugees plan and migrants were rarely mentioned and, in the articles in which they were, they
were buried under competing arguments. For example, a history professor quoted by a
Vancouver Sun article described how Vietnamese refugees living in Vancouver “were more
likely to be employed than other people of the same age” (Kirkey, 2015, para. 12) and how they
“didn’t drain the health-care system and were less likely to be using social assistance” (para. 12).
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These arguments were shoehorned with mentions of the risks of religious radicalization, the Paris
attacks, mentions of the psychological state—and potential radicalization—of refugees, the
social alienation other refugees experienced and the taxing effect the plan may have in Canada’s
social system. What is worse, since most people may not encounter a migrant in their everyday
lives, they often rely on this framing to make generalized judgments of those who are “not from
here” and potentially scapegoating them for any perceived threats. This is harmful because when
the contributions and positive potential of vulnerable and disenfranchised people were
invalidated, their voice is muted in the public discourse. Portrayed as criminals without trial or
recourse to defend themselves, migrants are thereby erased and marginalized from society.
Morality frame. The least frequent frame was the Morality frame. This frames focuses
on the Welcome Refugees plan’s humanitarian components and was found in 19 of the articles in
the dataset. This media frame’s problem definition, causal attribution, moral judgement and
treatment centred around social responsibility, the Canadian identity, and the human rights of
migrants. Although some may argue that Canada’s history of accepting migrants from all over
the world has ensured the Canadian mainstream media is automatically attuned to taking a
welcoming position, this study’s findings demonstrate, that in this situation, this was far from the
case. Although at a first glance, Canadian MSM highlighted the humanitarian nature of the
Welcome Refugees plan, the morality frame was only evident in the last date that is part of the
study. The contrast between dates and news outlets that presented the Welcome Refugees plan in
the morality was evident: marginally present during the first date in the liberal outlets, slowly
increasing its presence in the next two dates, and completely absent in the right leaning outlets.
Also, and similar to the changes in coverage found in the literature (George, 2015; Bennett et al.,
2013; Robins, 2003), during the last two dates in the study, sentimental and hawkish human
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interest stories dominated this frame.
Within this frame, the Welcome Refugees plan was discussed in positive terms
(treatment), issues of humanitarianism and the role of existing Syrian communities seemed to
play the largest part providing a positive facet. This was demonstrated through references to each
region’s existing minority community associations and religious groups, e.g., Syrian advocacy
groups, Sikh community, Muslim groups, etc. In fact, within this frame the understanding was
that these actors should be the main players sponsoring refugees and integrating the incoming
refugees into their communities. This frame’s moral evaluation focused on the benefits the plan
would bring to the communities that received them, while paradoxically, underplaying any
associated risks. While integration into a like-minded community may appear as a positive theme
to reinforce since it represents unity (moral evaluation), in effect, it also served to divide. By
positioning migrants as solely belonging to those similar in religion, skin colour, etc., the notion
of “us” vs. “them” was introduced. Rather than being part of the general population and
contributing players of society, helping shape Canadian culture, migrants and those like them,
were pushed to the side along with other marginalized groups.
Within the Morality frame, the community groups mentioned above, refugee advocacy
groups, migrants and their families were generally quoted and deemed both responsible for the
risks and benefits of the Welcome Refugees plan (causal attribution). Articles with sources from
refugee advocacy groups and like-minded communities often focused on logistic efforts as they
prepared for the implementation of the Welcome Refugees plan. Coverage with the perspective of
potential refugees would often discuss the traumas they faced while abroad and their hopes and
fears for their future. When coverage referred to the recent Syrian refugees and those waiting to
be sponsored, human interest stories were used, often with sentimental undertones. For example,
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a Toronto Star article chronicled the three-year journey of a Syrian displaced family residing in
the Lebanon and their eventual arrival in Toronto five months prior. The author described the
dangerous and deaths this family faced during their ordeal and the welcoming efforts of their
new neighbours and local groups, while noting that the family was in the process of learning
English and looking for jobs. The article juxtaposed their story with the testimonial of a Somali
refugee who runs the advocacy group assisting them, who adds that, “The Syrians are a special
case. They have been through terrible trauma. When people relate them to what happened in
Paris and other places, they should remember that these people are running away from those
same (terrorists)” (Ward, 2015, para. 9). The article ended with the husband in the family saying
“I want to integrate into the society, speak English and live as a Canadian” (para. 19) and “I want
my family to share my dream to build Canada in the future and make it even stronger. One day, I
will be helping newcomers, too.” (para. 20). Coverage that is contextualized in ways that are
neither damning, hawkish, or overly cloying, and grounded within the idea that migration has
occurred before in Canada without resorting to overly dramatized human tragedy angles – such
as those found in the literature—can help normalize what is to be a migrant and humanize
refugees.
Summary
The literature makes clear that around the world and in Canada, media representations of
refugees and migrant issues have room for improvement. Practices such as unfair and
decontextualized coverage, catering to audiences and outside influences, replication of dominant
perspectives and divisive language help not only construct but also reflect stereotypical
perceptions of refugees, promoting fear or prejudice. This study suggests that uncertainty about
migrant issues, the threat of international and homegrown terrorism, and the politicization of the
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migrant issue led to Canadian MSM’s representation of the Welcome Refugees plan through a
Security frame that dehumanizes refugees by painting them with the same extreme negative lens.
This dehumanizing treatment appears to be both reinforced and justified through the larger
Resource frame. This frame seems to justify the othering of refugees on the grounds of
protecting citizens from the effect the intake of refugees would have in the national and social
infrastructure. In effect, being anti-immigrant becomes a matter of national protection and
governmental responsibility. The accompanying Morality frame, although an improvement from
the two previous, has the potential to further marginalize vulnerable groups such as migrants by
portraying them in the outside fringes of societies, as belonging to each other rather than being
part of the larger fabric of Canadian society. The combination of these frames is harmful because
those who are uncertain about or unfamiliar with migrants could use them to justify and facilitate
their discrimination, prejudice and racialization of refugees: every refugee can be a potential
terrorist thus deserving of bigotry and distrust; every refugee is taking advantage of the social
system and depleting the national resources thus deserving of scorn and hate; and, every refugee
exist only through the lens of those similar to them thus deserving of exclusion from society and
representation.
Conclusion
In embarking on this study of the way the Canadian Mainstream Media (MSM) covered
the Welcome Refugees Plan, I anticipated to find clear evidence of damaging and marginalizing
communication practices and framing devices. Results showed media portrayals of migrants
have improved somewhat, especially when it comes to the harmful language found in the
literature. Yet, the dominant frames do point to harmful consequences that admittedly, appear to
be a result of lack of care rather than intention to harm. As such, much work is still needed in the
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form of careful, thoughtful and contextualized media coverage that fosters unbiased perceptions
of migrants among the general public and refugees’ positive integration within Canadian society.
Several limitations and exclusions were identified for this study. Since the study only
covered samples from four news media outlets, findings may not reflect the frames used by other
outlets. This study focused on hard news only and excluded letters to the editor, opinion
columns, guest editorials, images, photographs and photo essays. Although Canada is officially
bilingual, the research was limited to English language media only to avoid potential translation
inaccuracies. Since I am a member of the western culture in which the texts in question were
produced, analysis was grounded in western values and cultural assumptions. Future applied
research could identify the types of counter-frames necessary to guide news outlets and refugee
advocacy groups towards improved media representation of migrant issues and refugees.
Additional research could compare findings with those found in French speaking Canada and
could include different news media channels to provide points of comparison. &
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