AN ANALYSIS OF CONTEXTUAL CHARACTERISATION
By Brianna Kerr
“About 21 million people in the world today are considered to be refugees – a number that’s not far short of the collected population of Australia.” The Age (2016)
– WARNING: SOME GRAPHIC CONTENT –
The representation of refugees in Australia has been dichotomous in regards to social attitudes, political approaches but most importantly the media for an elongated time. Two contrasting characterisations are commonly employed in the Australian media realm: defenceless people fleeing unimaginable situations or illegal immigrants seeking a ‘free ride to a better life.’
It is an issue that is rarely reported on objectively, with numerous fallacies found in articles that identify slanted perspectives largely contributed to the sensitive nature of the crises. It is divisive and this has always been observable in the way the media represents them. Until now.
With topical developments in the national arena about the abhorrent state of offshore detention centres and the perilous conditions that refugees are subjected to, the media has shifted in its focus. On 10th August 2016, The Guardian Australia disseminated a database labelled ‘The Nauru Files’ that contained over 2000 leaked incident reports from the detention centre that exposed the facility to be rife with disease, depression and destitution. Within a month, Amnesty International also released a report entitled ‘Island of Despair’ that further uncovered Australian offshore processing facilities as places of severe abuse and exploitation.
The culmination of the two publications initiated a tempest of articles that condemned the government and victimised asylum seekers, instantly shifting from a division of perspectives to a unified attitude of disgust. This paper will analyse a set of seven articles that were all published after the release of both the evocative internet database and the Amnesty International Report. Both events were highlighted wildly in the media and depicted a shift away from representing asylum seekers as illegal immigrants and toward portraying them solely as victims of the state.
It is interesting to note before analysing the seven articles that they were all published in October 2016 to epitomise the climate of the media at the time. Thorough research uncovered no articles that favoured the government in this time period but an overwhelming amount that privileged refugees. The articles below will be discussed in order to depict how the media characterises people dependant on context:
The Sydney Morning Herald: Australia intentionally torturing refugees – Michael Koziol
The Huffington Post: Our PM Still Has So Much To Do On Human Rights – Claire Mallinson
The Independent: Australian secrecy laws must be reviewed – Rod McGuirk
The New York Times: Australia’s Stranded Refugee Prisoners – Editorial Board
The first notable observation that connects all of the above headlines is the use of emotive attitudinal language, reflective of the media climate at the time. All words coloured in bold are explicit authorial associations with the content, where journalists have not refrained from indicating their opinion on the matter.
Now, let us discuss the seven articles more in depth with concentration to the communicative workings that journalists employ to represent refugees in the media.
The ABC article is a hard-news piece that utilises factual claims, statistics and descriptive language to represent refugees as defenceless and damaged. Throughout the article, Anderson employs a number of explicit attitudinal remarks, positioning the reader to have a negative opinion of the government and conversely, a favourable view of asylum seekers:
“The Department of Immigration and Border protection has downplayed allegations of abuse, including assaults, sexual assaults and self-harm between 2013-2015.”
The use of the word ‘downplay’ is an overt accusation, positioning the reader to have a negative attitude toward the government department. The following clause remarking about ‘assaults, sexual assaults and self-harm’ induces an emotional imagery for the audience and causes support for the refugees. This aids in the characterisation of asylum seekers as subjugated by the Australian political regime.
The article develops with sources from both refugees and the government, showing a seemingly even distribution of perspectives however the textual arrangement appears to be in favour of the detainees as will be explained below:
“Some people have gone to the extent of self-harming and people have self-immolated in an effort to get to Australia. Certainly some have made false allegations.”
At first, this quote appears to position the reader to negatively perceive refugees with the phrase ‘false allegations’ however the sentences that follow position the reader to question the source.
“In May, a 23-year-old Iranian died in Brisbane in a hospital after self-immolating on Nauru.”
“A second refugee, a 21-year-old Somali woman, set herself alight the following day.”
The human harm described in the above quotes from the journalist counteract the external source, deeming it stylistically personal.
The Sydney Morning Herald article written by Michael Koziol is a more subjective opinions piece so clear authorial affiliation is present throughout. The use of emphatic language coupled with graphic imagery creates an article that is explicitly attitudinal and aligned with characterising refugees as subjects of suffering. The article opens with fervently emphatic language:
“The Australian government is responsible for the deliberate and systematic torture of refugees on Nauru and should be held accountable under international law.”
The adjectival use of ‘deliberate’ and ‘systematic’ preceding the word ‘torture’ creates an immediate victimisation of the refugees and a negative connotation of the government. This positions the audience from the outset to perceive the refugees as helpless.
The extreme close-up images of severe self-harm utilised in the article again victimise the refugees. The below image is a graphic representation of the refugee experience and adds to the media representation of refugees as abandoned persons. Several cuts and evidence of blood trigger a shocked response from the audience and position them to feel sympathy and horror.
Furthermore, data from the Amnesty International report is cited throughout as an appeal to a reputable source.
“The cache of evidence details allegations of recurrent self-harm and attempted suicide, children being hit by teachers and threatened with machetes by peers, deficient medical care and persecution akin to that which refugees had fled in their homelands.”
The inclusion of negatively laden language like ‘recurrent’, ‘hit’, ‘threatened’, ‘deficient’ and ‘persecution’ add to the plea of detainees and further characterise them as targets of violence.
The use of personal stories also shows an inscribed journalistic attachment to the sourced content:
“Among the asylum seekers was a Pakistani man who tried to kill himself twice in 10 weeks by dousing himself in petrol and drinking dishwashing liquid, an Iranian man who found his pregnant wife in the bathroom with rope marks on her neck, and a 13-year-old Afghan boy who attempted suicide multiple times using a knife, petrol and by drowning.”
Vivid referral to suicide, self-malice and self-immolation in the above passage again positions the audience to feel sorrow for the refugees, assisting in the media construction of disadvantaged asylum seekers.
Written by Claire Mallinson, the National Director of Amnesty International Australia, the Huffington Post article is notably slanted. Entitled ‘Our PM Still Has So Much To Do On Human Rights’, the article neglects to include a duality of sources, only providing information from the Amnesty International Report, inciting its support of the refugees from the outset.
Ironically, the article opens with the below image of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, posed in a triumphant and stoic manner, shadowed by two Australian flags denoting patriotism and national identity. The sardonicism of the image is that the content of the article characterises Turnbull as far from a positive leader but rather the agent of innumerable suffering. The image is thus included to position the reader to question his leadership and to perceive it a façade when the details of refugee suffering are unravelled in the text.
“Our report Island of Despair based on detailed research — made difficult because of Australia’s wall of secrecy around Nauru — found a litany of abuses, including conditions resulting in high rates of self-harm and mental illness, targeted attacks and harassment of refugees and asylum seekers in the community, including children.”
In the above quote, the collective pronoun ‘our’ immediately denotes the journalists association with the source she alludes to. Again, the reiteration of refugees as neglected and harmed people through emotional imagery of self-harm and mental illness as well as harassment and abuse, adds to their shifting characterisation.
Furthermore, Mallinson mentions Turnbull and his Cabinet to reinforce their failing role:
“Prime Minister Turnbull and his Cabinet must now unite the Parliament behind an unfailing commitment to defend the rights of everyone — especially the most vulnerable and most marginalised — and not just the rights of the few.”
This strengthens her positive positioning of detainees by characterising the government as ‘agents’ of suffering, and refugees as the ‘affected’. The emotive words ‘vulnerable’ and ‘marginalised’ add to this notion of affectedness and comply with the present media culture that supports the safety of asylum seekers.
The Age Article aligns itself with the issue and defiantly typifies asylum seekers as destitute individuals. Opening with a harrowing figure that denotes the extent of the refugee crisis, The Age immediately associates itself with the refugees through the use of fact.
“About 21 million people in the world today are considered to be refugees – a number that’s not far short of the collected population of Australia.”
Making a direct correlation between the population of Australia and the population of refugees throughout the world creates an emotional distinction and increases the nation’s proximity to the issue. As well as creating a relationship between Australia and the refugees, The Age also incorporates descriptively attitudinal language to create clear imagery:
“Many refugees live in squalid camps, yet most choose to make the best of a life displaced, hoping to someday return to a lost home.”
The word ‘squalid’ depicting filth and revulsion paired with the idea of displacement conjures a harsh image of the refugee experience. In addition to referencing the incidents endured by asylum seekers, The Age also constructs a gap between their opinion and the attitude of radically right wing politicians to ensure they align with the majority of opinions in the current contextual environment.
“And before the shrill warnings of the Pauline Hanson’s or Donald Trumps of the world start to ring in your ears, not every refugee is about to get on a boat.”
This quote denies the traditional political characterisation of refugees in various Australian political parties by stating that their claims are incorrect, again reflecting the shift to supporting refugees in the media after the disquieting exposure of Nauru.
Finally, the use of a common idiom also creates a relatability for the audience, showing no refrain from personal perspective:
“The bipartisan embrace of offshore processing has shoved more than 1000 people to camps in the Pacific, seemingly out of sight, out of mind, as far as their welfare is concerned.”
The idiom, ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ is commonly used to criticise the ways in which people actively forget things by distancing themselves from the problem. The Age’s use of this is highly evaluative as it indicts the government of abandoning asylum seekers, again pedestalising their helpless status.
Posed as an objective hard-news story, The Independent article written by Rod McGuirk is generally informative but there is indeed evidence of both source descriptors and emotive language that aim to position the audience to favour the quandary of the refugees.
“Australian doctors have initiated a court challenge to the Border Force Act, which they argue gags them from speaking publicly about child abuse and other threats to asylum seekers and refugees held in the Pacific atoll nation of Nauru.”
By using the source descriptor ‘argue’, it creates an association with the source, positioning the audience to favour the Australian doctor’s claims. The word ‘gags’ is also an emotive term, suggesting vehement secrecy.
Similarly to the other aforementioned articles, The Independent so too mentions the Amnesty International report to heighten its sense of authority.
“Amnesty International on Monday released a report on Nauru, which it described as an open-air prison where conditions endured by asylum seekers and refugees amounted to torture.”
There is a level of objectivity present by quoting the Amnesty International report with the neutral source descriptor ‘described’ however the subsequent imagery of an open-air prison detracts from the impartiality of the source.
Another notable element of McGuirk’s article is the inclusion of the below image:
This is a photograph that was taken at a rally in Melbourne, depicting a range of citizens protesting for the closure of the detention centres on Manus and Nauru islands. The image shows a vast demographic of people, all wide-mouthed, assumedly avowing their identification with the cause. Even though it cannot be assumed that these protesters are reacting to the way the media has shifted in its characterisation of refugees, it is fair to say that the media does play a huge role in civil action and thus perhaps this societal shift could be attributed to the media furore.
The sixth article that will be explored is a piece written by journalist Katherine Gillespie for online publication VICE. It poses the question ‘Wait, Isn’t It Illegal To Ban Refugees?’ immediately, aiming to entice the reader’s respect of the law if not their reverence for human rights.
Gillespie immediately introduces Mr Dutton’s recent announcement that asylum seekers will never gain access to Australia if they arrive by boat to incite negativity toward the government instantly:
“On Sunday, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton announced the government will impose an outright ban on all “queue jumping” asylum seekers from ever setting foot here.”
The use of aggressive language ‘impose’ and ‘ban’ coupled with the term ‘queue jumping’ places an unfavourable inscribed attitude toward the government. The following phrase, ‘ever setting foot here’ conveys asylum seekers as inferior, corresponding with the media coverage that is focusing on oppression.
Gillespie also acknowledges the dichotomy of attitudes that exist within Australia by making reference to those that may encourage the existing refugee policies:
“But regardless of whether the majority of Australians support this kind of ban, there’s another question worth asking. That is, is it even legal to ban people from seeking asylum in your country? A short answer is no.”
Gillespie’s contrast of public attitude and the rule of law positions the reader to question what is ethically correct. Furthermore by answering the original question about the legality of banning refugees with, ‘A short answer is no’, Gillespie highlights the government’s insolence and pedestalises the refugee plight.
To further enhance the characterisation of refugees as in need of help, Gillespie references the United Nations’ 1951 ‘Convention relating to the Status of Refugees’ to appeal to a source of authority.
“Earlier this month, it was determined by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection that 652 out of 1,015 asylum seekers on Manus Island were “positive” in their refugee status. On Nauru, 942 out of 1,196 people were also deemed “positive.”
The use of this numerical information combined with source descriptors such as ‘determined’ and ‘deemed’ heightens the journalistic characterisation of refugees are deprived. The emphasis on the statistics above also reflects the pervasive suffering of refugees, indicating the severity of the crises. Moreover, the confirmation of asylum seeker identify as ‘positive’ adds a sense of legitimacy to their suffering and characterises them as ‘real’ people in need, shifting away from the previous characterisation of refugees as dubious criminals.
The final article is a story written by the New York Times however, it is not the objective news that traditionally characterises these type of ‘high-brow’ publications. The New York Times takes a heavily attitudinal approach to reporting about the situation of asylum seekers in the Pacific. Aligned with the local publications in Australia, The New York Times also characterises the refugees as defenceless and forlorn through the tactical use of emotional language.
“While the number of refugees held on Nauru and Manus Island is small compared with refugee numbers in the Middle East and Europe, Australia’s inhumane imprisonment of desperate people is a disgrace.”
The phonetically harsh words ‘inhumane’ and ‘disgrace’ are dense with explicit authorial judgement and inscribe compassion for the powerless asylum seekers.
In alliance with the Vice article, The New York Times also references the ‘United Nations Refugee Convention’ to characterise refugees as valid and entitled to innocuous asylum.
“Australia’s policy is at odds with its obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention, which forbids transferring refugees to a place where they are likely to face harm and protects the right of people fleeing persecution to seek a safe haven.”
The imagery of people ‘fleeing persecution’ is a moving representation of refugees and is congruent with how they have been overwhelmingly characterised after the intense media fracas. Referencing refugee detainment as ‘cruel and indefinite’ also evokes emotion and attachment. The article also makes special allusions to the number of children ‘trapped’ on the island, characterising an extra element of vulnerability and weakness.
Concluding in a recommendation to the Australian government, the article affirms its support of the refugees and its unequivocal desire for their plight.
“The government should end its offshore processing of refugees and stop treating anyone who approaches its borders without a visa as automatically inadmissible.”
The demand to ‘end’ and ‘stop’ offshore processing is reflective of every article that has been analysed thus far, again reiterating the dynamic shift to a unified attitude toward asylum seekers in the media.
As can be observed from the investigation of the seven articles noted in this analysis, all align with a common attitude toward refugees and hence characterise them similarly.
But this it is not coincidental.
The immense amount of disturbing information currently available about asylum seekers due to the release of evidence from various sources has definitely influenced the recently reformed characterisation of refugees in the media. Hence, it is important to note the political or social climate of a particular context to truly understand why a grouping of people has been characterised in a specific way.
WORDS: 2330 (excluding quotes)
Anderson, S. (2016) Nauru detention centre concerns downplayed by Department of Immigration, ABC News. 17 October 2016, available at http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-10-17/nauru-detention-complaints-‘largely-minor’,-department-says/7940522 (accessed 18 October 2016)
Gillespie, K (2016) Wait, Isn’t it Illegal to Ban Refugees? VICE. 1 October 2016, available at http://www.vice.com/en_au/read/wait-isnt-banning-refugees-illegal (accessed 20 October 2016)
Koziol, M. (2016) Australia intentionally torturing refugees, Sydney Morning Herald. 18 October 2016, available at http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/island-of-despair-australia-intentionally-torturing-refugees-on-nauru-says-major-amnesty-international-report-20161016-gs3sm4.html (accessed 20 October 2016)
Mallinson, C. (2016) Our PM Still Has So Much To Do On Human Rights, The Huffington Post. 27 October 2016, available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/claire-mallinson/100-days-into-the-job-our-pm-still-has-so-much-to-do-on-human-r/ (accessed 28 October 2016)
McGuirk, R. (2016) Australian secrecy laws must be reviewed, says UN investigator, The Independent. 19 October 2016, available at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/australasia/australian-secrecy-laws-nauru-doctors-gagged-must-be-reviewed-says-un-investigator-a7367796.html (accessed 20 October 2016)
The Age Editorial Board (2016) Australia’s refugee policy fails the fairness test, The Age. 24 October 2016, available at http://www.theage.com.au/comment/the-age-editorial/australias-refugee-policy-fails-the-fairness-test-20160923-grmyaj.html (accessed 24 October 2016)
The New York Times Editorial Board (2016) Australia’s Stranded Refugee Prisoners, The New York Times. 20 October 2016, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/20/opinion/australias-stranded-refugee-prisoners.html (accessed 21 October 2016)