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The changing political impact of compassion-evoking pictures: the case of the drowned toddler Alan Kurdi

Journal article
Authors Jacob Sohlberg
Peter Esaiasson
Johan Martinsson
Published in Journal of ethnic and migration studies
Volume 45
Issue 13
Pages 2275-2288
ISSN 1369-183X
Publication year 2019
Published at Department of Political Science
Pages 2275-2288
Language en
Subject categories Political Science (excluding Public Administration Studies and Globalization Studies)


Compassion-evoking and widely circulated news images seem capable of affecting public opinion and change history. A case in point is the picture of the drowned toddler Alan Kurdi, who died while trying to escape to Europe with his family in September 2015. We theorise how these types of photos affect public opinion. By relying on panel data with sequentially embedded survey experiments conducted in the aftermath of the picture’s publication and while large numbers of refugees were coming to Europe, we demonstrate that the image of Alan Kurdi had context-varying effects on policy preferences. Initially, the upsetting photo of the toddler increased support for liberal refugee policies across ideological divides. However, when individuals had the time to think about policy implications, they started processing even this highly upsetting picture through their ideology. Consequently, our results indicate that compassion-evoking images shift meaning over time.

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