Mediatized Conflict and Visual News Framing

How Swiss Audiences React to News Images from the Syrian War

In: Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication
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The Syrian conflict has challenged both the ways of reporting war and its impact on the public. However, only a few empirical studies have tried to assess public reactions to representations of war. In this paper, we use an empirically-based study that combines quantitative and qualitative methods to assess how Swiss audiences react to crisis reporting and visual news framing in French-speaking Swiss media. The study offers a preliminary understanding of how people react to images in the media, especially with respect to military and political contexts, and also builds a visual map of how audiences process information contained in news images of war.


The Syrian conflict has challenged both the ways of reporting war and its impact on the public. However, only a few empirical studies have tried to assess public reactions to representations of war. In this paper, we use an empirically-based study that combines quantitative and qualitative methods to assess how Swiss audiences react to crisis reporting and visual news framing in French-speaking Swiss media. The study offers a preliminary understanding of how people react to images in the media, especially with respect to military and political contexts, and also builds a visual map of how audiences process information contained in news images of war.


The war in Syria has challenged news reporting of war and its impact on the public, particularly for those wars that began in a changing media landscape (Kaempf 2013); initially this became apparent during the Iraq war. While the war was first reported by reporters and freelancers sent to the field, it has since become more difficult to rely on traditional news sources, given the dangers, lack of access to rebel- or state-controlled regions and threats of kidnapping and killing. Arguably, the events of the Arab uprisings and the lack of trained journalists willing to go to the field quickly shifted the coverage to new forms of crisis reporting and visibility, specifically, the production of eyewitness videos and photos and user-generated content by citizen journalists delivered through social media and online platforms. These amateur productions have been also included in news networks by mainstream media (al-Ghazzi 2014; Harkin et al. 2012; Pantti 2013b; Salama 2010; Van Leuven, Heinrich and Deprez 2013; Wall and el-Zahed 2015). The war coverage in Syria therefore provokes questions about the ways in which the news media frames the conflict, and the media’s use of images and how these affect audiences’ understanding of events.

Broadly speaking, several studies on war and its representations have raised concerns about audience engagement with remote conflicts, with some studies focusing on the compassion fatigue syndrome (Cohen 2001; Moeller 1999; Tester 2001) or on how visual representations can provoke empathy (Sontag 2003). However, few studies have used empirical methods to assess public reactions to visual representations of war or suffering (Cohen and Seu 2002; Höijer 2004; Kim and Kelly 2010; 2013). A large part of people’s knowledge about foreign wars is influenced by the way the news media frame international events. The display and intertwining of these different framings by the media expose audiences to a ‘proposal of commitment’ (Boltanski 1999: 149), or ‘to specific dispositions to feel, think, and act toward each instance of suffering’ (Chouliaraki 2008: 372). This empirically-based study aims to bridge the research gap in reception studies by showing how people connect to and are affected by images of the war in Syria as shown in French-speaking Swiss national media. The study attempts to give a preliminary understanding of how people apprehend the images exhibited in the media, especially with respect to military and political contexts.

Analyzing Swiss audience responses is relevant because Switzerland presents a unique context in comparison to other national contexts. Despite its size, Switzerland enjoys a multilingual society (French, German, Italian and Romansh), has a high level of ethnic diversity and is located at a crossroads of European cultures. Its geography, cultural diversity and policies contribute to a dense and diverse media landscape with regard to press diversity per inhabitant and TV possession (Meier and Schanne 1994; Cornu and Borruat 2007). With regard to the audience, a large majority of the Swiss population still reads newspapers (OFS 2011). Consumer behavior is changing more slowly than in other parts of the world and print revenues remain strong (Newman 2016). However, Swiss media usually do not have the budget of organizations like the BBC or CNN to send their own journalists around the world when conflicts or crises happen. Resources are also scarce because only a few journalists in Switzerland are adequately trained to cover such events. Finally, the crisis that hit media companies all over the world has affected Swiss media too, engendering budget cuts, especially in foreign bureaus. This has led Swiss media to cover foreign news mostly by relying on news agencies, other foreign media companies and online sources (Sacco and Bossio 2015). And, the Swiss population has witnessed the migration flow from the Middle East, Asia and Africa; migrants and war refugees have sought asylum in Switzerland since 2013,1 as they have in other European countries.

We begin this article with the concept of mediatized conflict, and focus, in particular, on the role of photojournalism and news photography in the visual economies of war coverage. We then draw on previous research on media framings of wars and conflicts, and the debated relation between crisis reporting and audience reactions. We then detail the methodological approach, the different steps of data collection and data analysis. For methodology, 32 male and female participants were divided into four focus groups and asked to watch selected news images of the Syrian war from the Swiss media. For this research, we used a survey method to rate their emotional responses and then invited them to openly discuss their responses to visual and discursive framing of the conflict. Finally, we analyze audiences’ reactions to representation of war and the role of images in war coverage. Based on those findings, we have been able to build a visual map of how the audience processes the information contained in news images of this war.

Mediatized Conflict

The Swiss public’s experience of war implies a process of mediation, as audiences do not have a direct link with the conflict. ‘Mediation’, as defined by Silverstone, is a dialectical notion that focuses on ‘processes of communication’ and how these ‘change the social and cultural environments that support them’ (Silverstone 2005: 189). The reporting of international events and the ways in which they are mediated in a globalized world have prompted academic debate on whether such events create ‘global’ or ‘ephemeral communities’ (Gitlin 1996), or ‘transnational cosmopolitanism’ (Cottle 2009). Conflicts and disasters in general, as well as any large human tragedy, are considered important triggers on cosmopolitan audiences (Chouliaraki 2008; Linklater 2007; Robertson 2008).

The concept of ‘mediatized conflict’ has been the subject of intense academic attention since the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, in the digital age, some, such as Mortensen (2015), argue that the concept must now take into account the interrelations of two dimensions—the interaction of institutionalized news media with the military and political elites to gain access to information; and the non-professional actors, such as soldiers or citizens, who circulate and sometimes create information about the conflict. These actors filter knowledge and produce meaning about war, encoded in narrative structures and more particularly in ‘the extent, prominence and increased visualization of war coverage’ (Cottle 2006: 80).

The coverage of the war in Syria vacillates between traditional forms of war journalism, which shape national identities by distinguishing between ‘us’ and ‘them’ (i.e., the so-called compassion fatigue toward civilian victims during the sieges of Homs or Aleppo), and a ‘sphere of magnification’, when a local event is magnified by media networks in a globalized perspective (see Volkmer 2008: 94–96). Such a balance challenges the way people might know or feel about the conflict. In this sense, media representations of the world affect the global, the collective and individual imagination, in an age of hyper-visibility (Orgad 2012). More specifically, global media images are used to generate emotional mediation (Pantti 2013a), but question to what extent they participate in the appropriation of the event by national broadcasters, and then their audiences ‘who in their consumption and their interpretation of the media employ already existing local, national, and cultural resources of meaning construction’ (Kyriakidou 2009: 485).

(Photo)journalism and Audiences

The Syrian conflict has provoked fresh interest in the use of photojournalistic evidence in the visual coverage of the war, allowing ‘new voices’, such as Syrian citizens, opposition activists or rebel fighters, ‘to enter the mainstream-media-dominated information sphere, which carries the potential of democratizing the mediated space of appearance and strengthen journalism’s social responsibilities’ (Pantti 2013b: 4). The mix of old and new visual sources in the media coverage of the Syrian crisis has consequently heightened the problems of reliability, verification and truth claims of news photography. Previous research on public perception of journalism shows that credibility and trust are the most important criteria for audiences, regarding the sources (Manning 2001), but the differences between media formats, television being considered less trustworthy than print media (Kiousis 2002) are also relevant criteria. Recently, an increase in distrust and skepticism have been observed among audiences (e.g., Pew Research Center 2012). Such distrust is co-related to what is considered ‘good journalism’. There are divergences: journalists tend to estimate their performance more positively than the public, while the public gives more importance to the role of media as watchdogs, the public sees them as responsible for presenting complex analysis, verifying information, and providing accurate stories with objectivity (Zúñiga and Hinsley 2013: 934; see also Tai and Chang 2002).

In the relationship between the public and media content, images have the ability to overcome textual information because they provoke strong emotions and affect human minds (Below 2010). In fact, even though images represent only a slice of the entire picture, audiences consider them a dominant reality (Viehoff and Fahlenbrach 2003; Walton 2003). In particular, a major factor in exhibiting the suffering of others is related to the role of (photo)journalists as witnesses (Zelizer 2002). When bearing witness, especially to human abuses, (photo)journalists act as intermediates to those (i.e., the public) who are not there to see it, and they try to make this suffering morally imperative, in order to call for social mobilization and political action (Tait 2011). Therefore, there are different ‘economies of regulation’ (Chouliaraki 2009) in crisis reporting that depend on whether the (photo)journalists report from afar or in close proximity to the events, and this influences the moderate or extensive portrayal of suffering and atrocities. Visual economies of war and its casualties are also impacted by the technological context; the two dimensions of mediatized conflict evoked by Mortensen (2015) have dramatically changed the practices of photojournalism in warfare, which are now emblematic of a post photographic age (Kennedy 2015).

Framing Wars and Conflicts

The length and complexity of the war in Syria have had consequences on the reporting choices made by western media who tend to avoid sending journalists to the field (Dickinson 2015; Malsin 2014); it has also influenced the way it is framed by international media. As Reese suggests, ‘Framing is concerned with the way interests, communicators, sources, and culture combine to yield coherent ways of understanding the world, which are developed using all of the available verbal and visual symbolic resources’ (Reese 2001: 11). International events, especially violent events close to western political, geographical, or economic interests, or out of the ordinary, are more likely to be selected in the media agenda (Chang, Shoemaker and Brendlinger 1987). Galtung notes that the coverage of a news event depends of the journalist’s emphasis of war or peace framings (1986). Since then, other studies have identified eight generic frames that are used in foreign news coverage (see Table 1).

Table 1

Framed used in news reporting

Table 1

Research on media coverage of wars and conflicts shows that images balance frames that emphasize political and military power at the expense of covering the human and economic aspects of a conflict (Griffin 2004). Human-interest frames are mostly related to the suffering of victims, which is likely to sensitize public opinion on war and conflict realities (Shaw 2012: 94). So far, the only available frame analysis of news of the Syria conflict, to our knowledge, is the study by Cozma and Kozman on the framing of the conflict in Syria by elite US newspapers (Cozma and Kozman 2015). Relying mainly on the aforementioned frames, the study shows how the New York Times and the Washington Post have used responsibility and conflict frames despite a focus on diplomatic ‘efforts after the 2013 gas attacks, and [they] hardly followed any morality or human-interest frames’ (Cozma and Kozman 2015: 679–680). This focus on diplomatic framing and the involvement of the international community in the aftermath of the chemical attacks are rather characteristic of the new path of ‘peace journalism’ (Hanitzsch 2007b; Galtung and Fischer 2013).

More recently, the framing of news images has gained significant interest (Rodriguez and Dimitrova 2011), and, as such, the field of visual framing has come to designate ‘the selection of one view, scene or angle when making the image, cropping, editing or selecting it’ (Coleman 2010: 237). Visual choices that focus on the violence of the image tend to provoke more indignation among viewers and promote journalistic calls for international mobilization (Perlmutter 1998). Research on visual news framings among western media during the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq or Gaza (Campbell 2011; Fahmy 2007; 2010; Fahmy and Kim 2008; Fahmy and Neumann 2012; Schwalbe 2006; Schwalbe, Silcock, and Keith 2008) emphasize how the selection of news pictures shifted from the conflict frame (patriotic, victory and military-oriented) to the human-interest frame (i.e., the human cost of the conflict).

Some of the few studies of this nature, which follow this new theoretical framework of visual news framing in the context of the Syrian war, include Greenwood and Jenkins’ study of US and English magazines (2015), Pantti’s analysis of seven European newspapers (2013b) and Mast and Hanegreefs’ study of Flemish news media (2015). Although their analyses date back to the 2011–2012 visual representations of the Syrian war, these studies observe a balance between war- and peace-oriented framings. While US and English magazines and a majority of the European newspapers (Greenwood and Jenkins 2015: 214–215; Pantti 2013b: 10–11) tended to focus on the war or protest framings (belligerents, victims, demonstrators, violence), citizen imagery used in Flemish media was more graphic (human toll and warfare), whereas professional news pictures were more peace-oriented (diplomacy, negotiators; see Mast and Hanegreefs 2015: 607–608). However, we lack the evidence to understand how these visual frames provoke emotions in the audience.

Audiences’ Reactions to Representations of Wars and Conflicts

It has been argued that graphic and human-interest representations of conflicts have long-lasting effects on audiences. While these representations are expected to play a role in the media’s moral injunctions to feel concerned emotionally or intellectually (Tester 2001), they can also produce ‘compassion fatigue’ as a consequence of the media’s formulaic coverage on conflicts, disease and disasters (Moeller 1999). Although Moeller focuses on the negative impact of the use of violent images, Sontag claims that such images are needed to promote a democratization of responsibility and care (Sontag 2003). Discussing the two positions, Campbell exposes the limits of Moeller’s theory and classifies compassion fatigue as a ‘myth’ (Campbell 2014).

The French philosopher Luc Boltanski emphasizes the relation of the public with distant others and particularly how the media ‘propose to the spectator a definite mode of linguistic and conative emotional commitment’ (Boltanski 1999: 149). According to him, the commitment is made through three topics: denunciation (focusing on causes and perpetrators and promoting feelings of anger and indignation), sentiment (focusing on consequences of violence and victims and promoting feelings of pity and sadness), aesthetics (presenting the spectacle of suffering in direct relation to the use of images, creating nothing but indifference). Although it offers an innovative paradigm, Boltanski’s essay lacks empirical evidence. In 2004, Birgitta Höijer’s study was the first of its kind to use empirical data among Swedish and Norwegian populations, combining the use of telephone, in-depth interviews and focus groups to assess audiences’ emotional reactions to the coverage of the war in Kosovo (Höijer 2004). Her results show that for the public, emotions are highly dependent on visual images and victims; in addition to Boltanski’s assessment, she further extends the forms of commitment from sentiment (‘tender-hearted’) and denunciation (‘blame-filled’) to the audience’s own responsibility (‘shame-filled’) and inaction (‘powerlessness-filled’; see Höijer 2004: 522–524).

Other recent studies on reception include the project ‘Mediated humanitarian knowledge, audiences’ responses and moral actions’,2 whose aim is to understand how audiences react to humanitarian appeals; this study contributes to deepening our knowledge on forms of denials (Seu 2010) and refutes, in part, the compassion fatigue argument (Seu, Flanagan and Orgad 2015). These recent studies confirm that many questions remain concerning perception of the public with regard to violence and war images; many variables (emotions, cultural knowledge, the relation of audiences with war journalism and news pictures) are open for empirical exploration and discussion.

Because little research has analyzed how audiences react to news images of war, our investigation interrogates how people ‘feel, think, and act toward each instance of suffering’ (Chouliaraki 2008: 372). This study does not limit itself to media content but aims at answering questions about the type of emotions felt by the audience when they are exposed to news images of war and the consequences of the perceived role of news images of war for journalism.

Data Collection

Phase I

The 32 male and female participants were exposed to a slideshow of 13 news images about the war in Syria. Each image was on the screen for 24 seconds without any explanation or contextualization, in order not to orient or manipulate the participants’ own interpretation of the images. The pictures were selected through a content analysis of French Swiss media (TV, print, radio and online) from 13 September 2013 to 2 October 2013. This time frame was chosen because it is situated in the weeks that followed the Ghouta chemical attacks against civilians in August 2013, while the UN mission in Syria was investigating the massacre and the possibility of a US intervention was discussed (Cozma and Kozman 2015: 670–671).

During these three weeks, the Swiss media covered the Syrian war on an almost daily basis, shifting from the protests in the Syrian streets, the war escalation, urban and civilian casualties to the UN investigation and the diplomatic peace talks between the United States, Russia and Syria. Like Pantti, who observed that a majority (89 percent) of images about Syria used in seven national European newspapers came from western news agencies (Pantti 2013b: 7), most of the pictures in our sample originated from the Associated Press and were used in more than one medium and title. No more than one or two images were found per day, which made the selection relatively easy. Displayed in a randomly visual sequence for the participants of our focus groups, we categorized the selected images according to the eight meta-frames identified in previous research (see Table 1) and eight visual frames identified by the authors (see Table 2 with the description of the images and the order in which they were shown). Although this phase of the research was done prior to the above-mentioned studies on visual framings of the Syrian war, the same visual contents were found when analyzing the Swiss media (Greenwood and Jenkins 2015: 214 and 221; Mast and Hanegreefs 2015: 607; Pantti 2013b: 11).

Table 2

Description of meta-frame(s) and frame(s) associated with the images in the slideshow

Table 2

After viewing each image, the participants were asked to complete a questionnaire to rate the emotions they felt when exposed to these pictures. In line with the literature review, Table 3 shows the emotions that the participants chose from in the questionnaire. For each emotion, the participants could choose on a Likert-scale, ranging from 1 (no feeling) to 5 (strong feeling). An open space was left for participants to fill in other emotions.

Phase II

The second stage consisted of traditional focus groups who were asked about the images: what do the images represent; what feelings do they evoke; which strategies should the media consider to engage the public when covering wars and conflicts and does visual news frame increase knowledge of international events, in particular wars and conflicts.

Table 3

Scale of emotions

Table 3


This study used four surveys followed by focus groups in November and December 2013 with 32 people of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds and age ranges, in order to maximize group diversity (see Table 4). The groups were homogeneous; the ideal size was eight participants and the surveys lasted from 1 hour 30 minutes to 2 hours, as recommended by Kitzinger (1995: 301). We were interested in acquiring the point of view of the average population.

Table 4

Characteristics of participants

Table 4

Audience Emotions when Exposed to News Images of War

The following two-dimensional graph maps the images as they relate to the emotions rated by the participants (see Fig. 1). At this stage, it is worth noting that age and gender are insignificant variables.


Figure 1

Phase I: MCA Factor Map

Citation: Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication 10, 2-3 (2017) ; 10.1163/18739865-01002007

When interpreting the graph, the most stand-alone emotions (i.e., indifference and denial) were the most common in the two axes. Because most of the images are grouped toward the middle of the graph, they show that indifference and denial were not the dominant emotions. Furthermore, the cluster of images in the four squares do not all share the same frame(s), but are related to a binary axis that could be distinguished between ‘international actors/perpetrators’ (left side of the graph with images 8, 10, 11 and 12 and 1, 2 and 3) and ‘victims’ (right side of the graph with images 4, 5 and 7 and 6, 9 and 13); the former is related to a relative indifference toward diplomats or supporters of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad; the latter is related to feelings of anger and pity in the face of the graphic exhibit of the human toll of the conflict and its perpetrators. The findings thus confirm results of previous research claiming that compassion is highly dependent on victims, especially when portraying violence and destruction (Boltanski 1999; Höijer 2004), and this is even more true if victims are perceived as innocent people or civilians (Brauman 1993; Moeller 2002). However, to better understand the results of Figure 1 we must cross-check them with the discussions raised during the focus groups.

Phase II of the project consisted of focus group discussions. Figure 2 reports the emotions recalled by the participants and clarifies each emotion (or group of emotions) using keywords from the participants’ own discussions. At first glance, we can present three main remarks:

  1. In line with the Multiple Correspondence Analysis (MCA), some emotions were always coupled together. As an example, anger, sadness and indignation were in the same cluster (see Fig. 1).
  2. The keywords used by the participants to define the roots of their emotions correspond to the results of the MCA. As an example, when looking at Figure 2, suffering and pity are related to violence and destruction. Indeed, images 4, 5 and 7, which portray urban destruction and wounded people, were associated with pity in the MCA.
  3. In the focus group research, there was a sharp division between the sentiments provoked by the international actors/perpetrators and those provoked by the victims of the conflict. As an example, victims were associated with emotions such as powerlessness, suffering and pity and shame, sadness and anger, whereas the international actors/perpetrators were related to feelings of injustice and anger and indignation. Participants often identified with the victims, this was even more true if they were children or families. They imagined a story behind the image.

It is important to note that Figures 1 and 2 report all stages of emotions that motivated the focus groups’ participants. This emphasizes that different emotions coexist when people are exposed to news images of war. Without any doubt, the most dominant emotions in all groups were powerlessness and anger associated with other emotions, but not directed only toward the victims. When describing his classification, in particular the topic of denunciation, Boltanski (1999) suggests that the sentiments of indignation and pity are quickly transformed into anger. He failed, however, to show how feelings can foster direct mobilization or action.

Such limits of the public’s capacities and potential to engage have been identified in humanitarian appeals (Chouliaraki 2010; Vestergaard 2013), which have now turned to more participatory and post-emotional representations of suffering, such as ‘clicktivism’ or other forms of lobbying. Therefore, it is questionable whether the media could offer a form of further political or social engagement when they report on international crises. As an example, more than 100,000 people signed the petition ‘calling for Britain to “take its fair share” ’ of refugees, launched by the Independent after its publication of the Aylan Kurdi picture in September 2015 (Withnall 2015). This example might be an extreme form of the ‘interventionist approach [that] may act on behalf of the socially disadvantaged’ as in peace, development, public or civic journalism (Hanitzsch 2007a: 373). This would mean that civic engagement from the public must be fostered not only in a variety of formats (such as participative journalism; see Deuze, Bruns and Neuberger 2007), but also in the activist form of media content.

We found that at least three of Höijer’s categories (2004) were evident in the focus groups. In Figure 2, the ‘tender-hearted’ category was linked to participants who felt suffering and pity, the ‘blame-filled’ category was closer to sentiments such as anger and indignation, and finally, the sentiment category of ‘powerlessness’ was explained as the sentiment of inaction. In contrast to Höijer, it has not been possible to find a ‘gendered perspective’ on emotions, as women felt as much pity, indignation or anger as men did; but like Höijer’s findings, the participants experienced a form of detachment, an ‘us-them perspective’ (Höijer 2004: 525) when they considered that atrocities should not exist in ‘our developed’ society. Sentiments of shame were not associated with the audience’s own responsibility, but rather applied to distant actors of the conflict, such as diplomats, negotiators, or perpetrators of the conflict, who did not stop the escalation in Syria. This could emphasize the ‘civilization-versus-barbarism’ frame observed by Susan Carruthers’ study of African conflicts (2004).


Figure 2

Phase II: Mapping the emotions

Citation: Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication 10, 2-3 (2017) ; 10.1163/18739865-01002007

The participants also felt an anti-war sentiment which was reflected in the various emotional stages identified in the course of the research and analysis, such as anger and indignation and shame, sadness and anger. These sentiments were also observed by Carruthers in her research during the Iraq war (2008). However, in contrast to the findings by Seu (2010), there was no reference to sentiments of denial. The difference might be related to the specificities of Seu’s data, as she worked on human rights appeals exposing forms of torture (e.g., rape and flogging) that did not appear in our data. In our research, the focus groups’ participants never expressed shock at the graphic details of the selected pictures. Finally, the ‘aestheticization of suffering’ (Boltanski 1999; Chouliaraki 2006; 2008; 2013) was not raised by the participants during the focus groups.

To sum up, images portraying violence and destruction (e.g., human or non-human victims) provoked the strongest emotional responses (e.g., suffering and pity), whereas the role of perpetrators of the conflict and international actors provoked sentiments of detachment (result of the survey) among the audience, something that is explained by feelings of injustice, anger and indignation (result of the focus groups). There was no specific relation between people’s profiles and the categories of emotions, but rather a continuum of emotions were experienced. The sentiment of indifference was mentioned because of the distance between ‘us and them’ and the feeling of guilt related to the participants’ inability to do something relevant to help (e.g., powerlessness). Therefore, in the next section we investigate the relation between audience and war coverage in the media.

Audience’s Reactions and Their Relation to News Images of War

A Critical Eye on the Media

In line with Höijer’s findings (2004), the participants were critical of the media. Different terms were used to criticize the media when covering wars and conflicts. Participants spoke of media ‘voyeurism’, and accused the media of ‘caricaturing’ events and cultivating myths (e.g., stereotypical portrayals of actors and victims). As one participant noted, ‘I have the feeling that media want us to think that people from the Middle East are not like us. They’re the bad guys. Because they are not like us, it’s normal that they are fighting’ (Group 3). Such concerns can be compared to the level of mistrust toward the media observed by Eric Maigret among French audiences during the Kosovo war (Maigret 2002). Moreover, the participants seemed aware of how the journalists work when covering conflicts and their decisions about what is newsworthy. In particular, they were sensitive to the rule of death per kilometer (Moeller 1999: 21) and the harmful consequences of sensationalized coverage: ‘Some reportages look like a movie or a fiction. The human frame is completely absent. It is equivalent to a child watching a cartoon on TV where some characters are fighting but it is not going to hit more than that’ (Group 3). ‘What bothers me is the rule about death per kilometer. It bothers me because ultimately dead people are dead and nobody can do anything for them’ (Group 4).

Some participants were concerned about manipulation or censored information; a similar concern about biased information emerged in Höijer’s groups (2004: 524), but most were aware of media framing, in the sense of choices and angles in storylines and pictures, though they did not emphasize any particular dominant framing, whether war-, human- or peace-oriented. If we link this observation to the general concept of ‘mediatized conflict’ as a process of making meaning, it seems as if our participants were not critical of the images of the conflict per se, rather they were critical of journalistic practices. As the following quotes from the participants show, the media are always the ones blamed: ‘We know that there is a war in Syria because of the media. In fact, the media can give us the image they want of the conflict. They can manipulate the information to make it less serious or more serious’ (Group 1).

But, no one is talking about the number of injured. To me it sounds already more significant; all the sufferings of the war, regardless of the number of deaths, should be covered … To me it is the journalist’s talent to successfully transcribe a message of hope behind every picture you can see.

Group 4

These last comments confirm the dichotomy of war/peace framings observed by Galtung (1986), but also the public’s call for peace journalism (Hanitzsch 2007b), or at least what they consider to be good journalism. At this stage, we found the same elements emphasized by Zúñiga and Hinsley: complex analysis, verification, accurate stories, solidarity, objectivity (2013). Participants tried to give new inputs about their perception of the changes induced in the media landscape. They suggested that media should not hide the brutality of war, but deepen the analysis of the conflict and show what everyday life is like in a war zone. In contrast to the findings of Tai and Chang (2002: 263), the Swiss audience we engaged with did not seem to give specific importance to trivia, titillation or geographical proximity to the victims, but were clearly interested in the human aspects of the conflict. There is a clear will to have a more complex and complete coverage of wars and conflicts, as the following quotes show:

They should find common points in all these cultures … They should state that the aim is not to choose one of the sides but to stop the war. They must make connections with people, showing examples. They should explain the greatness of the country. To me, the larger the country, the more damage you have. They should explain who are the players and the causes of the war. At some point, the war can expand (directly or indirectly) to neighboring countries, so media should also explain the impact on external countries.

Group 2

Another emerging pattern from the focus groups is the consciousness that the audience plays a role in such coverage. In particular, participants emphasized the need to get information from multiple sources, confirming the observation made by Bruns on the changing role of journalists as ‘gate-watchers’ instead of ‘gate-keepers’ (2003). This comes across clearly in the following comments: ‘One source of information is not enough; you really have to invest time in looking for information. Breaking news is not enough. You really need to look for sources that present a more complete or in-depth coverage, but it is time consuming’ (Group 3).

I personally read the newspaper a few days after the main event so there is more evidence to support the information. This would give journalists time to step back from events. I also think that it is easier to report war as a result (e.g., deaths, injuries, people who suffer …) than to relate the causes … At the end, you always see the same things. You have a repetitive coverage for all the wars and conflicts.

Group 4

This last comment criticizes the ‘formulaic coverage’ described by Moeller (1999). But participants were not particularly inclined to see the constraints journalists face in dangerous situations. There is a shared distrust of newsrooms practices, but at the same time, a lack of knowledge about the risks and limitations that journalists face when covering such events. For example, the participants’ reflections lack any understanding of the constraints experienced by the Italian freelancer Francesca Borri on the Syrian field (Borri 2013), the realities of convergent journalism, and the use of digital platforms or user-generated content.7

The Power of News Images

Our participants confirmed that images play a central role in the coverage of wars and conflicts, but did not criticize the use of violent images, but rather the lack of alternative framings. However, although they were quite aware of the role of journalists in framing the information about the conflict, there was a generational difference regarding the mediated nature of an image of war (Griffin 1999; Zelizer 2004). This is clear from the following quote:

Images allow us to see where the problem is and its intensity. If we had only the radio, we would understand that it is sad but we would not know the intensity of the damage. We would be less knowledgeable but not less conscious. Images help increase our interest in events. When we see an image in a newspaper we will be more inclined to read the content of the article than without an image. The image is what attracts the reader.

Group 1

Such examples confirm the ‘priming’ effects of news pictures on the audiences’ visual knowledge, as images ‘shape affective and cognitive emotions’ of the public and function as a trigger for their attention (Domke, Perlmutter and Spratt 2002: 147), even though no participant emphasized a particular image of the conflict. Even the senior group whose memory of past wars and conflicts (e.g., World War II) was still vivid, mentioned the importance of having access to news images of war. The only difference with the youngest groups was that they were aware that images, even those that pretend to portray reality, must be put in context and interpreted with caution. As one participant put it:

There is a trivialization of images. It would be much more difficult to have an idea of wars and conflicts without those images. News images tell me something anyway. Of course, there are many images that have little value and media will always try to emphasize the most spectacular ones; where there is more damage. They will focus on the ruins, even if there are buildings still standing next to them. It is the same for us. If I take a picture of my car I will zoom in on the area where it is the prettiest.

Group 4

The participants also put forward another argument, namely, that witnessing suffering through images overcomes other narrative formats, as the images have a greater capacity to capture emotions and they bypass analytical reactions. This thus confirms what Sontag assumed about the power of photography: ‘… photographs of the victims of war are themselves a species of rhetoric. They reiterate. They simplify. They agitate. They create the illusion of consensus’ (Sontag 2003: 5). In the participants’ words, the consensus is expressed in the idea of a universalism of suffering; this universalism expresses the closest notion to the idea of cosmopolitanism: ‘I feel that images are used as war tools. If there were no images there would be no terrorism! It is through images that people support their causes. In that way, images become banal and lose power. But at the end, suffering is universal!’ (Group 3) Furthermore, the participants highlighted the complementarity of different types of coverage, thus underlining the importance of both texts and images as complementary processes of making meaning, without considering media contents as hyper-visualized spectacles (Cottle 2006: 419). As one participant said,

Even though it is true that you can imagine a lot of stuff only with an image, you still need an explanation of it because otherwise there are only ideas and you cannot know the truth behind that image. In my opinion, image and text are complementary; I think we need both of them.

Group 2

For the participants, the representation of war is related to a multiplicity of formats, in particular video. This was the only moment when there was a specific mention of amateur content during the focus groups.

Videos are where, ultimately, I learned something. They captivate my attention, in particular when they cover the daily lives of people. In videos, I also have the impression that the information is well built, they take time to explain things and tell you a story … In this case, I rather prefer videos from amateurs because at least they seem more realistic and you are put in the heart of the action.

Group 3

Finally, most participants, regardless of age, see the long format, one with in-depth coverage of wars and conflicts, as a better way to acquire a global view and consequently, to build their own opinion of such events.


The aim of this study has been to understand, through the eyes of the audience, the kind of emotions provoked by news images of war, and the role played by such images in journalism. Based on a survey study and focus groups, we found that there was a shift in emotions when images portrayed perpetrators versus victims; the audiences experienced different emotional stages when processing the information in news images of war; they looked for a more complex and complete media coverage, with multiple frames and sources as well as the use of complementary news formats; and they seemed fully aware that there was an agenda-setting process and a mediated nature of war images. Based on our findings, we have conceived a model through which we propose to theorize how news images of war are processed by the audience (see Fig. 3).


Figure 3

How the audience processes the information enclosed in war news images

Citation: Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication 10, 2-3 (2017) ; 10.1163/18739865-01002007

The figure shows that when exposed to news images of war, the audience experiences three emotional stages: (1) suffering and pity, especially toward the victims and human-centered coverage; (2) identification with the image; and (3) the audience builds its own reality around that image and reflects on the narrative capacity of an image, but also on the way in which the image was made: what it represents, why it was chosen for publication or broadcast. The participants we engaged with indirectly question the perceived reality, or the framing, and sometimes complain about bias or manipulation by the media. Here, three different groups of emotions co-exist: (1) shame, sadness and anger, (2) indignation and anger, and (3) injustice. These feelings mainly relate to the international actors in the conflict (diplomats and negotiators) or perpetrators (combatants, regardless of the faction they are fighting for). Finally, the rationality of the image is questioned, its indexical power (‘it is real’/‘does it represent reality?’) and the limitations of such representations, as well as what is not represented. Participants question the lack of complexity and link this to journalistic practices in general. The power of war images to encourage action instead of feelings results in a sentiment of powerlessness. The audience does not experience negative feelings such as shame, sadness or anger toward themselves, rather they feel these emotions toward external actors that they consider responsible for causing pain or for not being able to find a solution to the conflict. By contrast, powerlessness is a very personal feeling they experience about themselves. They feel like they have no capacity to act and believe that the media fail to show them what they might be able to do. To conclude, it seems that the media disposes the audience to feel, to think (at least partially), but not to act.


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For statistics on asylum, see the national Swiss monitoring department of statistics: Accessed 1 November 2016.


See the summary of the project and its results online:


The federal office of statistics (Office fédéral de la statistique 2016) reports that Switzerland counts 49.5 % of men and 50.5 % of women. Our data are skewed, but this is due to the recruitment hazard of forming focus groups based on peers. The teenage group was recruited among a high school class with more female than male students (Office fédéral de la statistique 2016).


The Office fédéral de la statistique 2016 reports that 20.2 % of the population is less than 19 years old, 26.7 % is between 20 and 39 years old, 35.3 % is between 40 and 64 years old, and 17.8 % is more than 65 years old. The over-representation of teenagers in our sample is a result of the high school class that was divided in two in order to maintain small audiences for focus groups. In addition, the younger generations are the audience of the future and it was particularly interesting to have their point of view (Office fédéral de la statistique 2016).


In 2015, the Office fédéral de la statistique reported similar data: 41.3 % of women and 37.4 % of men have a high school degree from a professional school (apprenticeship). Only 23.7 % of women and 28 % of men have a university or professional college degree (Office fédéral de la statistique 2015).


In 2012, the Office fédéral de la statistique reported similar data. In the three linguistic regions, people spend on average 30 minutes per day consuming news (Office fédéral de la statistique 2012).


This could represent a bias in our sample, or it could relate to the way we asked the questions in the focus groups. Our research questions were not primarily concerned with the place of user-generated content in Swiss media, or with the relation between the Swiss participants and citizen imagery, therefore, we did not ask specific questions about it during the open discussions.

  • 5

    In 2015, the Office fédéral de la statistique reported similar data: 41.3 % of women and 37.4 % of men have a high school degree from a professional school (apprenticeship). Only 23.7 % of women and 28 % of men have a university or professional college degree (Office fédéral de la statistique 2015).

  • 6

    In 2012, the Office fédéral de la statistique reported similar data. In the three linguistic regions, people spend on average 30 minutes per day consuming news (Office fédéral de la statistique 2012).

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