Journalism: A Key to Empathy

Xenophobia has unquestionably touched a cultural nerve, permeating our global community in the wake of the migrant crisis involving refugees from Syria. Despite events in history that should have taught us the intrinsic meaning of compassion and tolerance such as the Holocaust or the Civil Rights Movement, xenophobia has steadily intensified in ostensibly progressive nations like Europe and the United States. The antipathy toward immigrants conveyed by segments of European and American society is quite alarming. Nevertheless, the influence of journalism can mitigate this fear and hostility by reporting the plight of these refugees, and thereby, eliciting empathy that could potentially transform xenophobic attitudes.

The ongoing civil war in Syria has displaced millions of its citizens, and consequently, nearly 380,000 Syrian refugees had fled to Europe in 2015 in search of asylum (Connor, “Number of Refugees to Europe Surges to Record 1.3 Million in 2015”). This massive influx of migrants had created a significant strain on the human resources of various European countries like Hungary, Greece, and Italy, who have received a disproportionate burden as a result of their close proximity to Syria. In addition to the paucity of human resources, incidents of terrorism like the November 2015 Paris attacks and the 2016 bombings in Brussels have fueled the aversion and fear of the European citizenry. A survey revealed that 59% of Europeans were concerned that the arrival of refugees would increase domestic terrorism; 69% of Greeks and 65% of Italians perceived refugees from Syria as a major threat, and no more than four-in-ten Europeans viewed that growing diversity of races and ethnic groups improved the welfare of their countries (Poushter, “European Opinions of the Refugee Crisis in 5 Charts”).

In the United States, sentiments toward Syrian refugees entering the country were mixed. Similar to Europe, the San Bernardino terrorist attack in December of 2015 increased Americans’ dread and dislike concerning U.S. immigration policies. This public tenor was exacerbated by the racist and hateful rhetoric of Donald Trump during his political debates and rallies. Only 51% of Americans surveyed supported the acceptance of more refugees in light of the migrant crisis in Europe, whereas 45% disapproved and 4% didn’t know (“Mixed Views of Initial U.S. Response to Europe’s Migrant Crisis,” 2015). Despite the racial and ethnic diversity in America, a considerable portion of its populace had exhibited xenophobia.

Fortunately, the role of journalism as it pertains to foreign affairs coverage concerning the migrant crisis has the capacity to assuage the adverse feelings aimed toward Syrian refugees by giving rise to empathy. When people can relate and identify themselves in another person’s position, they often tend to be compassionate and understanding toward the predicament of others. In the case of the Syrian refugees, foreign news stories about their dilemma can potentially elicit care and sensitivity among the public as they view the problem as global and universal. In turn, this can affect and change their xenophobic frame of mind.

Andy Carvin, a technology advisor at NPR, achieved this empathetic strategy through his novel style of gathering foreign news by way of social media, specifically Twitter. His unique approach incorporated participatory journalism, where he constructed a network of local correspondents on the ground in Syria. Their constant communication via Twitter enabled Carvin to have access to immediate information at any given moment, which in turn enriched and complemented NPR’s core reporting by adding more depth and layers to the content. Heinrich suggests that “extending the arms of a news organization by linking up with a greater number of these large and particularly these small information nodes…is a step towards providing a more ‘global outlook’ in news coverage (6). Carvin’s revolutionary use of Twitter with the local citizens of Syria, comprised of both professional and amateur journalists, helped redefine and shape the global governance of foreign news reporting. Livingston and Asmolov assert that “new communication technologies give rise to a networked structure of global governance by an array of both state and non-state actors” (748). Additionally, because of Twitter’s messaging technology, Andy Carvin and his contacts weren’t constrained by geography. Gathering information in Washington D.C. from Syria did not impede or hinder the quality of communication. Rather, the amassing of international news data had elevated to a higher plateau as “the nature of global information diffusion has been transformed by the microelectronics revolution and by the rise of a new system of global governance” (Livingston et al. 749). Such advancements enabled Carvin to produce empathetic news coverage of the atrocities in Syria.

Among the scores of messages that Carvin had shared with his followers on Twitter, one in particular had provoked outrage and compassion simultaneously. This tweet contained video footage of two Syrian boys who were severely mutilated and dismembered as a result of the ruthless violence committed by the Syrian government’s military. The imagery from the video footage was so appalling and macabre that Carvin himself was viscerally affected and disturbed. He avows that “after 14 months of monitoring the Arab Spring footage, I thought I had seen everything. But there was absolutely nothing that could prepare me for the photo that had just been sent to me…Later, I received a video of the same boy…As repellent as the footage was, I knew I had to share it with my Twitter followers” (Carvin, location 5776-5794). Despite his reservations, Carvin decided to share the video on Twitter as a means to evoke empathy from the public sphere and rouse action of some sort to assist the maimed boys. He contends that “as a journalist it wasn’t my job to tell people to take action when it came to these revolutions. But as the fury swelled inside me, I couldn’t help but wish that I could go to Homs and bring that poor boy to safety” (Carvin, location 5802).

Reaction to the graphic Syrian video was incredibly potent, generating heartfelt discourse in the public sphere, or the “Twittersphere” to be precise. Steven Maclean, a London-based writer, tweeted, “Can’t believe the kid missing his jaw…Must be in deep shock. Awful images” (Carvin, location 5812). Ruwayda Mustafa, a human rights activist in Britain, also tweeted, “There are only a handful of images from the last 12 months that will haunt me. That will be one of them” (Carvin, location 5812). Their poignant sentiments were echoed amongst many others who followed Carvin on Twitter. By the same token, however, reaction to the video tweet was also critical. Sky News’ Neal Mann, an influential tweeter in the United Kingdom, maligned the video and stated that “journalists are used to dealing with such footage, but I do not feel comfortable pushing it to those who aren’t” (Schumacher-Matos, “War is Hell: Andy Carvin and the Tweeting of a Graphic Syrian Video”). In response to his release of the graphic footage, Carvin averred that “people now have the choice whether or not they want to bear witness, and I try to help them make an informed choice” (Schumacher-Matos, “War is Hell: Andy Carvin and the Tweeting of a Graphic Syrian Video”). Despite the censuring from various critics, Carvin’s decision to tweet the notorious video had sparked tremendous dialogue in a public forum, which in turn was an incremental step toward fostering empathy.

Carvin’s particular use of Twitter had converted the social media site into a platform where people could share and discuss their thoughts and feelings about the Syrian crisis. It wasn’t limited to merely information gathering or the dissemination of breaking news. But rather, it was also a means to express emotions and grief related to this human calamity. When Basil al Sayid was killed while shooting footage of the military onslaught in the city of Homs, his tragic death touched a chorus of people who were part of the Twitter community. A Syrian activist named Rami Jarrah utilized the platform to pay his final respects to the fallen hero, tweeting, “If everyone knew what Basil al Sayid contributed to #Syria & the endless video documenting he gave us we would be building him a statue now” (Carvin, location 5703). To some degree, Carvin’s network of followers via Twitter had accomplished certain goals that Global Voices, a worldwide association of bloggers and citizen journalists, had strived to achieve during its inception.

Carvin expressed frustration over the mainstream media’s lack of coverage regarding Syria as the crisis continued over the span of months. He points out that “by December 2011, more than 100 death counts per day were common…daily casualties that would seem almost routine after a while, making it harder to catch the interest of the news organizations…As long as it remained steady…Syria would often disappear from the headlines” (Carvin, location 5676). Ethan Zuckerman, the founder of Global Voices, had shared a similar concern in the making of his organization regarding the issue of agenda setting in mainstream media. He notes that by “providing coverage of events that other media outlets missed, we would help challenge the imbalances in attention” (Zuckerman 127). Andy Carvin had fulfilled this aim on a certain level with the Twitter platform. Because of his affiliation with NPR, Carvin’s fervent attention on Syria through the Twittersphere helped promote coverage on the time-honored news organization, notwithstanding the amount of on air exposure. With his phalanx of citizen journalists in Syria, Carvin actualized Zuckerman’s desire when he “hoped that by offering a global perspective through the eyes of a specific individual on the ground, readers would have an easier time connecting with unfamiliar stories” (Zuckerman 127-128). When Basil al Sayid was killed in the line of duty, Carvin made certain to share his unfortunate death with his Twitter followers as he witnessed too many deaths from afar. He clearly understood that “unless someone made a point of memorializing them, their deaths went unnoticed outside of Syria” (Carvin, location 5676). By imparting the personal story of Basil al Sayid through the eyes of his friends and family, Carvin could help readers around the world connect and relate with the foreign stories of Syria. His interactions on Twitter could bring to fruition what Zuckerman had endeavored with Global Voices, “searching through the vastness of participatory content to find the bits that illuminate issues, concerns, and lives in other parts of the world” (Zuckerman 129). Global Voices may have stalled, but its manifesto of coalescing different nations in the world was sincerely realized on a significant level by Andy Carvin’s ingenious handling of Twitter with regard to Syria.

Yet in spite of Carvin’s amazing contribution, the global impact of Alan Kurdi’s photo was astonishingly powerful in shifting the hostile mentality toward Syrian refugees. Alan Kurdi was a 3-year-old Syrian boy whose body was found on a beach in Turkey after he had drowned in the Mediterranean Sea in September of 2015. The crowded boat of refugees that he and his mother and brother were on had capsized on its way to Greece. His photograph was taken by Nilufer Demir, a correspondent and photographer for Turkey’s Dogan News Agency. She emphasized that “there was nothing to do except take his photograph…This is the only way I can express the scream of his silent body” (Griggs, “Photographer Describes ‘Scream’ of Migrant Boy’s Silent Body”). Upon its release to the press and social media, Alan Kurdi’s haunting picture devastated the world, transforming the dialectic on the refugee crisis. Soon afterward, European leaders changed their tone along with media outlets that had been previously antagonistic toward Syrian migrants. Germany agreed to allow thousands of refugees into its country who were marooned in Hungary, and David Cameron, who was the prime minister of the UK then, agreed to accept “4,000 refugees a year until 2020” (Kingsley, “The Death of Alan Kurdi: One Year On, Compassion Towards Refugees Fades”). The miraculous impact of the drowned boy’s picture also transcended European borders regarding policy and public opinion. In Canada, Justin Trudeau, the liberal party leader at the time, reacted critically to Alan Kurdi’s photo by arguing, “I do know that this family, father Abdullah’s sister in Vancouver, had been trying for months to get their family to come over. That there was a path and a reason that these particular little boys should be right now preparing for…the school year…Instead of reminding us all that Canada…has failed to be the country that we like to imagine it to be” (Lupick, “Trudeau and Mulcair React to News Dead Syrian Boy was Trying to Get to Canada with Help of Family in Vancouver”). After Trudeau became the new prime minister of Canada, he repeated his campaign pledge to resettle 25,000 refugees despite the delay. The Liberals confirmed that they would “bring in 10,000 mostly private-sponsored refugees by the year’s end and another 15,000 government-sponsored Syrian refugees by 29 February. A further 10,000 government-sponsored Syrian refugees will arrive over the course of 2016” (Murphy, “Trudeau Greets Syrian Refugees as Canada Prepares for More Arrivals”). Alan Kurdi’s photograph had momentarily created a genuine sense of empathy from government leaders and the general public alike, converting widespread xenophobia into compassion and tolerance.

In August of 2016, a photograph of Omran Daqneesh, a 5-year-old Syrian boy from Aleppo, covered with dust and encrusted blood, reminded the world of the human atrocities in Syria. In her third presidential debate with Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton referred to Omran Daqneesh when she addressed the contentious issue of immigration, affirming, “I am not going to let anyone into this country who is not vetted…but I am not going to slam the door on women and children. That picture of that little 4-year-old boy in Aleppo with the blood coming down his face while he sat in an ambulance is haunting” (Politico staff, “Full Transcript: Third 2016 Presidential Debate”). Additionally, Kate Bolduan, a news anchor at CNN reacted emotionally to Omran’s heart-rending picture while she reported the story on air (CNN, “Story of Little Syrian Boy Moves CNN Anchor to Tears”). The photograph had renewed much needed interest in the public sphere as apathy to the Syrian catastrophe had ensued, quietly neutralizing the urgency of the crisis; and hence, reinforcing negative sentiments toward Syrian immigrants.

Moreover, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had attempted to undermine the authenticity of Omran Daqneesh’s picture. In his interview with Swiss Media concerning the boy from Aleppo, Assad claims, “This is a forged picture and not a real one. We have real pictures of children being harmed, but this one specifically is a forged one” (Katz, “This is a Forged Picture: Bashar Assad Disputes Boy in the Ambulance Account”). Furthermore, Assad argues in response to the air strike bombing, “None of those incidents were true. You can have it manipulated and it is manipulated” (Osborne, “Omran Daqneesh: Assad Claims Pictures of Five-Year-Old Aleppo Boy Pulled from Rubble Faked”). Such depraved political tactics makes it increasingly difficult for human rights witnesses like Mahmoud Rslan, the photographer behind Omran Daqneesh’s picture, and Mustafa al-Sarout, the videographer of the Aleppo rescue, to challenge and hold nefarious dictators like Assad accountable. This is especially troublesome in the court of law when the credibility of human rights witnesses is being questioned by the opposition, such as the evidence that connects or links the offender. Gregory notes that “linkage evidence is information showing who, at the highest levels, ordered a crime to be committed or is responsible for the perpetration of the crime, and how they participated in the commission of the crime” (5). In order to create linkage evidence, Gregory adds that human rights witnesses need to “understand that filming the insignia on military uniforms or an inflammatory speech…is often more important than the direct documentation of another horrendous attack” (5). Alas, this may prove futile and pointless. No matter how skilled the witnesses are at documenting the atrocities in Syria, the sheer abundance of evidence may ironically sabotage them. Keenan describes this quandary as the “dark side of revelation, over-exposure” (qtd. in Gregory 6), a bleak future of “an archive of over half a million potentially evidentiary videos and social media posts that will never be utilized” (Gregory 6). Given these conditions, the prospect of improving Syria’s current state of crisis appears extremely dire. As a corollary, nurturing tolerance and a duty to sacrifice for the greater good with regard to immigration policies might be a very tall order for the native citizens of European countries and the United States.

With the presidential victory of Donald Trump and the UK’s exit from the European Union due in large to right-wing groups advocating anti-immigration measures, the networked press have their work cut out for them if they endeavor to cultivate empathy for Syrian refugees. There are two conditions that need to be achieved if they are earnest about turning the tide. First, the news stories covering the Syrian crisis should be predicated on Schudson’s 6 models of qualitative journalism. They must provide fair information on the Syrian immigrants, investigate governmental power, e.g., Bashar al-Assad’s regime, interpret the stories to help the citizenry understand the whole picture, offer a public forum to converse and further comprehend the migrant crisis, mobilize groups like UNHCR, Oxfam, and the Small Projects Istanbul, and above all, elicit social empathy from the readers and viewers. Then secondly, the partnership between social media and traditional/mainstream media is essential to countering xenophobia. Hermida believes that “technology companies such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter have emerged as key media organizations in the twenty-first century, even though they do not create media” (89). And Napoli states that as social media becomes “entwined in the distribution, circulation and promotion of news and information, scholars and industry analysts have interrogated the duties and responsibilities of social media platforms to the public interest, above all in supporting the information needs of a well-functioning democracy” (qtd. in Hermida 89). Andy Carvin’s imaginative news reporting couldn’t have happened without Twitter or YouTube, social media sites that enabled the flow of information and communication to appear so seamless. The amalgamation of mainstream and social media offers an effective means of reaching the psyche of readers and viewers in a personal and intimate fashion.

At this juncture, the scarcity of human resources and potential acts of terrorism have fortified a resistant disposition toward expanding immigration policies in Europe and the United States. Yet nonetheless, if journalists wholeheartedly aspire to produce foreign news stories at a supremely high and innovative level, then empathy can be a viable instrument in changing xenophobic attitudes, as evidenced by the powerfully sad photographs of Alan Kurdi and Omran Daqneesh. In other words, the fate of the Syrian refugees is greatly contingent on the performance of the networked press given its priceless influence on public opinion and government policy.

Works Cited:

Carvin, Andy, 2012. Distant Witness: Social Media, the Arab Spring and a Journalism Revolution. Kindle Ed., CUNY Journalism Press, 2012, ISBN 978-1-939293-03-9 ebook.

Connor, Phillip, 2016. “Number of Refugees to Europe Surges to Record 1.3 Million in 2015.” Pew Research Center, 2 August 2016,

Gregory, S. 2015. Ubiquitous Witnesses: Who Creates the Evidence and the Live(d) Experience of Human Rights Violations? Information, Communication & Society, 18 (11), 1378-1392. doi: 10.1080/1369118X.2015.1070891.

Griggs, Brandon, 2015. “Photographer Describes ‘Scream’ of Migrant Boy’s Silent Body.” CNN, 3 September 2015,

Heinrich, A. 2012. Foreign Reporting in the Sphere of Network Journalism. Journalism Practice, 6(5-6), 766-775.

Hermida, Alfred. 2016. Social Media and the News. In T. Witschge, C.W. Anderson, D. Domingo, & A. Hermida (Eds.), Handbook of Digital Journalism (pp. 81-94). New York, NY: SAGE.

Katz, Andrew, 2016. “This is a Forged Picture: Bashar Assad Disputes Boy in the Ambulance Account.” TIME, 20 October 2016,

Kingsley, Patrick, 2016. “The Death of Alan Kurdi: One year On, Compassion Towards Refugees Fades.” The Guardian, 2 September 2016,

Livingston, S., & Asmolov, G. (2010). Networks and the Future of Foreign Affairs Reporting. Journalism Studies, 11(5), 745-760.

Lupick, Travis, 2016. “Trudeau and Mulcair React to News Dead Syrian Boy was trying to get to Canada with Help of Family in Vancouver.” The Georgia Straight, 3 September 2015,

Murphy, Jessica, 2015. “Trudeau Greets Syrian Refugees as Canada Prepares for More Arrivals.” The Guardian, 11 December 2015,

Osbourne, Samuel, 2016. “Omran Daqneesh: Assad Claims Pictures of Five-Year-Old Aleppo Boy Pulled from Rubble were Faked.” Independent, 20 October 2016,

Politico Staff, 2016. “Full Transcript: Third 2016 Presidential Debate.” Politico, 16 October 2016,

Poushter, Jacob, 2016. “European Opinions of the Refugee Crisis in 5 Charts.” Pew Research Center, 16 September 2016,

Schumacher-Matos, Edward, 2012. “War is Hell: Andy Carvin and the Tweeting of a Graphic Syrian Video.” NPR, 6 February 2012,

2015. “Mixed Views of Initial U.S. Response to Europe’s Migrant Crisis.” Pew Research Center, 29 September 2015,

2016. “Story of Little Syrian Boy Moves CNN Anchor to Tears.” CNN,

Zuckerman, E. (2013). Global Voices. Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection(pp. 121-131). New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

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