The Effect of Multimodality on the Portrayal of Refugees on German and English News Sites

Essay, 2018

14 Pages, Grade: 13


Table Of Contents


Theoretical Background


Results & Discussion



(Editorial note: The Appendices were removed due to copyright issues)


In 2015, the already tense situation in many Arab countries, chief among them Syria, escalated. While many Syrians had already sought asylum in neighbor states such as Turkey and Jordan since 2011, when the Syrian Civil War first led people to flee their country, the vast refugee population in the neighboring countries eventually forced many to go elsewhere. At first, the refugees' predicament seemed solved: Many Europeans had a ”Refugees Welcome“ mentality, welcoming the new arrivals with open arms and hearts. This changed, however, with more and more people coming to the country and politicians seemingly at a loss how to organize the situation. The circumstances for the new society members became difficult. They were disliked by many for the sheer fact that they were part of a different culture. A majority of the refugees lived in crowded refugee camps, bored out of their minds, often not allowed to work, out of money since having spent the last of it on the way to Germany. The media also could not decide how to portray refugees: Were they victims, perpetrators? As Chouliaraki put it, the news on the topic of refugees has been ”a constant struggle of shifts and turns over the narration of refugees in news journalism.” (2017:614).

This paper explores how a German and an English news website, Spiegel online and BBC online, respectively, present some of the actual people behind the term 'refugee‘: A Syrian family of seven and a lone Syrian man. Both have faced hardships, both have a similar cultural background and both want nothing more than to integrate into German society and ”become German“. For these similarities, the two articles were picked. The focus of the analysis was placed on the multimodality of the articles. Multimodality describes the relation and interplay of different kinds of media aspects, e.g. the relation of a headline to the text, or the relation between an image and another image. The research question is: How is the interplay between the headline, the image and the text displayed? Do they become a sense-related unit? How, if at all, do they generate emotions towards the refugees portrayed in the texts?

Theoretical Background


This paper focuses on the discourse of news sites. Two news sites were chosen for the analysis: Spiegel online (the international version in English language) and BBC online. In order to explain multimodality, the word 'mode' should be explained first. According to Gunther Kress, a mode is ”a socially and culturally shaped resource for making meaning. Image, writing, layout, speech, moving images are examples of different modes.” (2010: 187). He further states that “all texts are multimodal“ (2010: 187), a notion that is shared by other researchers like John Bateman, for instance. Most journal articles contain a headline, a text and one or more images or videos. This makes the articles multimodal. Bateman states that ”multimodality is a way of characterising communicative situations [...] which rely upon combinations of different ‘forms' of communication to be effective” (2017:7).

Carey Jewitt puts it thus: ”Multimodality [.] attends to the full repertoire of resources that people use to communicate and represent phenomena and experiences including speech, [.] writing, image” (2014: 127). Multimodality helps in understanding media discourse in several ways. It is interesting to see how the unity of image, text and headline increases the meaning of a text. While many researchers agree that multimodality creates meaning, it is also noteworthy that the meaning that is generated through multimodality can seldom be split apart: It is difficult to consider a picture without its caption, a text without its headline, and to try and find meaning in one mode while ignoring the other one. Bateman summarizes that phenomenon thus: ”Modes presented together [.] need to be interpreted with respect to one another and [.] cannot be considered independently” (2017:17).


The data was collected via an online search function of news sources through the following research query: refugee, asylum, migrant or crisis.

The two articles were chosen for their similarities both on a content level (refugees from Syria struggling with life in Germany) and on a form level (standalone, ”narratives of care”, i.e. articles portraying people struggling with life). The analysis is of a qualitative nature, comparing the two articles via the same parameters of positive or negative connotation and unity of headline, text and images. One article was chosen from the BBC, a British news site, while another was chosen from the English version of Spiegel online, a German news site. This was done in order to show a variety of news broadcasts, rather than focusing on solely one European news site. The articles were from the year 2016 and 2017, respectively. The first step in the analysis consisted of reading each of the articles. After this step, the headline, text and image were looked at first one after the other, and then in unity, in order to look for a meaning created through multimodality. The articles were then scanned for words containing a positive or negative connotation. This gave an overview of the overall emotional situation created by the text.

The basis for the analysis was the question: How does the interplay between the headline, the image and the text generate emotions, positive or negative, towards the refugees portrayed in the articles?

All images used for the analysis can be found in the appendix (Figure 1-5), as well as the whole text of the articles in question.

Results & Discussion

BBC Article: ”Migrant crisis: A Syrian man's struggle to become German”

The BBC article ”Migrant crisis: A Syrian man's struggle to become German” focuses on Sami Farah, a 23-year old Syrian who used to study music therapy, and at the time of the article, in October 2016, works as a dish-washer. The headline uses the words ”crisis” and ”struggle”, which have a negative connotation. This sets the reader up for a story of sadness and diminishment. The images, however, tell a slightly different story: The first image shows Sami with his new-found friends, two Germans he lives with. The text below it reads: ”Sami Farah (center) is building new friendships after 15 months in Berlin”. The image is a triptych, meaning that the focus lies on Sami in the centre, who is slightly isolated from his friends, while two other elements -his friends- are shown from the side and are slightly cut off in the picture. Sami smiles and seems friendly and content. The picture has aesthetic quality, but overall seems natural due to the imperfect quality of the image. Together with the caption, it seems as if Sami has finally found his place in Germany: He went through difficult 15 months, but now he finally found friends and a nice place to live.

The second picture shows Sami at work. The text below the image, ”From music therapy student in Damascus to dish-washer in Berlin” is an inversion of the saying ”from dish-washer to millionaire”. It underlines Sami's struggle: Rather than underlining that he is now safe and sound in Germany after traveling there via boat and sea, the text goes the other way: Showing that Sami is now 'only' a dish-washer. This picture shows him slightly off-center, but definitely in the focus of the photography: Like the first picture, this one seems uncontrived. Sami's back is turned towards the viewer, but he can still be seen. He is focused on his work. The fact that he is content with his job, saying that he can at least pay the bills with his salary, may make him more relatable to a reader.

The third picture shows a number of people queuing in front of a building. The caption reads as follows: ”Asylum seekers have to queue for hours to get the papers they need in Berlin”. While Sami is not (explicitly) part of the image, it is in line with Sami's experience: ”There were cold weeks when you had to wait outside for eight hours, in a never-ending queue”. The rather bleak environment and the similarly dressed people make for a picture that may evoke feelings of sympathy in the viewer, even if no specific person is the focus point of the picture. Everyone can relate to waiting for something: It's frustrating, especially when it's something as important as documents that decide a person's future in safety or danger.

The fourth and last picture shows Sami again, this time focused on his MacBook. The caption reads: ”Sami counts himself lucky - but still gets homesick”. Sami is again the focus of the picture, slightly off-center, with the background uninteresting. Without the caption, this would just be a picture of a man with a laptop. But due to the text, people can assume that he is using Skype or a similar communication system to talk to his family in order to tell them about his current situation. Again, just like waiting in queue, working a sub-par job and spending time with friends, being homesick is something that most people can relate with. What the article does best is to portray Sami as a normal, ”guy-next-door” kind of person. He does the same things most people do and the natural, uncontrived nature of the pictures plays into this. The headline has a rather negative connotation, while the pictures are mixed: The first image is rather positive, while the second and fourth are rather neutral. The third one, showing a queue of people, seems rather bleak.

The text itself is written from Sami's perspective, as if he told his story directly to the reader. This makes it a personal and authentic story. Sami is not portrayed as a victim or a perpetrator, but as a real person that the reader can identify with.


Excerpt out of 14 pages


The Effect of Multimodality on the Portrayal of Refugees on German and English News Sites
Justus-Liebig-University Giessen
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ISBN (Book)
effect, multimodality, portrayal, refugees, german, english, news, sites
Quote paper
Michelle Blum (Author), 2018, The Effect of Multimodality on the Portrayal of Refugees on German and English News Sites, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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