Misguided and Dangerous

How the New York Times is Creating an Anti-Syrian Bias in the American Public

The recent civil conflict in Syria has displaced millions, forcing families from their homes to seek shelter from violence both within Syria and around the Middle East and Europe. While countries worldwide are accepting asylum applications for these refugees, more than half of American state governors have expressed opposition to allowing migrants into their states. Perhaps their reluctance is due, in part, to the fact that the American media tends to cover the conflict and the violence within Syria's borders in more depth than the plight of those feeling the war, biasing the public towards thinking of all Syrians as dangerous and radical and a threat to American security. This analysis looks at the coverage of the situation by The New York Times, an American journalism outlet with a readership of over 60 million visitors per month, to investigate the relationship between the number of refugees arriving in a country and the the depth of the coverage about that country in the Times.

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While tensions have long run high in Syria, data from the United Nations suggests that the great migration out of the country began in the summer of 2012. The civil war between the regime governement of Bashar al-Assad and rebel groups that began in 2011 was compounded by the rise to power of the Islamic State group in early 2014, increasing the rate of migration out of the country and creating millions of internally displaced people (IDPs) within country itself. To make matters worse, a proxy war between the United States, backing the rebel groups, and the Russians, who have shown strong support for the Assad regime, emerged in 2015 with both nations carrying out air campaigns in recent months. While both nations claim to be acting to stem the advance of the Islamic State, unspeakable attrocities by all sides and humanitarian conditions in the country have led the U.N. and others to decry the situation as "the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II."


At this time, the governors of 31 U.S. states have issued statements indicating their unwillingness to accept the resettlement of Syrians within their states. While allowing people into the country is technically a federal power granted by the Consitution, and the Obama adminsitration has expressed strong support for allowing additional migrants into the United States, states' reluctance to comply with federal programs make the U.S. an unwelcoming desitnation for Syrian migrants. Though carrying little legal weight, the words of Mississippi Governor Phil Bryan capture the sentiment of many:

"I will do everything humanly possible to stop any plans from the Obama administration to put Syrian refugees in Mississippi... The policy of bringing these individuals into the country is not only misguided, it is extremely dangerous..."

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Photo: Syrian migrants wait for a bus in Southern Hungary on September 9, 2015.
Credit:The New York Times

Maps showing the mass migration routes of Syrians out of their home country into and Europe, are commonplace in the English-language media, and can be found in popular sources such as The New York Times, Business Insider, and National Geographic. While effective in showing relative direction, these flow maps often do not differentiate between the relative number of migrants that choose each route, and suggest a tendency of the migrants to choose a route through the Balkan states. While there are plenty of heart-wrenching accounts covering both the obstacles faced by individual migrants and their families, and the crisis as a whole, these stories seem to tend to focus on those migrants seeking asylum in Europe, rather than those looking for refuge in neighboring Jordan, Turkey, or Iraq. These neighboring states, depsite having their own political and civil unrest, have taken in nearly an order of magnitude more refugees than states in the European Union, both in refugee camps and in urban and informal resettlement projects.

To address shortcomings of these prevalent maps, this article sets out to understand three questions: Which nations are the most important players in accepting the most refugees? Which states are most prevalent in the American media coverage? And, are these countries the same? Perhaps if we can answer these questions, we can get a better sense of how Syrians are represented in the news delivered to a large portion of the American public.

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All the News That's Fit to Print

To assess the relationship between news coverage and migrant arrival rates, a quantitative textual content analysis of the articles in the Times was done for two time periods in 2015. These time periods, January through June, and September and October, are periods for which migration patterns were particularly clear, and for which there is reliable arrival data from the United Nations. The textual analysis was completed using this method:

  1. Search Using the Times Article Search API, articles that contained mention of the word Syria in either their title, byline, or body were identified.
  2. Analyze Using a python script, the full text of all articles that were maintained on the Times website was downloaded and searched for mentions of U.N. recognized country names.
  3. Resample Daily counts were downsampled to either monthly or weekly resolution to facilitate analysis.

In total, the analysis covered 3,890 articles over 182 days containing 238,805 unique words. This is a smaller fraction of the Times' actual coverage, due to removal of assets from the website, however, it is still a signficantly large sample size.

The refugee arrival data was compiled from the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees agency website. While the agency maintains state-of-the-art information portals that support visualization and exploration, it was difficult to find the underlying data sources. Data was eventually obtained by reverse engineering the website's source code.


The analysis was split into three geographic regions:

  1. The Western Mediterranean Spain, Italy, Malta
  2. January through June
  3. The Balkans Greece, Macedonia, Slovenia, Serbia, Hungary, Croatia, Austria
  4. September and October
  5. The Mid-East Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, Iraq
  6. January through June

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The Western Mediterranean routes include those through Spain, Malta, and Italy. These routes are typically more often used by migrants fleeing violence and unrest in Sub-Saharan African. According the U.N., 49% of all refugees in this region are Syrian in orgin. However, given the volume of refugees, this is still a significant number, meaning thousands of Syrians pass through these routes, either seeking asylum in these states or in other parts of Europe. Nearly all Syrians en route to Spain enter in Melilla, a small Spanish holding on the northern Coast of Africa. Those taking the route through Italy and Malta brave people smugglers, dangerously overcrowded and unseaworth boats, and unpredictable weather to cross the Mediterranean Sea. The numbers here are derived from UNHCR statistics that include country of origin data. In these graphics, the gray sectors represent the relative magnitude of the refugee influx while the orange rectangles show the number of times each country was mentioned in the Times.

R2 Coefficient:0.06969

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Perhaps the most well known Syrian migration route is through the Balkan states. The countries within this route were overrun with refugees in the early fall, with some localities reporting nearly 100-to-1 ratios of refugees to inhabitants. This route often starts with a sea journey to reach Greece. This portion of the journey, often undertaken on poorly constructed boats, along with cold weather, lack of food, and other obstacles has resulted in thousands of deaths. The world media was ignited in early September by the photo of a young boy, found dead on a Turkish beach after drowning on a boat that sank while trying to reach Greece. The UNHCR has recorded 3,625 dead or missing persons of people en route to Greece by sea.

These graphics show the relationship between media coverage and migrant arrivals for the 7 weeks between September 1st and October 19. Note the lapses in media coverage for states such as Croatia, Slovenia, and Macedonia, and the out-of-sync relationship between coverage and arrivals in Greece and Hungary. The data in this figure were adjusted to obtain an estimate of Syrian refugees, rather than the total number of refugees along this route, which includes migrants from Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries.

Note change in scale from monthly arrivals to weekly arrivals.

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October 17, 2015

On October 17, Hungary sealed its border with Serbia with a razor-wire fence, allowing entry only at designated entry points. Acting unilaterally, the Hungarian governement thus closed a major thoroughfare for migrants through eastern Europe to Germany and other countries with high rates of granting asylum. Prior to this event, migrants were able to move more or less freely about the Balkan states, and national border crossings, particularly into the European Union, were not highly regulated. Following this event, which Hungary claimed to do for the safety of its inhabitants, migrants were diverted to the west, and forced to cross Croatia and Slovenia.

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Photo: Refugees encounter the sealed Serbia-Hungary border in late October, 2015
Credit: The U.K. Daily Mail

The flow of migrants into the EU Schengen Zone was hardly stemmed by the the closing of the Hungarian border. Instead, many refugees now simply avoid entering Hungary and enter the eurozone in Croatia. This graphic highlights the week after Hungary erected its border fence (October 20 - 26). Note that the flows in the southern part of the route have not diminished, suggesting a bottleneck at the Serbia-Hungary-Croatia border in the weeks to come. Also, note the massive influx of migrants into Austria during this week.

The two variables show little correlation over these eight weeks in this regions, showing an R2 coefficient of very close to zero.

R2 = 0.01691
Note change in scale from monthly arrivals to weekly arrivals.

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Millions of Syrians have crossed the border from their home country into the neighboring states of Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey. These countries were some of the first to reach capacity from the massive influx of migrants. Poor conditions abound in both urban resettlements and designated refugee camps, and are now pushing many thousands of refugees to move out of the region, many towards Europe. Since the crisis began in 2012, the U.N. has registered 4.32 million people of concern of Syrian origin. Over half of these people are located in Turkey, most in refugee camps directly on the Turkish side of the border with Syria. A million more have moved into the small state of Lebanon; Iraq and Jordan support populations of nearly half a million each. These migrants tend to attract less attention than the high-profile migration routes through the western Mediterranean and the Balkans. These states are struggling with their own manifestations of civil unrest -- bombings and terrorist attacks are all too common, and the influx of Syrian migrants has pushed these countries to their breaking points. The U.N. has indicated that nearly many hundreds of thousands of inhabitants of these countries are vulnerable, suggesting that the total vulnerable population is nearly twice that of the Syrian refugees alone.

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The approximate location of U.N.-recognized refugee camps and areas of informal tent-settlement development. Note that the many of the camps, particularly those inTurkey and Jordan are immediately adjacent to the Syrian border.

R2 = 0.00114

Correlation between the coverage and arrivals is low in this region between January and June. Particuarly interesting in this context are Iraq and Turkey. Iraq, during this period, had a comparatively low influx of migrants, taking in only 20,003 refugees, equating to about 3% of all arrivals in the region, but was mentioned 409 times, which accounted for over 51% of all coverage of countries in the region. Conversely, Turkey took in over half a million migrants during this time, accounting for nearly 92% of arrivals, but recieved only 19% of coverage (157 mentions).

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Photo: The Zaatri Refugee Camp in Northern Jordan
Credit: Creative Commons
R2 Correlation = 0.04636

In each of the three regions, correlation between the number of times the nation was mentioned in the New York Times and the number of refugees entering that country was low. It is clear that there are limitations inherent in this method that may impact this finding, such as lag time between arrival and coverage in the news, loss of context while gathering country mentions from the news source, and inaccuracies in the refugee arrival data from the UNHCR. However, with this dataset, correlation spans both space, as it is clearly visible in all three geographies, and time, as it can be seen in datasets aggregated to weeks as well as those aggregated to months. This is significant because it means that the Times is systematically representing the spread of migrants in a way that is not representative of the countries to which the migrants are travelling, and instead choosing different criteria by which to weight their coverage.

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This graphic shows the average of the analysis period arrivals and mentions adjusted to show arrivals and mentions per month. There are several important, and troubling, conclusions that can be drawn from these data:

  1. Iraq Iraq had a very small fraction of the total refugee influx, and thus a small average influx, however, it was the most mentioned country of all those analyzed, garnering an average of 68 mentions per month. Iraq struggles with its own violence -- upwards of 14,000 civilians have been killed there in 2015 alone.
  2. Hungary Hungary received the second most news coverage, with approximately 61 mentions per month. However, much of this coverage was likely due to the political activities around closing the Serbian border, rather than the humanitarian situation, as evidenced by its lower average influx rate and the border closing.
If the news is more likely to cover political maneuvering and hostile acts in Hungary, Iraq, and other countries, then American readers will undoubtedly be more likely to conflate this state of affairs with Syrian refugees themselves.

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The Syrian migrant crisis is not over. While influx rates of Syrian refugees have stablized in some countries, many countries, especially those in the Middle East, are far over their capacity to support these people. Several million people remain displaced within Syria, and many may be forced to leave as the civil war continues to unfold.

It is important to remember that these refugees are not terrorists. They're families escaping the senseless violence of terrorists. Their homes -- their lives -- have been totally destroyed to the point of no return. As a wealthy nation, as a a nation that does not suffer from widespread civil unrest, we, as Americans, should be doing our part to alleviate the situation to any degree possible. One step in this direction is for The New York Times, a primary source of news for many Americans, to stop glorifying the violence and the terror in the Middle East and to start consciously humanizing the refugees, both in the content of their stories and the depth of their coverage.

Syrians rest in the highway near the Serbia-Hungary border in October.
Credit: UK Daily Mail/Reuters News Service