Media and Communication Ph.D. Dissertations


Victim, Terrorist, or Other?: A Qualitative Content Analysis of Alternative News Media Depictions of the Syrian Humanitarian Crisis

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Media and Communication

First Advisor

Lara Lengel (Advisor)

Second Advisor

Nicole Kalaf-Hughes (Other)

Third Advisor

Ellen Gorsevski (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Lisa Hanasono (Committee Member)


Since March 2011, Syria has been embroiled in a brutal civil war. Since the start of the war, over 470,000 Syrians have lost their lives. This conflict has led to over 13.5 million Syrians who are in need of humanitarian aid. Over 6 million Syrians have been internally displaced and more than 5 million are refugees living outside of Syria, resulting in the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II. Syrian citizens and refugees have faced arduous conditions, as evidenced by three-year-old Syrian child Aylan Kurdi’s body washing ashore in Bodrum, Turkey in September 2015 as his family attempted to flee their homeland.

To date, no studies have examined refugees through the scope of alternative media. Responding to this lack of research, this dissertation examines media framing of Syrian refugees. Informed by Orientalism, Framing Theory, and Critical Race Theory, the dissertation employs qualitative content analysis to analyze language and images used in 473 articles from a strategic selection of alternative media organizations. It incorporates diachronic analysis of media articles released during the two-week period preceding and succeeding three distinct critical incidents: first, the body of three-year-old Syrian child, Aylan Kurdi, washing ashore in Bodrum, Turkey; second, the Paris massacre; and, third, Donald Trump’s first executive order attempting to ban refugees from Syria and six other predominantly Muslim countries. This analysis of change in a phenomenon over time repositions framing by considering it as a changing concept rather than a fixed thought. Additionally, this dissertation advances Oliver Boyd-Barrett’s definition of alternative media by considering their role in operating on the fringes of political spheres.

Overall, U.S. political right media emphasized refugee threat, while the left focused on refugee victimization. As such, both left and right media removed refugees’ humanity and agency. Furthermore, of the 473 articles analyzed, only nine (1.9%) included any voice from Syrian refugees, thus demonstrating how alternative media serve to silence victims of humanitarian atrocities. The dissertation forges directions for future research that, first, should examine how framing of humanitarian crises by international media differ from U.S. media and, second, should amplify voices of survivors of these crises.