Academic journal article British and American Studies

Refugee Crisis in Terms of Language: From Empathy to Intolerance

Academic journal article British and American Studies

Refugee Crisis in Terms of Language: From Empathy to Intolerance

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

With the influx of more than a million refugees, who have been moving towards 'the promised land' of Europe, the problem of their depiction and treatment in the press has immediately arisen. Readers were eager to find out who these people were, where they came from and where they were heading, what their social and educational background was, and, finally, what their reasons were for taking this strenuous and dangerous journey.

By analyzing the language use in online newspaper articles, this paper, first, focuses on the heated discussion regarding the appropriate term to be used to refer to these people, in particular, whether they are migrants or refugees and whether that issue matters at all. Further, it speculates about the importance of specific wording in these texts, since the language itself often influences our attitude and way of thinking, and also stirs mixed feelings, in this case empathy or intolerance. Finally, the paper concludes with recurrent metaphors used to describe refugees and the implications these might have for our perception of the crisis.

2.Theoretical background

In order to examine the role of discourse in creating the attitudes and beliefs of society, the language used in online newspaper articles is analyzed within critical discourse analysis (Fairclough 1995; van Dijk 1997; Wodak and Mayer 2009).

This approach asserts the fact that significant social changes and manifestations of these changes are embedded and maintained in the discourse. In other words, the role of discourse and mass media is crucial both in disseminating potentially prejudiced ideologies and in re/constructing and re/creating the attitudes and 'knowledges' in the minds of people (van Dijk 2003). More importantly, media play an important ideological role, since certain topics about public problems are deliberately foregrounded and addressed as relevant. The language hence produces, maintains and changes social relations of power through media discourse with the aim to construct stereotyped assumptions, legitimate dominance and introduce inequality (Fairclough 1989).

Critical discourse studies therefore underline discursive mechanisms adopted in the realisation of such an ideology and investigate how societal power relations are established and reinforced through language use in the media. The roles of social, cultural and cognitive contexts of linguistic usage are in that way revealed. The choice of different linguistic forms are directly linked to the process of producing the systems of ideology and power hierarchy since the language itself can manipulate public opinion. Both the study of Hartman and Husband (1974) and of van Dijk (1987) confirm that mass media are a major source of prejudice knowledge among people who have not yet created their beliefs and attitudes towards certain groups.

2.1.Previous research studies on the media representation of refugees

In the previous decade the authors focused on two recurrent linguistic aspects of the representation of refugees in the media: (a) the commonly used words and phrases in the media text, and (b) the use of water metaphors to refer to these people.

Baker et al. (2008), for example, based their research on the analysis of a 140million-word corpus of British news articles about refugees, asylum seekers, immigrants and migrants (collectively RASIM) in the UK press, from 1996 to 2006. They carried out collocation and concordance analyses and identified common categories of representation of these people (e.g. destination, number, residence, legality). They noticed that

...about one in five references to refugees are accompanied by quantification (the Number category). A common strategy was to quantify RAS in terms of water metaphors (pour, flood, stream), which tend to dehumanize RAS, constructing them as an out-of-control, agentless, unwanted natural disaster. (Baker et al 2008: 287)

Their research was part of the ESRC-funded project Discourses of Refugees and Asylum Seekers in the UK Press 1996-2006 (the RAS project), which combined corpus linguistics and critical discourse analysis. …

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