Theorists have argued that the notion of race is a fabricated concept and that accompanied with ideas of ethnicity, its main principle throughout history has to been to exacerbate stereotypes as a tool to exploit labour and resources (Du Bois, ed. Allan, 2005). Along with the social issues attached to it, the concept of race and ethnicity has been at the core of world events including the transatlantic slave trade, colonialism and war. It has become embedded in the history of humanity. Race is defined as those with similar physical features belonging to the same group, with ethnicity being described as groups with a shared culture and tradition (Cambridge English Dictionary). However, these meanings have arguably been problematic since conception and ever more so in the 21st century. Through the rise of globalisation and migration, ideas of race and ethnicity can no longer be quite so strictly defined. The idea of shared physical attributes, cultures and traditions has seemingly devolved into stereotypes and simplistic characterisations that have forged dangerous hegemonic ideologies. It can be argued that the mythical perceptions attributed to these ideas are frequently represented through the media and have particularly become a staple in online British tabloid depiction. Online tabloids have produced meanings around these ideas that have been normalised, repeated, and that arguably become the status quo. This form of media is a main source of reinforcing negative and harmful ideas of race and ethnicity through stereotypical depictions, which is owed partly owed to the inner workings of hegemonic politics and the political economy as this essay explores. Paired with the sensationalist nature of tabloid media as a source of infotainment geared to attract mass audiences “in the complexity-reducing function of mass media” (Trebbe, Joachim & Paasch‐Colberg, Sünje & Greyer-Stock, Janine & Fehr, Ada, 2017). With the basis of tabloid content founded on a fusion of human-interest stories, politics and an exacerbated and banal portrayal of minorities, to some extent there is a signature tabloidized “style of representation” (Anderson, 1987). The representation of race and ethnicity is a broad subject that can be explored in numerous ways and from various angles therefore, to provide a structured and balanced view, I have chosen to examine these depictions through a case study approach, by exploring British tabloid news stories on global issues. I will be focusing on the current Covid-19 pandemic and the European migrant crisis in relation to how ethnic and racial groups are framed and depicted in the contexts of these tabloid news reports. Through examining the European migrant crisis, I will explore the key themes around eastern Europeans and African migrants. This will cover the use of scale and subhuman representation as a form of dehumanisation, the negative generalisation of the threat narrative and moral panic. Within the Covid-19 tabloid stories, I will analyse the stereotypical depictions of East Asians namely within ideas of orientalism, focusing on the fear of East Asian cuisine and the “Us” and “Them” narrative which underpins ethnic and racial representation in both global news stories. This selection of specific news topics should be in theory somewhat among the great “equalisers” of humanity therefore, it will be interesting to explore how these representations of race and ethnicity are presented in the 21st Century within the red-top press.
The representation of African’s and eastern European’s in online British tabloid reports on the European Migrant crisis
When examining the representation of race and ethnicity in reports on immigration, the ideas are all inextricably linked and intricately interwoven. Firstly, the concept of immigration from a policy perspective has evolved in the UK from the Aliens Act of 1905 right through to the Immigration Act in 2016 (Bashford, A. and McAdam, J. 2014). Basic discursive analysis of the language used in policy, shows that immigration has inherently been reinforced by the idea of “Us” as host countries and “Them” as “aliens”. Furthermore, the subject of immigration fundamentally concerns race and ethnicity due to WW1 and WW2 with the movement of Jews from eastern Europe and Blacks from the Caribbean. Therefore, while examining the representation of race and ethnicity through tabloid reports on immigration, the terms immigrants, migrants, race and ethnicity may be blended somewhat due to the over-lexicalisation of the subject. Therefore, analysis of immigration as an ethnic or race label will be explored. I will aim to clearly distinguish when examining race and ethnicity through immigration as a subject, and immigrants as a representation of race and ethnicity.
Scale as a process of dehumanisation and ‘migrant’ as an ethnic and racial label
Language is key to creating representations and encoding meanings within culture (Hall, 1997). Examining the use of language aids in deconstructing the creation of a narrative and the cultural context also plays a part in this. Recently, immigration featured as one of the most contentious matters in relation to politics and the 2016 EU referendum. The divisive topic is considered one of the defining ways in which votes were determined (The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, 2016). Therefore, the way in which immigration stories are constructed has a wider impact and could be significantly important in informing policy. Within immigration news stories, from 2006 to 2015 “Mass” was the single most common way of describing immigration” and the words most commonly associated with African and European immigrants within tabloids, tended to point towards expressing large numbers as from 2006 to 2015.” (Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, 2016). From a discursive analysis approach, in examining the European migrant crisis, the word “mass” reveals the foundations of which several meanings for the representation of race and ethnicity are constructed.
“Mass” is defined as large numbers of people (Cambridge English Dictionary) however, the placing of the word “mass” in the structure of the sentences within tabloid headlines, reveals there are more negative connotations and narratives embedded. For example, a tabloid headline states, “How mass migration hurts us all: No, it’s not the Mail saying this, but the verdict of a top Left-wing economist from Cambridge” (Doughty, 2014). This sentence alone positions different meanings within one headline. The content of the article refers to Polish, Romanian and Bulgarian migrants. The word “mass” placed next to the word “migration”, demonstrates that the scale of the issue is a central point of focus within the story and further implies that the numbers are unmeasurable and persistently growing. Followed by the word “hurt” which infers that immigration is causing a painfully negative effect. Lastly, this painful impact is felt by the people described by the word “us” which could be interpreted as the readership, the writer and the host country as a collective group. By analysing the top layer of meanings presented, this uncovers other ideological, xenophobic and dehumanising factors embedded.
Firstly, dehumanisation is achieved by focusing on the scale of immigration. This undermines the reasons behind the immigration and the people involved, by representing the various eastern European ethnicities at the centre of the matter merely as numbers and furthermore, as a problematic issue that is worsening unabated. Arguably “the politics of numbers” (van Ostaijen & Scholten, 2016) helps in framing reports and legitimising a narrative by presenting ‘the numbers’ based upon what are arguably hegemonic agendas and regimes of truth. This grouping term “migrant” aids in revoking humanity and further diminishes eastern European people from their individualism and having individual stories and experiences. Moreover, this overlooks the fact that migration is made up of refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants. However, due to the nature of tabloids and its “complexity-reducing function”, by labelling eastern European as migrants regardless of status, this further solidifies the divide and the “Us” and “Them” narrative. Arguably this establishes the word “migrant” as an ethnic label and contributes to heightening ethnic tensions in society. Furthermore, the “Us” and “Them” narrative creates two classes of power, with migrants being in the powerless class of society (Pastore & Ponzo, 2016) and host countries who are generally the white ruling class in power positions. Additionally, the term migrant seemingly becomes a lexicon in the language of labelling non-British ethnicities or non-white races in some cases, which further embeds harmful discourses within tabloid media through the use of immigration stories as a Trojan horse of sorts, for encoding racists and xenophobic attitudes.
As part of the dehumanisation process, tabloid discourse around Black’s and/or the African race is often negatively contextualised through language associated with environmental disasters or threatening animals. A tabloid headline reads “Europe is ‘underestimating’ scale of migrant crisis and could be flooded by millions of Africans in ‘biblical exodus’ unless urgent action is taken says top official” (Tingle, 2017). Metaphors such as “hordes”, “floods” and “swarms” are often plastered on tabloid headlines next to the words “mass immigration” in the representation of African migrants (Robinson, 2014, Afzal, 2016 & Chapman, 2015). In this headline, language is a signifier used to create meaning by identifying migrants in the same way as describing an environmental threat which further dehumanises the African race. The word swarm is used to describe a large group of insects, typically locusts which destroy crops and cause devastation. Not only are African migrants depicted as an environmental and economic threat, moreover, this representation has roots in the history of slavery. Throughout the transatlantic slave trade black Africans have typically been compared to animals or beasts and this “prehistory of racial thinking in natural science, in which blacks were compared with animals, has a lasting echo in attitudes towards blacks in the West” (Bay, 2000). It appears that tabloids still play on this ancient depiction of Black Africans using symbols that liken them to animals. Through creating an event by declaring migration a “biblical exodus” and sensationalising the story, this further dehumanises and treats an entire race as subhuman for whom action needs to be taken against. It could be argued that this further encourages harmful attitudes towards blacks and black Africans as seen through police brutality and other extreme attacks throughout the years.
The threat narrative and moral panic
Another layer of the representation is the threat narrative. This narrative implies is that all African immigrants are illegal criminals crossing borders and threatening citizens safety. This is achieved through sensationalism and creating an event in the story. A report shows that “When the press explicitly described immigrants and migrants during 2006-2015, 3 out of 10 times (30.4%) it was with the word “illegal” (The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, 2016). A tabloid headline reads – “CHILLING NEW TACTICS African migrants hurl battery acid at guards as they storm Spanish border” (Akbar, (2018). The headline not only reveals the persistent harmful racial ideologies at play by implying that this is a follow on from the assumed narrative. Which is that African migrants are using dangerous strategies through “Chilling new tactics”, but furthermore, it exacerbates negative stereotypes of black men as violent and seemingly implies that the reader consents to this notion which further reinforces the regime of truth. Within this report there is a video which is described as showing the ‘attack’ on the Spanish guards however, it does not show the supposed acid throwing. This is a signature tabloidized style of minority representation which presents unfounded statements and stereotypes which lack “theoretical grounding” (Trebbe, Joachim & Paasch‐Colberg, Sünje & Greyer-Stock, Janine & Fehr, Ada, 2017) and furthermore, reinforces the idea of blacks as “folk devils”. Undoubtedly, the representation of African migrants in tabloids committing illegal acts is a narrative that relies on stereotyping black men as violent, dangerous and criminal regardless of the facts. Numerous studies on the representation of racial groups as criminals have shown that “Blacks and Latinos are more likely than whites to appear as lawbreakers in news—particularly when the news is focusing on violent crime.” (Entman & Gross, 2008). Overall, the threat narrative ties into the “Us” and “Them” narrative by reinforcing the divide and legitimising fears “organised in a fashion that becomes rational and logical”(Rana, 2004 as referenced by Crichlow,2013) that could ultimately lead readers to adopt racial, ethnic biases and moral panic (Rana, 2004 cited by Crichlow,2013).
Furthermore, in relation to the representation of African immigrants as threats there is also the idea that values and morals in society are under threat from immigration which subsequently creates moral panic. The Daily Express news headline reads “Migrants shun the English language” and that this was a threat to integration into British life (O’Grady, 2013). Furthermore, a quote in the article states that “Those who want to live in Britain should make an effort to learn to speak English, otherwise taxpayers will end up picking up larger bills for things to be translated” (O’Grady, 2013). By assigning blame this further exacerbates the image of eastern European and African immigrants being a financial burden upon society and not contributing towards enhancing it. Research has also found that “When papers mention either EU or illegal immigration, they tend to focus on perceived problems rather than achievements” (Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, 2016). Studies have shown that “overrepresentation of minorities in negative thematic contexts is frequently observed” (Trebbe, Joachim & Paasch‐Colberg, Sünje & Greyer-Stock, Janine & Fehr, Ada, 2017) and the moral panic created by tabloids seemingly proves that this negative contextualisation is another defining feature in the representation of minorities.
The representation of East Asian’s in online British tabloid reports on the Covid-19 pandemic
Recently the matter of global movement has shifted its view onto the issue of the current Covid-19 pandemic. Typically, infectious disease has been a racial stereotype pinned to Africans since the emergence of Ebola and Aids, along with further prejudices that African migration brings these types of diseases to the west (Zurcher, 2014). However, the idea that Africans carry disease is no longer a focal point but rather as widely reported, the East Asian population, particularly Chinese people, have become the receivers of racial backlash and an overrepresentation on the issue of disease and the Covid-19 pandemic. The depiction of the Chinese in tabloids seemingly highlights Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism (2016) and the racist attitudes assumed in line with those of the “orient” being uncivilised in all areas of eating, from choice of foods to food cleanliness. Furthermore, images featuring east Asians wearing masks mean that these negative generalisations are becoming commonplace within the tabloid media.
The fear of Asian cuisine
The origins of the Covid-19 virus are still relatively unclear. The only evidence reported suggests the virus transmitted to humans from food on sale at a wet market in Wuhan, China (Maron, 2020). This remains to be proven. Furthermore, some reports also suggest that the virus originated in a bat and then transmitted onto another animal (Gulland, 2020) which has further exacerbated the racial scrutiny on East Asian delicacies for being different from the “norm”. A tabloid headline reads “Revolting footage shows Chinese woman eating a whole bat at a fancy restaurant as scientists link the deadly coronavirus to the flying mammals” (Thompson, 2020). However, the article itself lacks any factual basis that strongly links it to the coronavirus pandemic. Tabloids legitimise misinformation by making these stories “rational and logical” (Rana, 2004 cited by Crichlow, 2013) through sensationalism and key racial indicators. With race and ethnicity representations, tabloid news stories rely heavily on mythical and false racial narratives to generate buzz. Similarly, as highlighted with the representation of Black African’s as criminals, these types of news stories follow the trend of playing on stereotypes and lacking any factual basis. Due to the use of sensationalist images and creating events within the narrative, any facts that could be presented are easily lost within the article. The bat news story was later debunked, and it was clarified that bats are not typically a delicacy in China and furthermore, that the dish was eaten in Palau for a YouTube channel specialising in food adventures (BBC, 2020).
East Asian food hygiene and moral panic
Another element of the representation of East Asian’s during the Covid-19 pandemic is the racist notion that Asian cuisine causes sickness. The idea found its way into the Meriam Webster dictionary under what could be considered an occidental phrase – “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”. The phrase was birthed from the assumption that after eating Chinese food which contained MSG, people would fall ill (Meriam Webster). The prejudice phrase became an issue of public debate with Asian communities calling for its removal from the dictionary (BBC, 2020). In a Daily Mail report on the debate, the tabloid appeared to subliminally assert the view that “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” is a legitimate term. In an article (Boyd, 2020) it including images of Asian-Style take-away boxes used as signifier of Asian culture and what appeared to be a product made by Japanese Dr. Kikunae Ikeda – Ajinomoto along with the caption “Monosodium glutamate (MSG), a food additive found mainly in Chinese cuisine, was blamed for causing the illness”. By asserting that all Chinese dishes contain MSG, once again this unfounded statement lacks any cited research to support it, in typical tabloid fashion. Therefore, this is a simplistic and racist characterisation which exacerbates social anxieties and creates moral panic. The article also goes on to give examples of people who have suffered reactions to MSG with extreme consequences – “Doctors found his mouth had swelled up and blamed it on MSG in the Chinese fried rice he had eaten for dinner the night before”. This further sensationalises the story and reinforces the idea of Chinese food or East Asian cuisine being viewed as dangerous. Compared to western products that also contain MSG such as Marmite and parmesan (Guardian, 2005); Asian cuisine receives an unfounded backlash because it is seen as foreign. Asian food is frequently branded as “repulsive”,“disgusting,” and containing “suspicious ingredients” of “doubtful character” which all boil[s] down to a single overwhelming perception: the Chinese presence in America is first and foremost alien” (Makoto Arnold, Emin and Chong, 2018). With the Covid-19 pandemic it appears that the Chinese presence is viewed as alien overall in the west from the portrayals presented in the tabloids.
Additionally, the depiction of Chinese people as dirty or unclean is another prevailing factor within tabloid reports in the year of Covid-19. This orientalist view takes its form in an attack against Chinese restaurants. A tabloids headline reads “BRITAIN’S WORST TAKEAWAY? Owner of ‘unspeakably dirty’ Chinese takeaway is jailed for ‘revolting mess’ ” (Christodoulou, 2020). This story creates and event by declaring it “Britain’s worst takeaway”, using emotive language such as ‘revolting’, ‘unspeakably dirty’ and ‘gruesome’ which evokes outrage and sensationalises the story. Ultimately, the narrative of the Chinese being unclean is directly and clearly presented within the headlines. This racial narrative reinforces orientalist ideas that date back to 1854 as seen in an American Newspaper that stated “They [the Chinese] are uncivilized, unclean, filthy beyond all conception, without any of the higher domestic or social relations” (New York Daily Tribune, 1984 as cited by Gupta, 2007). This representation ultimately marginalises East Asian businesses and communities, further tying into the idea of “Us” and “Them”.
The ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ narrative
Racial rejection through physical distance is another trope of the tabloid representation of Chinese people and East Asian ethnicities during the Covid-19 pandemic. A tabloid reported “TRAPPED US dad refuses to leave his wife in coronavirus ground zero Wuhan – as Chinese partners are BANNED from rescue flight” (O’Leary, 2020). The article attributes the source as the Wall Street Journal which in contrast reports a different story. It reports that partners of US natives were not being banned and it does not state that the couple had attempted to board the flight. Rather it seems they were possibly asked for their opinion on what they would do if both could not take the flight (Areddy & Lin (2020). However, the tabloid account creates a false narrative which heightens the “Us” and “Them” narrative and rejects Chinese people in this case. By framing the story this way and providing a vast amount of detail about the coronavirus, this exacerbates the idea that the only Chinese people carry the virus and therefore separating Chinese citizens from their families is a logical decision. Even though both the US citizens and the Chinese citizens spent time in the virus affected area, and both could be infected. The article is riddled with undertones of racist depictions that are framed by false news angles and do not rely on facts. It simply uses a mixture of soundbites, emotive language and a developing story to falsely revive or create racist narratives and moral panic. Ultimately, these portrayals arguably influence and inform policies on immigration and other legislations that affect ethnic minorities in the west. As a direct result of embracing racist attitudes, attacks on Asian’s since the emergence of Covid-19 have spiked (Weale, 2020) with the tabloid media seemingly to blame.
Paradoxically, tabloids do not discriminate in their dissemination of key defining tropes through the representation of ethnicity and race. These tropes are interchangeable and unfixed. Though the stereotypes attributed to various ethnic groups and races sometimes differ in form, the effects of these defining characteristics such as the “Us” and “Them” narrative, moral panic and the threat narrative, are evoked throughout the spectrum regardless of race or ethnicity. Therefore, it could be argued that by this logic, this reiterates the idea that notions of race and ethnicity are fabricated. All the various groups mentioned are collectively perceived to produce the same effect on society, therefore, it raises the question of what differences races and ethnicities ostensibly exhibit. However, this undoubtedly does highlight the most visible difference and outcome, which is that the commonality between the “outside” groups assessed, positions them negatively in comparison to the white ruling class of who are presented either as the host countries in the immigration crisis or the occident in the reports on Chinese people and culture in the wake of Covid-19. Moreover, it proves that hegemonic ideologies are prevalent in this light but that ultimately, the representations of race and ethnicity in tabloids are extremely harmful to these groups. The 2016 annual report by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) found that British media discourse on race and ethnicity contained inflammatory xenophobic, racist, homophobic and Islamophobic narratives (Council of Europe 2017). The report data was also correlated with a rise in hate crimes which suggests that the media continues to have a significant influence in shaping views. Consequently, it appears that the tabloid media functions to fuel race and ethnic tensions and to hinder “outside” groups from integrating into society. As this tabloidized style of representation spills into the new media sphere, overall, it seems more regulation and fact checking is needed within this realm in order to truly eradicate notions of race and ethnicity, and to instil more accurate representations of issues rather than baseless stereotypes of people.
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