N. KHAN & L. VAN NOORD
Constructing the Newsfeed Refugee: A Semiotic Analysis of Refugee Depictions on BBC & Al Jazeera Facebook Thumbnails
This paper compares the representation of refugees in Facebook thumbnails of two popular news outlets. Facebook was the platform chosen because it is still the social media with the most online news readers worldwide. The refugees from the Rohingya genocide and the Syrian refugee crisis were chosen to be focused on because they were the largest refugee crisis and the fastest-growing crisis, respectively. BBC and Aljazeera were chosen not only based on their sheer page popularity but also because they have different sites of production, one in the United Kingdom and the other in Qatar. This could provide an interesting insight into differences in representation based on ethnic, religious, or cultural bias. Following both a visual content analysis and semiotic analysis, our data did indicate variation in depictions of refugees between the two outlets. Aljazeera seemed to prefer to present the refugee crisis as an on-going humanitarian crisis, portraying subjects with “camps” and “war-torn infrastructure”, while BBC more often portrayed refugees in European host countries, with images indicating that Europe was 'managing’ them. BBC’s images also seemed to support the visual trope of the "road trip" as described by Wright (2002). Both news sources also seemed to want to evoke empathy, depicting refugees in vulnerable or helpless situations. The strength of further research could be improved by adding a two-group t-test to assess whether such findings are statistically significant, and to focus on a single refugee crisis with a larger sample size.
The phenomena of global displacement cannot be understated. With the number of people displaced globally rapidly escalating to almost 70 million just within the last ten years, it is arguably the defining global crisis of our century (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2016). The medium through which we keep informed of these events has evolved from newspapers to television, and now transcends time and space to be available within our pockets and few clicks of a button. Social media has now probably become the most accessible way to reach the news, as its reach is uncontested with traditional news broadcasting (BBC Media Centre, 2017). Measured by the number of monthly active users, Facebook remains the largest social network to date. Characteristically, Facebook allows news pages to use thumbnail images to attract readers to open a corresponding article on its news feed (Ballve, 2013). These thumbnails may seem insignificant, but are often specifically employed to lure viewers in, as each thumbnail on a newsfeed is in stiff competition to capture the Facebook user’s attention. Moreover, although these images are often scrolled passed unconsciously, they nevertheless leave their traces in memory, and therefore influence our perception of the issues they address.
Facebook’s influence on the way we perceive the plight of refugees is an important but relatively underrepresented research topic. The way perception of humanitarian crises is constructed through social media can be incredibly consequential to the response of both public opinion and policy makers. Literature suggests that representation of refugees in media outlets is often objectifying and universalizing, portraying a stereotypical refugee removed from his or her cultural, religious or political context (Malkki, 1995 & Wright, 2002). With so many human lives at stake, it is important to understand what the current dominant representation of refugees on Facebook entails.
To investigate this, this paper aims to answer the following research question: what are the dominant representations of the world’s largest refugee crises across two popular world news sources on Facebook? The aim is to explore and uncover general trends in the visual reporting on refugees by large news sources on social media. The research sample was selected from thumbnail images published by BBC World Service, the division of the world’s largest news agency that focuses on international affairs, and by Al Jazeera English, the Qatari news agency’s English language division. Two different refugee populations were examined to gain insight into universal and cultural-specific representational tropes. Firstly, this paper conducts a visual content analysis on randomly selected images to gain an overview of often employed visual cues in the representation of refugees. Secondly, a semiotic analysis was performed on three individual images to gain deeper insight into the combined effect of these cues.
Any practice of representation involves the process of interpretation of meanings which are transmitted through signs and symbols that (aim to) refer to ideas, concepts, and emotions (Hall, 1997). Language acts as the system in which the representation takes place and works as a medium to transmit culture which, in this context, can broadly be defined as the practice of producing and exchanging meanings that are shared by the users of the Facebook medium (Hall, 1997). This language can be broken down into elements, such as words in spoken English or gestures in body language, which do not mean anything in themselves, but function as signs to represent what is intended to be communicated. These signs represent concepts, ideas, and feelings.
The study of these signs is known as semiotics (Hall, 1997). Semiotic analysis rests on the assumption that the meaning of signs is created through the use of language, and thus draws from constructivist theory (Hall, 1997). Meaning is then carried by these signs and reproduced in a process of encoding - the activation and production of a system of mental concepts - and decoding - the interpretation of signs through this system of mental concepts (Hall, 1997). Semiotic analysis mainly analyzes the compositional modality of the site of the image itself and the site of audiencing, with the aim of understanding how signs are produced and interpreted. Saussure’s linguistic model describes how signs consist of a signifier, in this case (a part of) the image, and a signified mental concept. For example, the image of a bucket refers to the container-like object held by a refugee. This container-like object that the sign is related to is called the referent. As the relationship between signifier and signified, and the relationship between different signs is not inherently determined, it can be studied as a product of social relations (Rose, 2012). Moreover, through the study of signs, one can study the production of new (maps of) meanings between signs through visual language. In a specific culture, through repetitive use, certain combinations of signs can come to determine a conventional mode of creating meaning: a code (Rose, 2012). Some of these codes can eventually constitute a dominant way of thinking or ideology in that culture. Hall (1980) describes these codes as ‘dominant’, whilst Williamson (1978) characterizes them as ‘referent systems’. For example, the refugee carrying a bucket may, if repeated consistently, be culturally linked to a mental concept of ‘the thirsty African refugee’, fleeing from famine or civil war. The methodology of visual content analysis attempts to understand where the dominant codes about the subject of representations are produced, and how they are connected to power and social institutions (Hall, 1997).
Whenever codes carry a meaning that is interpreted according to the interest of the institutional or ideological order inscribed, Hall (1980) speaks of ‘a preferred reading’. An evaluation of methodology in studying refugee representation by Baker, Gabrielatos, Khosravinik, Krzyżanowski, McEnery, and Wodak et al. (2008), elaborates how visual analysis can add to an understanding of how racism becomes embedded of the encoding/decoding process, by showing how racism becomes embedded in ideology through the process of representation. Discourse concerning refugees can actively exclude groups of people and determine racist policy through perpetuating prejudices in the system of representation (Van Dijk, 1989). This framework is visually represented in appendix A of this paper. Social media especially can create and promote prejudiced judgments by framing perception of ‘the Other’, who the average consumer does not encounter themselves (Baker et al., 2008). To uncover whether this dynamic applies to the representation of refugees in our population as well, this paper will therefore attempt to apply the methodology as described by Rose (2012). Therefore, to approach an understanding of the representation of refugees on Facebook, comparing two sites of production (BBC and Al Jazeera) and two different crises (the Syrians and Rohingya), this paper’s dual methodology of semiotics and visual content analysis can uncover the connotative meaning behind the images of refugees, and may point towards the culture or ideology they serve.
The Refugee Crises. As described before, some literature suggests representation of refugees is quite similar across different crises (Malkki, 1995 & Wright, 2002). To be able to test this as well as cultural specificities in representation choices, our sample consisted of two different groups of refugees: the Syrians and Rohingya in Myanmar. Most Syrian refugees fled their nation during president Assad’s violent crackdown of the 2011 revolution. They often seek asylum in neighbouring Middle Eastern countries or Turkey, or try to enter Europe through the Aegean sea or overland through the Balkans. The height of European arrivals of Syrian refugees occurred during the summer of 2015, but the refugee crisis is still ongoing. The Rohingya refugees fled in response to a surge of ethnically motivated violence in a Northern state of Myanmar, called Rakhine.
Image’s Sites of Production
The two news sources were chosen not only based on their sheer page popularity but also because they have different sites of production, one in the United Kingdom and the other in Qatar. The differing sites of production may have distinct implicit ideological and political leanings towards the refugee crisis, containing implicit biases or prejudices, regardless of journalism’s supposed neutrality. A hypothesis was that contrasting Western representation of Muslims refugees with Aljazeera, the biases in BBC’s images that could be a result of the proximity of the refugee crisis that may create a portrayal of the ‘Other’ (Wright, 2002). Additionally, a major recent development affecting representation is the increase in Western islamophobia, and the refugee crisis often perceived as a threat, resulting in alienation and negative portrayals of Muslims from Western media (Saeed, 2007). An example of this can be made with the increase of ‘smiling’ and ‘host countries’ code combinations that increases in more recent news coverage in the past two years. This increase can be explained through the changing migration policy in Western political institutions that aim to portray an image of the problem as solved – a discursive formation aimed to reduce public pressure to eventually influence policy.
BBC Worldwide. The British public service broadcaster is the world’s first national news broadcaster and the largest based on number of viewers worldwide (BBC Media Centre, 2017). BBC Media divided the international news station from its UK based station to maintain neutrality. BBC World is concerned with global affairs rather than the original channel’s emphasis on national news. This separate department alone boasts a weekly audience of 372 million around the world, and with rising numbers of viewers each year, the network still asserts its dominance in governing public opinion (BBC Media Centre, 2017). BBC World has adapted to the rapidly changing field of journalism by heavily relying on the use of its social media outlets, with Facebook being the biggest source of its global reach (BBC Media Centre, 2017).
Al Jazeera English. Our intentions were to choose another news source that is highly popular on social media outlets, with starkly different sites of production. Al Jazeera started as an Arabic news network funded by the Qatari government but has since become one of the world’s biggest global news organizations, featuring 80 bureaus worldwide. Al Jazeera English is the network’s world news equivalent whose reach exceeded its own expectation and became accessible to 130 million homes worldwide, including in Europe and the United States (Cohen, 2009). Al Jazeera’s headquarters are in Qatar, the Middle East, which gives us reason to presume that the representation may be different from the BBC, a Western news agency in Europe, a region that has both historically and in contemporary times, had conflicts with the Middle East (Allied Media, 2015).
I: Visual Content Analysis
A sample of images was coded based on certain visual elements, after which the frequencies of these elements were counted, and a preliminary conclusion was drawn according to the visual content analysis methodology as elaborated by Rose (2012). Our whole collection consisted of images gathered across two dimensions, namely the news source and specific refugee population. Four sub-samples were created, one for each population-news page combination. A quick overview of our data collection is given in Table A. The number between brackets represents the total number of refugee-related images found on the news page, and the number before it the sample size of this study.
Table A: Overview of Sampling Structure
Sampling Selection. In both the ‘BBC World Service’ and ‘Al Jazeera English’ news pages, “Rohingya”, “Myanmar”, “Syria”, “Refugee”, were used as search terms. Images were collected for each of the six combinations of news source and crisis and were later assigned a unique number. Next, we used a random number generator based on atmospheric noise to select images as randomly as possible (Haahr, 1998). We randomly selected 20 images from each of the six populations. We ended up with a total of 113 randomly selected images. This method corresponds to the random selection strategy as described by Rose (2012) and ensures representativeness and significance. Videos and images smaller than thumbnail-size images were purposely excluded.
Coding. The coding process started with our intuitions based on the research question, creating categories such as gender, age, and size of the group (Rose, 2012). For example, the image of an adult male may create the image of a more predatory refugee, as opposed to the women and children, that spark empathy when in peril as delicate subjects that must be protected (Malkki, 1995). Previous research on refugee images has predicted that a singular child in peril is the most effective way to spark empathy and concern using images (Slovic, Västfjäll, Erlandsson, & Gregory, 2017). Furthermore, we created the coding category religion (Saeed, 2017). As mentioned before, implications of representing the religious affiliations would differ across platforms, based on the demographics (Saeed, 2017). The category of ‘suffering & peril’ was incorporated to attempt to evaluate the gravity of the situation as represented by the image. We created the category clothing to consider the stigmatization of refugees as described by Malkki (1995), where she describes certain tropes such as ‘carrying a bucket of water’ in the miscellaneous category, that will incorporate any uncategorized elements intuitively relevant to the content analysis. In this miscellaneous section we have also included elements that represent refugees having a certain ‘road movie’ look as mentioned by the existing literature, with codes such as ‘Signposts’, ‘roads’ and ‘heavy baggage’ (Wright, 2002). Codes like ‘employment’ and ‘sports and recreation’ were added to the ‘miscellaneous’ coding categories based on further analysis of our databases. The codes were organised based on 12 categories, each containing a varying number of codes. For example, the category ‘age’ included the codes ‘baby’ as well as ‘adult’. Throughout the coding process, more than one option within each category could be counted to assure that all possible elements were covered. The codes continuously evolved until their scope was near exhaustive. An overview of all codes and categories can be found in Appendix B.
Frequency counts showed negligible variation in the categories of age, size of the group, and gender between the two news sources. Between crises, there is a slight difference in female representation, as Rohingya are more often shown in the company of another man. The difference in codes between the news pages was most visible for the Syrian crisis. While both BBC and Al Jazeera had numerous cases of ‘heartfelt stories’ (4 and 3 respectively), and cases of refugees in ‘sports and recreation’ (3 and 2 respectively), there was one key difference. For BBC, these codes were most often coupled with the category of ‘success story’, and combined with an ‘individual’ refugee settled in their ‘host country’. Al Jazeera, on the other hand, often presented refugees playing music or creating art as a way of alleviating trauma within the camp, as represented by the codes ‘war-torn infrastructure’ or ‘refugee camp’ from the background category.
Graph A: Frequency counts gender differences between categories
For this reason, there may have been one more consistent difference throughout the sample. Overall, BBC images were coded more often in the ‘suffering and peril’ category, with slightly more codes with ‘frowning’ and ‘crying’ in the emotions category than Al Jazeera. During the beginning of the refugee crisis in 2015, BBC produced similar representations of peril and suffering to Al Jazeera, with a greater number of ‘female’ and ‘child’ codes in the gender and age category, as well as the ‘refugee camp’ code in the background category. In the years 2017-2018, however, there was a greater increase in the ‘smiling’ code in the emotions category, and a sharp increase in the codes ‘sports and recreation’, ‘success story’ and ‘employment’ in the miscellaneous category. This development was absent in Al Jazeera’s representation of the Syrian crisis over the years.
Graph B: Frequency counts ‘suffering’ category
Furthermore, it is interesting that across the board, Al Jazeera has had numerous accounts of holding the politicians on trial with the images in the sample, most notably, faces of US politicians and UN officials such as John Kerry. Al Jazeera similarly represented Aung San Suu Kyi in the Rohingya category where the BBC neglected to do so. While the BBC did not have any representation of politicians in our database, on rare occasions they incorporate statements and activist endeavors from celebrities. Finally, religious representation has been surprisingly similar between both sources, with both showing negligible signs of religion between groups other than frequent ‘headscarf’, with Al Jazeera having slightly more Muslim features such as ‘praying’, ‘cross’, ‘Quran’ and ‘headscarf’, than the BBC.
II: Semiotic Analysis
The following semiotic analysis draws on general observations from the visual content analysis, and treats three images that are each from the subsample of BBC Syria (Image A), Al Jazeera Syria (Image B), and Al Jazeera Rohingya (Image C), which can be found in appendix C, D and E of this paper. Image A and B are taken from the sample of Syria BBC and Syria Al Jazeera respectively, and the images were chosen based on the codes we found were most representative of each sample, according to the frequency counts in the content analysis. BBC reported significantly more on host countries, whereas Al Jazeera only mentioned entertainment and sport activities as a method of coping within a refugee camp or area of war. Image C is taken from the sample of Al Jazeera Rohingya because it seems to exemplify the Christian iconography theory of Wright (2002), and will be compared with image B (Al Jazeera Syria), to account for the dimension of crisis type.
Decoding Image A - BBC Syria. Firstly, we will consider the basic denotative components of the image published by the BBC on the Syrian refugee crisis (Appendix C). The photograph is male-dominated, showing a group of refugees and a police officer. With the exception of the officer who is more senior, the refugees are all young adults. These signs are all primarily iconic due to their visuality, and because of the nature of photography, carry their referent inherently (Rose, 2012). The number of people in the background is not clear as the people overlap, but the way the image is framed gives the impression that there are more people outside of the photographer’s view. This effect is emphasized by the composition; the endless line of lamp-posts and people diminishing in size suggests perspective, and thus the perception of a kind of long-winding road carrying a large group of people.
On a more connotative level, the officer is identified by his body language as much as his blue uniform and white skin. Many signs concerning the officer serve as metonymic carriers of higher level meanings, symbolically representing something other than its appearance (Rose, 2012). For example, at first level the officer’s uniform signifies his job as border patrol officer, but more subversively, also his position of authority and dominance over those without a uniform; the refugees. The uniform is thus not only a symbolic sign, but also a paradigmatic one, producing meaning by its contrast with other signs, such as the refugee’s hoodies (Rose, 2012). These hoodies are often associated with problematic juveniles, and in large numbers this can appear to be intimidating. The symbolic hoodies therefore might implicitly justify the need for an authority figure to maintain control over them. Furthermore, the officer is not making eye contact with the others and walks ahead of the crowd in the foreground while the rest follow, confirming his leadership position. The dominance and control of the police officer is supported by other paradigmatic signs, such as the wide hand gestures, which are again contrasted with the posture of refugee youth, putting their hands in their pockets.
The interplay between different symbolic signs similarly determine the way refugees are represented. Different signifiers carry the same meaning, such as the archetype of a refugee visually represented with resemblances people ‘embarking on a road trip’ (Wright, 2002). The refugees are seen holding heavy plastic bags or backpacks, and are otherwise identified through their brown skin. Composition plays a big role again, as refugees enter the frame from the right, while their bodies relatively increase in size towards the left side of the image (the left size being closer to the camera). Again, the composition reinforces the ‘on the road’ mental concept. Furthermore, they all take less space in the frame, and are not seen gesturing but putting their hands in their pocket or tending to their bags.
Firstly, these connotations symbolize an apparent relationship between refugees and being ‘on the road’, which is not necessarily inherent to the refugee status, considering refugees often spend large amounts of time stationary in camps. Furthermore, the ‘road trip’ appearance in combination with the closed position symbolizing their dominated position confirms the image of refugees as an unwelcome influx into Western countries. This perception is supported by the several shades of blue and gray, making the scene appear cold and hostile. This Western host country, supported by the anchorage delivered by the caption, is symbolized synecdochally by the lamp posts continuing into the distance, the pavement, and the glass office with the diode. Although this may merely be a checkpoint or border control office on a highway in Denmark, the image may serve to represent the broader relationship between local inhabitants of Western countries and their incoming refugees.
Decoding image B: Al Jazeera Syria Secondly, an image by Al Jazeera depicting a group of refugees playing music in front of a tent is analyzed (Appendix D). The sunlight background and rough and rocky texture of ground and golden surroundings indicate that they are in a desert. The dust covers the floor and their sandals, indicating that they are in extreme weather conditions. The tent shelters the teenagers from the direct sunlight, and has the UNHCR logo visible on it. Finally, with the Arabic text in the writing on the large steel water dispenser, and vaguely visible tents in the background, it is clear that they are in a refugee camp in the Middle East. The teenager in the foreground is holding an Oud, with younger children surrounding him, with the exception of an older man sitting in the tent. None of them appear to be smiling, and only the smallest two children in the background are looking towards the camera.
The image of the refugee camp and the blank expression of the musician symbolize a kind of stoicism that reflect the perseverance of the sufferers in the face of adversity. The musical instrument is universally recognizable and is usually associated with psychological well-being and invokes positive emotions through the anticipation of music. This sign functions paradigmatically, contrasting the barrenness of the material surroundings and the lack of basic resources such a meager tent that houses five people, possibly more (Rose, 2012). Additionally, the group is sitting on a torn up carpet. Despite the Arabic that may cause the predominantly English-speaking audience to feel separated from the image, the image of the guitar cuts across different cultural languages. The youngest of the children look into the camera to add to the connection to the viewer. There appears to be more tents in the far background, which can be seen as a metonymic sign symbolizing the conditions of over-filled refugee camps in general (Rose, 2012). However, Al Jazeera focuses on just one of them, thereby emphasizing particularity and humanity in more detail, while still indicating that the people suffering these conditions are great in number.
Decoding image C: Al Jazeera Rohingya. Lastly, the image of a Rohingya family by Al Jazeera is analyzed (Appendix E). At first sight, most present is the vibrancy of the photograph, caused by the combination of primary colours such as green in the background, and prominent red and blue in the forefront. The umbrella looming behind the three Rohingyas is creating a plane covering the top of the frame. A woman, supposedly a mother, is staring directly into the camera, with a baggy eyes and a stern face expression. The child in her lap is sleeping on her shoulder to the right with his clothing exposing his arm and shoulder. The girl behind the mother is also looking into the camera while clutching the umbrella and holding onto her mother’s scarf. In the background, there appears to be a grassy field on the left, with a barefooted child in the background along with a man in green, which could signify that he is a soldier from the army, although the nature of the fighter remains somewhat unclear.
Decoding the image, the frame seems to depict a subtly dangerous and perilous reality, in which a vulnerable family attempts to survive. The umbrella functions as a synecdochal symbol, simultaneously indicating extreme weather conditions and the lack of shelter or protection (Rose, 2012). The predominance of crimson red in this image alludes to the danger, war, fear, and courage, perhaps signifying blood (to be spilled). The child’s half-naked body in his mother’s lap symbolizes fragility, again working together with the sign of the umbrella and background to create the perception of vulnerable victims in extreme conditions (Rose, 2012). Additionally, the low-angle perspective image of the woman’s head and the dark circles under her eyes indicate that she is not fully healthy and under severe stress. Using anchorage provided by the caption, these signs might symbolize sexual abuse (Rose, 2012). Moreover, she seems to not only have to protect the child in her lap, but the girl grabbing the back of her scarf. In combination with the umbrella, this gesture symbolizes the quest for shelter, and indicates that the girl may be her older daughter looking for protection. The girl’s face expression does not seem joyful and her concerned eyes look fearful, her face partially hidden behind her supposed mother.
The wide field of grass in the background highlights that the family is not in a developed area, and most likely living in poverty, symbolized by the barefoot character in the background. Moreover, the possible soldier in the background may be a threat to the characters in the forefront, and the red sign contributes to this feeling of danger. Finally, eye contact connects the viewer directly with the distressed mother, and no longer depicts just any perilous situation, but one that the viewer is made to feel accountable for. As described by Slovic, Västfjäll, Erlandsson, & Gregory (2017), eye contact is one of the main devices to cultivate empathy for victims through representation. Moreover, this tactic serves as an especially potent attention grabber for a thumbnail, hidden among a plethora of other images and competing for the viewer’s attention on his Facebook newsfeed. This might also explain the choice to use vibrant, stronger colors.
Comparison between News Sources BBC (Image A) and Al Jazeera (Image B). To determine both the codes and the wider systems of meaning they symbolize, a comparison between the two media sources is made (Rose, 2012). The images chosen were representative of the popular coding categories that came up in samples from each news source for Syria. In image A from BBC, the presence of a Caucasian as the focus of the image is common for BBC, with the refugees being a problem that must be tended to by these Western subjects. The presence of the West in image B from Al Jazeera, is restricted to the UNHCR logo, showing the West playing a distant role in the lives of the refugees, which are also the main subjects of the image. Al Jazeera emphasizing the presence of Western forces within refugee camps can be viewed as a code, culturally determined conventionalized ways of meaning making as described by Hall (1980). Moreover, the code is part of a dominant code as theorized by Baker et al. (2008): that of inclusion/exclusion.
The following signs further emphasize this dominant code. As the body language of the refugees in image A appears to be more submissive, walking behind the officer and putting their hands in their pockets dragging along their baggage, Al Jazeera portrays a more stoic image of the refugees that play an instrument in defiance of their physical circumstances. Finally, image A shows refugees already present in Western society, adapting into their Western host countries, while in image B the refugees are still in a desert environment, therefore excluded (Baker et al., 2008).
In summary, Al Jazeera employs signs representing the refugee crisis appear to be an ongoing problem in the Middle East, and not simply as one that the West must solve in their own countries. More importantly, it represents the crises as one which seems to be resolved with the focus on integration within host countries. This may be attributed to the perceptions of the majority Western demographics that view the refugee crisis as a European problem to be solved through their migration policy, rather than a humanitarian issue. Moreover, the significance of the Western officer being in the forefront of the image as a police officer, emphasizing their dominant position as a world hegemony that assures that this ‘problem’ of refugees can be controlled. They appear to be more of a collective with BBC due to the innumerable group size, which add to this connotation of fear and dehumanization.
Comparison between Al Jazeera Crisis Representation Rohingya (Image C) and Syria (Image B). After describing the images’ denotative and connotative signs, what stands out is the use of symbols and composition familiar to the Western audience. Moving slightly into the field of discourse analysis, the signs namely resonate historically Christian iconography as described by Wright (2002). Whereas previously the archetype of ‘road trip’ was used, in image C, the traditional image of Madonna and child is echoed (see Appendix F). The sign of the naked child, mother figure covered in cloth, and the triangular composition illustrate the Christian story of Maria mourning the suffering of Jesus Christ (Wright, 2002). As Wright (2002) argues, the use of these archetypes might activate maps of meaning already present in the Western audience’s collective memory. Considering the theory of Baker et al. (2008), predetermined mental concepts might be confirmed through the process of representation. The Christian Madonna archetype is therefore one of the myths upheld by the representation of refugees, corresponding to the theory by Barthes (1979) earlier described.
Although imagery of mother and child is present in every crisis, our sample of Rohingya refugees included significantly more images of the traditional Madonna image. It seems that the connotations of suffering women and children are more often signified in representation of the Rohingya crisis than the Syrian images earlier analyzed. Perhaps the nature of this crisis - often involving sexual abuse as tactic of military oppression - incentivizes media stations to use popular visual means to express humanitarian suffering. The Syrian crisis has shown far more men, perhaps due to the more conservative nature of the Arab cultures that reduce the likelihood of a woman having her photograph taken. Since the Rohingya crisis is more recent, expressing the larger groups of vulnerable women and children would be more paramount in reporting the situation rather than focusing on individuals. Additionally, women are also more likely to be portrayed as there are several cases of rape and child abuse by the Myanmar army that are reported among refugees. Conversely, there may be a bias in news reporting favoring Arab refugees as the demographics are mostly of the same ethnicity, but this would not go in line with the fact that the eye contact is more prominent in the Rohingya image.
Discussion & Limitations
A limitation of this research is that it is quite broad, even by limiting the results of both the content and textual analysis to only Syria to highlight the distinction between BBC and Al Jazeera reporting. It would be preferable for future research to compare how Syrian refugee representation differs from country to country within the same news source, to see if the same aspects are purposefully repeated. The same could be said for Rohingya, which did not add anything significant with its inclusion in the textual analysis. This is because the different codes do not consider different kinds of atrocities being committed in each crisis. For example, the primary reason more females were represented in Rohingya coverage was because there were more cases of rape, which means the codes were not enlightening with such a comparison. Additionally, a focused discourse analysis should preferably be completed to compare the Syrian crisis through two of the varying news outlets, keeping the scope limited to Facebook and perhaps Twitter. This will allow for a clearer research that focuses on migration and Europe’s relationship with the current crises – what we hoped to achieve with this paper. Finally, it is important to note that this does not say much about Western news sources that focus on national coverage or anything about news coverage on a particular political spectrum, and neither does it have highly conclusive results about BBC or Al Jazeera due to the segmentation that made the sample sized quite small. Additionally, the sample of the current study was too small to conduct a reliable statistical analysis. Future research could be improved by adding a two-group t-test to assess whether such findings are statistically significant.
This paper attempted to broadly investigate the representation of two different refugee crises on Facebook thumbnail images. As Facebook increasingly serves as a main news source across the world, the image of refugees that is produced through this medium can have far reaching consequences for the way their plight is experienced and acted upon.
The results of the visual content analysis shows that Al Jazeera prefers to present the refugee crisis as an on-going humanitarian crisis, portraying refugees amidst camps or war-torn infrastructure. The BBC, on the other hand, portray the refugee crisis mainly as a European policy problem that is slowly getting solved. Their representations more often show refugees readjusting in their home countries. Additionally, the semiotic analysis revealed that codes are often paired to make visual tropes that reinforce these representations. An often used example is the ‘roadtrip’ motif. Lastly, there seems to be some evidence that visual cues are often used to evoke sympathy with the viewer. Depending on the nature of the crisis, this can involve mostly depicting mothers and children, or depicting refugees looking straight in the lens of the camera.
The human matter that is on the other side of these pixels remains to be a real and on-going problem, and the dangers of dehumanizing refugees can become stronger through reducing them to codes. But if there is some truth that can be found through further research on this topic that could lead to their emancipation and improve their living extremely poor living conditions, then this process should be sought after and continued. This must be done so that some institutional change can happen to influence the world outside of academics, and it starts with a change in the way we look.
Appendix A – Discourse Analysis for Refugee Representation (Rose, 2016)
Appendix B – Coding Categories
m mostly male
f mostly female
Blank when no domination
C2. Size of group
c. Young adult
E4. Signs of religion
b. Muslim hat
h. Buddhist scarf
i. Star of David
k. Holy book
e. Eye contact
a. Warm saturation
b. Cold saturation
a. Politicians refugee country
b. Politicians foreign country
c. Flags/signs of country
d. Celebrity/important official
e. Extreme weather conditions
h. Slums/war-torn infrastructure
i. Refugee camp
j. New host country
J9. Armed forces
c. UN Peacekeepers
K10. Suffering & Peril
e. Heavy baggage
h. Violence/sexual violence
j. Cramped/locked up
l. Prosecution (fear of)
m. Long procedures
a. Traditional clothing
b. Ragged clothing
c. No clothing
d. Western clothing
e. Westerner present
f. New citizens
g. Success/heartfelt story
h. Focus on objects (over people)
i. Life vests
j. Carrying bucket on head
l. Sports & Recreation (Music, art etc.)
Appendix C - Image used for textual analysis on BBC SyriaBaker, P., Gabrielatos, C., Khosravinik, M., Krzyżanowski, M., McEnery, T., & Wodak, R. (2008). A useful methodological synergy? Combining critical discourse analysis and corpus linguistics to examine discourses of refugees and asylum seekers in the UK press. Discourse & Society, 19(3), 273-306.
Appendix D - Image used for textual analysis on Al Jazeera Syria
Appendix E - Image used for textual analysis on Al Jazeera Rohingya
Appendix F - Madonna and Child by Giovanni Battista Salvi
Appendix D - Image used for textual analysis on Al Jazeera Syria
Appendix E - Image used for textual analysis on Al Jazeera Rohingya
Appendix F - Madonna and Child by Giovanni Battista Salvi
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