Americans have had a change of heart toward Syrian refugees, with a majority now supporting the entry of asylum seekers to the United States. That is a major change from 18 months ago, when just 43 percent were in favor of allowing Syrian refugees to come into the country. This shift in opinion marks a possible first step toward a policy change on Syrian refugees, and demonstrates the impact that reporting and messaging can effect over time.
When Quinnipiac first asked Americans about their openness to Syrian refugees in December 2015, the race for the White House was dominating media coverage. At the forefront of that noise stood Donald Trump, whose popularity as a Republican candidate had shocked most of the "media elite," from cable news pundits to traditional publications like the Wall Street Journal. The country's fascination with the unpredictable and often offensive reality TV star all but squashed other stories — whether they concerned the 21 alternative presidential candidates or international crises like the refugee fallout of Syria's civil war.
A coordinated string of attacks in France had also just been attributed to terrorism, with authorities linking the perpetrators of Nov. 13's deadly shootings and bombing to ISIS. In total, 130 people were murdered that night, and hundreds more injured. This tragedy may have also contributed to Americans' hesitation to accept Syrian refugees.
US corporate media gave Donald Trump an astonishing $4.6 billion in free media coverage over course of his campaign.https://t.co/NVsPnggTVT— Paul Gottinger (@PaulGottinger) November 13, 2016
President Trump has made no secret of his stance toward Syrian refugees. While on the campaign trail, he infamously suggested a "Muslim ban" until "we figure out what's going on." Once instated at the White House, Trump attempted just that, signing an executive order to stop any travelers from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States — including Syria. After that was shot down by the courts, Trump tried again, this time making allowances for U.S. residents and visa holders, but still blocking anyone else from Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen from coming the America, while temporarily barring all refugees. That too has since been challenged by the judicial branch.
With Trump having won the election and clearly not being in support of admitting Syrian refugees, what explains the change in Americans' view of this issue?
One possibility could be the post-2015 coverage of the White Helmets, a group of Syrian volunteers who rush in to rescue people trapped and buried after bombings. A documentary featuring their incredible story premiered on Netflix in September 2016, and their heroic battle to save lives in the most devastating of circumstances earned them a 2016 Nobel Peace Prize nomination. Watching the story of the White Helmets paints a very different picture of "what's going on" with the population of Syria than a media diet consisting only of bombings, ISIS, and off-shoot rebel organizations.
The recent chemical bombing of the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun might also partly explain a softening stance toward Syrian refugees. Most Western leaders have attributed the bombing that killed at least 71 people, 21 of whom were children, to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with Trump responding by sending 59 missiles to hit the airbase from which the attack was presumably launched. Sympathy is a natural human response to learning of such catastrophic suffering.
Even during peak election campaign mode, certain figures in the media also refused to let the situation in Syria be ignored. S.E. Cupp, a CNN contributor, made it her mission to never let anyone forget how children in Syria were suffering, and our responsibility as humans to do something about it.
All of these actions add up. From improved coverage of the devastation in Syria to shining a most-deserved spotlight on the heroism of the "average" Syrians who volunteer with the White Helmets, the media plays a significant role in how the topic of refugees is understood.
And while it is lamentable — perhaps even damning — that more attention was not paid earlier on, the recent shift in American support for accepting refugees indicates that an uptick in media attention has helped the cause of Syrian refugees.