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The Communicator

The Interview

Colleen Connelly-Ahern

Colleen Connelly-Ahern headshot

Colleen Connolly-Ahern is an associate professor of advertising and public relations. She has been a faculty member at the Bellisario College since 2004. Since 2015, she has been a senior research fellow at the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication. Through the Page Center, Connolly-Ahern has led two research calls, most recently in 2019, that funded studies on a variety of advocacy and refugee communications topics. One of those studies examined how people view a women in a hijab based on how the woman is portrayed in the media. Connolly-Ahern discusses the results and implications of that research below.

When it comes to refugee communications research, there is literally a whole world of things happening. It’s complex and different in every corner of the world. Can you explain what refugee communications is all about?

It’s the study of what is communicated about, for and by refugees. I think we’ve come to a real understanding that there's a distinct problem internationally, it's not just in the United States, of characterizing refugees in terms of victimization and as a potential drain on infrastructure and systems. There tends to be pictures of refugees. There’s a lot of drama, but not often a thread that would let people understand the possible benefits and the broader cultural context of taking in refugees. There's very rarely any voice of refugees in these communications. So, we look at the portrayals of refugees in the news and other media in multiple countries…not just Syrian refugees, but African refugees in Israel, for example. Ultimately we want to improve coverage and help refugees be heard.

Can you share an example of one of the studies and how it examines the portrayals of refugees?

We know that people use cues to depict people as “other.” We also know that they may use a hijab they see in the news as a cue. For example, they see a woman wearing a hijab and they say, ‘That’s exotic. That’s not your all-American girl. That is somebody over there.’ So, we looked at the numbers and found that more and more of those American girls wear hijabs. So do some of our Congresswomen, for example. So, our question was, ‘What is this understanding of the hijab as ‘other’ and how could that play out in the United States?’

How was this study put together?

Thanks to being at the Bellisario College, we were able to get cooperation from our television studio, and we created news packages. The packages were about things happening to young people in and around Central Pennsylvania. One was about a guy that was opening a florist shop and one was a woman who was going up to become Miss Pennsylvania. All the sort of things you’d hear about young people in Central Pennsylvania. And the third story was about a young woman accused of a crime on a computer and allegedly in contact with a terrorist group. That was all the information that the viewer had. We showed all three of those packages, but the package about the young woman changed. In one group, she was wearing a hijab and the other, the exact same woman did not appear in a hijab. Also, in one she was described as a refugee and the other an American citizen. We let people tell us whether they thought she was guilty of the crime. So, that was the final variable

What did you learn?

We found a couple of things. First of all, we were not terribly surprised that in the hijab condition, more people thought she was guilty of a crime. But that was mitigated by conservatism and liberalism. So, the more liberal you were, the more likely you were to think she hadn't committed the crime. And the more conservative you were, the more likely you were to think she had. The impact was quite different in terms of refugees and homegrown. The most interesting thing was that we looked at empathy, or the idea that you can feel the pain of others. Maybe more empathetic people have an ability to see things from another person's perspective. And what we found was really interesting. Empathy is not itself enough to determine it, but there is something called parochial empathy.

What is parochial empathy?

It becomes really important in this study. Parochial empathy is the idea that I can want good things for my in-group and appear very empathetic, but I don't have similar feelings toward out-groups. And when it looked like empathy wasn't a mediator, we were able to break that up and say, ‘Wait a second. People high in parochial empathy—so people high in this feeling that in-groups deserve more—were the people most likely to think that the woman committed a crime. From my perspective, that shows that we need to teach empathy in a better way.

Based on what you’ve learned from this study, what are some other potential effects or outcomes?

The long-term impact of not teaching people to regard all people as ‘like them’ can be inequalities in social systems. Think about it. Imagine somebody is on a jury and they are taking a cue from somebody who is accused of committing a crime, and she's wearing a hijab. We know that some people will be more likely to judge her harshly. That’s what I am seeing from this research. We're seeing these images, and then ultimately, we get to the point where we ask, ‘How could this impact somebody legally?’ or ‘How could this impact somebody in a decision about getting into a college or something like that?’ There’s a whole bunch of ways at a job interview, for example, where that visual might impact someone if we don't have people examining their own ideas about empathy.


Learn more about this project and others by Dr. Connolly-Ahern in an episode of COMMversations, the Bellisario College’s podcast.

Additional Research Studies

Read about some other studies from the Page Center’s research call on refugee communications below.

  • On the border of the Syrian refugee crisis: What 37 hours of interviews taught us about NGO advocacy LINK
  • Page Center study researches immigration-focused images on social media LINK
  • Cultural differences in how Bulgarian and Turkish newspapers cover refugee crisis LINK