Cognitive dissonance? Or a ‘mis’representation of 2015-2016 migration ‘crisis’

21 kwietnia 2021

Dr Katarina Zajacova

Back in September 2015, the global media coverage, including the British press, was heavily dominated by an unprecedented scale of migration, primarily from the Middle East and North Africa to the EU. These occurrences were regularly labelled by all media outlets as the biggest migration ‘crisis’ since World War 2. The use of inflammatory language was a regular feature in most migration-related stories and the impact of such language had been widely debated (Lunt et al. 2001, Happer et al. 2013, Pulliam 2018, Hassan 2018). However, it is the nature and the specificity of the 2015 ‘crisis’ coverage that continues to be analysed and debated from many perspectives (UNHCR 2015, Georgiou & Zaborowski 2017) still now, almost 6 years later.

Our latest analysis of the Times and the Guardian articles from this period confirms that the media played a powerful role in framing the events as ‘crisis’, often dramatizing and exaggerating what has been taking place, whilst systematically omitting the voice of the major players; migrants themselves. As on many other occasions, the nature of language used whilst covering important, sensitive issues, such as this ‘crisis’, clearly impacts the public’s perception and therefore requires a thorough scrutiny. From the British perspective, many have argued that the coverage of this particular migration wave later directly fed into the 2016 Brexit referendum agenda, strengthening the position of the anti-immigration, pro-Brexit groups (Hall 2016, Garrett 2019)

Most common image of migrants and refugees

With commonly including expressions such as: ‘desperation’, ‘destitute’, ‘neediness’ and ‘vulnerability’, the over-dramatization of the 2015 events by the media was not only applied to the individual migrant at the micro-level but equally to the political, macro level. Some of the earlier presented critiques that have expressed concerns about the absence of migrant’s voice (Georgiou & Zaborowski 2017), victimisation (Goodman et al. 2017) and criminalisation of migrants and refugees (Eberl et al. 2018), but also the lack of the context presented in the articles or in the TV news coverage, can certainly be supported by our findings from the close evaluation of the articles in the two major British broadsheets, the Times and the Guardian. Somewhat unexpected from the left-leaning paper, it was the Guardian that consistently presented little or no background of the ‘push’ factors, nor did it present the historical context that would have created the milieu for the conflict that Syrians were fleeing away from. The Times presented contextual information more often, however only marginally. Just like in the Guardian, its focus on the likely reasons behind the migration was mostly absent, confirming that neither side of the journalistic political spectrum was prepared to investigate, analyse and present to British public what was behind this sizeable migration wave that took place in 2015-2016.  

The lack of individual, micro-level focus in both newspapers, including the omission of migrants’ direct voice, meant that the attention was mainly paid to the macro-level discussions, predominantly presenting the views of national governments, political leaders and the EU institutions. The coverage of the events was mostly presented to readers through the eyes of these macro-level actors and somehow the national and international institutions seemed to have acquired the permission to speak on migrant’s behalf.

Visual images may have not been the focus of our study, but whilst analysing the text, it was impossible not to notice that the picture images that accompanied the articles did not align with the nature and the tone of the text they accompanied. Images often focused on the humane side of the events, such as the overcrowded refugee camps, people behind the barb-wired fence, drowning children and overloaded boats of migrants desperately trying to cross the Mediterranean. The actual language and content of the articles rarely reflected what was portrayed by these images, but instead focused on the perpetual battle between the ‘new’ and the ‘old’ members of the EU and their opposing attitudes to the situation.

Was the idea to generate a cognitive dissonance in the reader’s mind? Or was it simply that the pictures that sell newspapers are those of ‘suffering’ masses of people, despite the lack of interest in giving them any voice. The mismatch of the claimed and presented interest of the media related to ‘crisis’ was prevalent at all levels and in both papers.

The EU Divided

The portrayal of the problematic, opposing relationships and ideologically motivated alliances in the EU has been continuous since the EU’s eastern enlargement in the 2000s. However, as evidenced by the EU’s record of decision making since 2004 – (a robust example of which can be found in Toshkov’s (2017) evaluation of legislative acts adopted in the EU between 1994-2012), the fears about the enlargement diminishing the Union’s decision-making capacity has mostly been unfounded. The coverage of the dispute over the proposed compulsory refugee quotas in 2015 follows the same pattern, giving an impression that there were two clear camps; the East and the West. Although undoubtedly some serious differences in opinions towards the quotas existed and the southern EU ‘border’ states were regularly expressing their concerns about the numbers of people attempting to enter their country, mostly from Syria, the division between the member states was nowhere near as clear cut as the papers had us to believe. With the Times headlines such as: ‘Europe divided; Political leaders paralysed by crisis over migrant quotas’ (The Times, 03.09.2015) or: ‘Merkel branded [by Eastern EU member states] a ‚moral imperialist’ as migrant row deepens ‘ (the Times, 24.09.2015) and similar headlines in the Guardian on the 21.09.2015: ‘Anti-quota EU leaders meet amid deadlock; Central and Eastern European leaders opposed to mandatory refugee sharing…’ and on the same day: ‘Eastern European leaders defy EU effort to set refugee quotas; Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Latvia reject Brussels over efforts to form common EU policy on just 66,000 migrants, calling it illegal’, there was no mistaking that the split was along the usual ‘East’-‘West’ lines. In addition, both of these portrayals give the impression of a rift so wide and clearly split between the ‘new -eastern’ and the ‘old -western’ members, that the agreement could have never been reached. However, when looking more closely at the figures showing network representations of common dissent in the Council of Ministers (2007-2016), it is clear that the media gave a misleading impression of the east-west divide (Toshkov 2017).

The quota’s directive was driven by Germany and its allies (such as France, Austria and Benelux countries), all of which are considered to be the western, ‘old’ members of the EU – however there was certainly not a unified front from the western members of the EU – as the UK, Ireland and Denmark, for example, were excluded from the enforcement of the directive and were allowed to opt-out. Equally, yes some of the CEE countries, specifically Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia firmly opposed the ‘enforcement’ of refugee quotas, however other members from the same geographical region (such as Poland) did not align with their neighbours. The ‘east’ is not one homogenic entity as is not the ‘west’ either and the disagreement about how to approach the high numbers of refugees was a lot more nuanced than both newspapers implied and certainly not straightforwardly divided between the ‘east’ and the ‘west’

The implication of presented division in both papers was that Europe comprises of two very distinct camps; the ‘racist’, anti-migration East on the one side and the tolerant, liberal West lead by Germany on the other. In line with previous past, pessimistic assumptions that when it comes to any important decisions, member states from Central and Eastern Europe will seemingly act together to oppose proposals coming from Brussels. Firstly, looking at it closely, as outlined above, there is no systematic evidence that the accession of the ‘new’ member states has slowed down decision making nor comprised the capacity of the EU to adopt common policies.

The migration/refugee ‘crisis’ was a testing time for the unity, however, the actual outcome was less dramatic (Toshkov 2017) than the coverage portrayed and the agreement has been reached. You may ask why then this portrayal in both papers, what is the media logic? Most likely there are several issues coming together to result in particular coverage of a given event, however given that there was consistency in the lack of migrants’ voice, or of the ‘push’ factors and historical contexts, it feels a lot like the exaggeration of the conflict between the EU member states is a distraction from the real issue and from the stories often captured in the photographs – cognitive dissonance.


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