Digital media and the impact on attitudes towards refugees and migrants


Since the invasion of Russia in Ukraine I noticed that the Dutch attitude towards and against migrants has changed. I find it interesting that we are so welcoming towards refugees from Ukraine, but that we are somehow different towards migrants from other conflict zones. Why are we destined to take in as many Ukranians, while we are hesitant towards other refugees? Today I decided to look at the different ways the media portrays refugees and immigrants. How does it possibly affect our attitudes? Why do we show so much sympathy with Ukraine, but not as much with other conflict or war zones? I find this a very interesting question. One I don’t have an answer to. Just trying to understand the ways the media shapes our attitudes towards and against refugees. 

Number of refugees from Ukraine (Kenny, 2022)

Visual typology of European news

In a paper I read, they analyzed how news images visualize Syrian refugees of the 2015 Syrian refugee ‘crisis’ and how they mobilize various forms of moral responsibility (Chouliaraki & Stolic, 2017). In the article they state five different typologies of visibility. Each typology situates refugees within a different regime of visibility and claim to action. I think it’s important to understand the power of images and how it can shape different forms of civic agency and responsibility towards refugees, but also our attitudes. The article maps out the following regimes of public visibility (Chouliaraki & Stolic, 2017)

  1. Visibility as biological life
  2. Visibility as empathy
  3. Visibility as threat
  4. Visibility as hospitality 
  5. Visibility as self-reflexivity

I am not going to explain all the typologies, because that would take too many words. But what I can say about it is that these types of visibility introduce public dispositions to action towards the vulnerable (Chouliaraki & Stolic, 2017). Nonetheless, they fail to humanize migrants and refugees. We really should think about how we portray them as human beings whose lives are worth saving. 

Example: Ukrainian refugees vs. Syrian refugees. Both of the pictures show refugees. However, they give you a different feeling and show a different kind of visibility.

Media discourse on immigration

To create a general understanding about the public opinion on immigration and refugees we need to understand the media’s role in it. According to research there are common patterns in the way migrant and refugee groups are represented in the European media (Eberl et al, 2018). 

  1. Migrants are generally under-represented and shown as delinquents or criminals. when they are in the media they are often framed as economic, cultural or criminal treats. 
  2. Immigration coverage is often negative and conflict-centered.  

Frequent exposure to this type of media messages leads to negative attitudes and maybe even influence stereotypes. The article also states that the type of media outlet and the media format and political leaning can also shape media discourses (Eberl et al, 2018). I notice that non-European refugees and migrants are very under-represented and often portrayed negatively. On the other side, I keep seeing videos, news articles and social media messages about the Ukraine war. The Netherlands are taking in as many as possible refugees and even displaying the Ukrainian flag on many places and social platforms. Why do we decide to take this much action now? A big reason is the way in which the conflict and the refugees are being depicted in the digital media landscape. That’s why. 

Changing attitudes

According to ‘Stichting Vluchteling’ The Netherlands have more understanding towards war refugees (Stichting Vluchteling, 2022).  According to their research the Dutch people have more understanding (93%). However, the majority still thinks that refugees need to be accommodated in their own country or region as much as possible (69%). The research also states that the war in Ukraine does have a positive impact on the sympathies towards refugees (13%). The general view has decreased by 6% this half year. According to the ‘Draagvlakmonitor 2022’ our attitudes have also changed. In 2021 we found victim assistance for natural disasters even more relevant than aid to people in war and conflict zones. I do think the Ukrainian war caused this shift. 


The war in Ukraine has somehow shifted our attitudes towards accommodating refugees and migrants. Digital media and the way it portrays refugees has played a big role in this. I still find it interesting how people decide where to donate their money or give their aid. I find it very good that the Dutch government helps the Ukranians and gives them a home here in the Netherlands. But what about the people in conflict zones, people in hunger or where people are terrorized by natural disasters. They also need help. I know we can’t help everyone sadly 🙁 I just want to understand why people choose one thing over the other. Like, whose life is more worth saving?  At least, that’s how it feels to me sometimes. I myself always find it hard to decide which charity I want to give money to, because it feels like I am choosing someone else’s life over the other. If I could I would have helped everyone. Unfortunately that’s not in my power (or wallet)

References & link

  • Chouliaraki, L. & Stolic, T. (2017, 4 september). Rethinking media responsibility in the refugee ‘crisis’: a visual typology of European news. Media, Culture & Society, 39(8), 1162–1177.
  • Jakob-Moritz Eberl, Christine E. Meltzer, Tobias Heidenreich, Beatrice Herrero, Nora Theorin, Fabienne Lind, Rosa Berganza, Hajo G. Boomgaarden, Christian Schemer & Jesper Strömbäck (2018) The European media discourse on immigration and its effects: a literature review. Annals of the International Communication Association, 42:3, 207-223, DOI: 10.1080/23808985.2018.1497452