What’s in a Frame? Framing of the Syrian War: A Comparative Analysis of European, American and Russian Newspapers

Amélie Godefroidt

What’s in a Frame? Framing of the Syrian War: A Comparative Analysis of European, American and Russian Newspapers


The mass media may not only be successful in telling us what to think about, but they may also be strikingly successful in telling us how to think about it. Framing-effects research suggests that the media influence the importance the public – including policy makers – attach to issues and how they interpret them. Since journalists are the prime suppliers of information about the Syrian war, this influence is more than plausible and worth investigating.

Before scrutinising possible media-effects on the judgments of people and decisions of policy makers, a content analysis should be made. This study is one of the first to clarify the recent cross-national coverage of the Syrian war in relevant and prominent newspapers in the Netherlands (De Telegraaf), France (Le Figaro), the United Kingdom (the Daily Telegraph), the Unites States (the New York Times) and Russia (the Moscow Times). We focus on the coverage before the sarin gas attack of 21 August 2013, thereafter and after the agreement on the obliteration of Syria’s chemical weapons of 14 September 2013. By means of a deductive, quantitative content analysis we examine the attention paid to and the framing of the subject. In addition to shedding light on generic frames (i.e., conflict, human interest, economic consequences, morality, responsibility and nationalisation frame), this study evaluates what causes and solutions are put forward for the conflict that started as a protest against Bashar al-Assad three years ago and has escalated into a civil war. The analysis of 637 articles published between July and October 2013 shows that the newspapers report about the war according to their geopolitical role and that there are significant differences in framing between the journals as well as across periods.


Covering the Syrian war

First, the attention the papers paid to the Syrian issue coincided with the countries extent of involvement on a geostrategic level. The American journal attached the most importance to the Syrian issue (in terms of amount and length of the articles), the Dutch one the least. Attention was also determined by the sarin gas-attack of 21 August, an influential key event. The non-fatal but essential agreement on the obliteration of Syria’s chemical weapons, however, did not cause an increase in reporting and could therefore not be considered as a classic key event in this casus.

Second, when covering the Syrian conflict, journalists mainly related the issue to their own country and to ideas of national politicians. They tended to focus on disagreement and responsibility as well. Considering the humanitarian crisis, it is remarkable that the articles did not morally question the war or provide a ‘human face’ more often. The negligible mention of potential economic consequences was also at odds with the monetary efforts of all countries involved. The low occurrence of those frames challenges their generic character. Whereas the context of the conflict was barely outlined anymore, diverse solutions were put forward. As to the diagnoses, only the specific sarin gas attack was frequently mentioned as a reason for the escalation of the conflict. Therefore, the main question one should consider is how the public can sketch an accurate picture of the situation in this way. There was, however, substantial debate about military intervention, which painfully exposed the indecisiveness and discrepancies at the geo-political level to the readers.

Although all dailies obeyed this pattern in their coverage, it was clear that the Daily Telegraph was the most and Le Figaro the least heavily framed journal. British journalists used the most attention drawing elements such as feelings and personal stories, moral questions, and the economic impact. Western newspapers proposed a military intervention more often as opposed to the Russian paper, which focussed more on the obliteration of Syria’s chemical weapons. This was in line with the political reactions of the national politicians. Contrary to the expectations, however, European papers did not focus more on economic consequences, socio-economic causes or monetary actions.

The gas attack also influenced the nature of the coverage substantially as it increased the use of the responsibility, economic consequences and nationalisation frame. The attack shifted the attention from more contextual causes to the sarin gas-attack itself and marked a shift in prognostic framing as well. Completely in keeping with the international debate after the attack, journals suggested a military intervention more often while also rejecting it as a solution. The following agreement on the obliteration of Syria’s chemical weapons decreased the use of the conflict, responsibility and nationalisation frame but triggered the suggestion of the dismantling. The fact that this annihilation as a first step towards negotiations was only mentioned after the agreement hints that papers just follow geopolitical steps. As the sarin gas attack did cause a shift and increase in framing, it could be considered as a classis key event in this casus as opposed to the agreement on destructing Syria’s chemical armoury.



Which national newspaper you read or when you read it, obviously changes the picture you are offered. This picture of the Syrian war is almost entirely in line with the developments on the geopolitical level. The question that emerges is what crucial consequences for democracy this framing entails by its possible influence on public understanding and judgments of the issue and actors. By bringing information to the audience about a subject mainly out of reach, the news plays a decisive role in the discursive construction of the public opinion. Another question that can be raised is whether the media just follow the geopolitical developments or also lead government. If coverage influences the judgments of people, including policy makers, this could entail crucial changes as to international relations and policy decisions. Although these questions were beyond the scope of this content analysis; it forms, nonetheless, an interesting point of departure for future research.


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