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Critical Discourse Analysis of the Representation of Voters in UK Newspapers Coverage of the EU Referendum

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Media
Wordcount: 3085 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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This dissertation is interested in the ways that discourse is able to create and maintain dominant knowledge about the social world. The focus will be on how selected newspapers in the UK have used the EU referendum to create ‘in-groups’ and ‘out-groups’ using inclusive and exclusive language and discourse.

Language and discourse

Language is at the centre of how knowledge is constructed about the world, it is very much central to how people interact and how they do things in their lives. However, its familiarity can mean it being taken for granted as a means of communication. Language and discourse are key components in creating what is deemed to be important and less-important knowledge about the world and the people who inhabit it. Linguistic and Sociological theories such as, semiotics, social representation and social theory have shown that knowledge, beliefs and meanings are constructed socially (Saussure, 2006, Hall, 1997, Foucault, 1980, Fairclough, 1993).

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Semiology is the study of signs and sign using behaviour. ‘Langue’ and ‘parole’ are linguistic phrases used by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand De Saussure to highlight the differences between the rules of and the uses of language. According to Saussure (2006) ‘langue,’ is a linguistic system which is homogenous and equally available to those that are a part of a linguistic group. A sign is a basic unit of Langue, which determines the rules and codes of a language. Langue is necessary in order to interpret and obtain an understanding of a system of language. Whereas, ‘parole’ is what an individual/group writes or speaks which differs depending on the choice of the individual. Parole is the true linguistic performance of individuals/groups,whereas,langue necessitates the principles of language, without this, parole would not be possible. Saussure used a chess analogy in order to describe his idea of langue and parole;comparing langue to the rules of chess, and parole as the moves that an individual makes when playing the game (Saussure, 2006).

Spoken and written language, as well as symbolism and semiotics, have established what is known as discourse. Discourse is a component of language that is ordered around a specific subject matter and meaning. It refers to how people think and communicate about others and the organisation of society; emerging from social institutions such as the media, it gives order and reality to lives by providing structure and order to language, thought, relationships, and society (Fairclough, 1993). The power of discourse is in how it provides credibility for certain knowledge, whilst at the same time it also undermines other contrasting knowledge. As discourse has a lot of meaning and societal implications, it is often an area of conflict. Therefore, it has the ability to turn ‘others’ into subjects that that can be controlled and manipulated (Fairclough, 2001).


Representations are images, descriptions, explanations and frames for understanding what the world is and why and how it works in particular ways (Hall, 1997). ‘Social’ representation can be explained by Jodelet’s definition – “A form of knowledge, socially elaborated and shared, having a practical goal and converging towards the construction of reality shared by a certain social ensemble,” (Jodelet, 1991:36). The purpose of media representations according to Stuart Hall (1997)  is to represent, produce meaning and capture ‘reality’ in signs. Hall claims that ‘representation’ through language is a central practice that produces culture, which produces meaning. This is because culture is about shared meanings, which are produced and exchanged through the medium of language. According to Hall, language operates as a ‘representational system,’ where signs and symbols such as written words are used to ‘represent’ concepts and feelings to others. This enables people to build up a culture of shared understandings and allows them to understand the world similarly to each other (Hall, 1997).

The major contribution of the research on media representations is the insistence that ‘relations of power’ are at the centre of representations. Power relations are encoded in media representations, which both produce and reproduce power relations by constructing knowledge, values, conceptions and beliefs about the social world (Orgad, 2012).

Conceptions of where power exists, and its consequences differs according to different approaches (Orgad, 2012). Ideology can be defined as the ways in which meaning is mobilised for the maintenance of relations of domination (Thompson, 1984). The study of the operation of ideology in and through representation has its roots in Marxist theory. At its centre is the “desire to comprehend how social relations based on domination, antagonism, and injustice are perceived as normal, inevitable and even desired by those who benefit the least from them” (Gill, 2007:54).

Antonio Gramsci (1971) asserted that ideology is driven by a want to establish a particular frame of thinking as the most powerful, most valid, or the ‘truth,’ which is successful by creating hegemony. Hegemony is based on ‘common sense’ and relies on winning the consent of the people. A particular group is able use hegemony to claim social, political and cultural leadership of a society discursively by creating subjects, and producing discursive positions and identities (Gramsci, 1971). The ability to remake subjectivities, is also a central part of winning consent and achieving hegemony (Gill, 2007). One of the main areas of hegemonic struggle is the media, where it is possible to see dominant ideas and values presented in a form which allows them to seem as though they are working in the best interests of those they are actually helping to subordinate (Taylor and Willis, 1999).  

Michel Foucault (1980) regarded discourse as knowledge. Foucault wrote that discourse is the product of specific social, historical, institutional and political conditions that render certain statements truthful and meaningful. It is not a tool for communicating already formed knowledge, it is what actually produces knowledge; an institutionalised way of speaking and/or writing about the world and embedded in and emerging from relations of power. Foucault studied the relationship between state institutions, power and discourse, where those in control of institutions such as the media are able to shape ideas, thoughts and beliefs, using ideology to shape knowledge by producing discourse. Discourse, power, and knowledge are closely acquainted, they work together to create a hierarchy, where some discourses become dominant and mainstream and are perceived to be natural, truthful, and correct. Whilst at the same time other discourses are marginalised and stigmatised (Foucault, 1980).

‘Representation’ is an area of power, at the centre of which is the symbolic production of difference. The media’s primary cultural role is the constant production and reproduction of ‘difference’ (Silverstone, 2007). Representational activities depend upon developing an ‘other’ in the social landscape, therefore, ‘othering’ is unavoidable when it comes to meaning making in society Jovchelovitch (1996). Hall (1997) wrote about the concerns around the production of difference and the ‘other.’ Hall’s analytical vocabulary accounts for specific representational practices involved in the symbolic production of difference and otherness. Hall’s concepts of binary opposition and ‘stereotyping’ show the work of media representation as one of marking symbolic boundaries and how they become embedded, reproduced and reinforced in power relations of domination and oppression (Hall, 1997).  Hall wrote that the meaning of a word or concept is frequently defined by its association with its opposite. Therefore, meaning generated by media representations relies on this signifying practice, with one binary pole signifying the dominant one against which the other pole is defined (Hall, 1997). 

‘Stereotyping’ is a method used to maintain symbolic order. Stereotyping works by focussing on broad similarities and identifying characteristics, reducing everything about a person or social group, to certain traits, which are exaggerated and simplified. Stereotyping “sets up a symbolic frontier between the ‘normal’ and the ‘deviant’ or ‘pathological,’ the ‘acceptable’ and the ‘unacceptable,’ what belongs and does not, and ‘Us and Them” (Hall, 1997:258). Implicit within the stereotype is the fact that the signs chosen make common assumptions about the group in question. Stereotypes “carry undifferentiated judgements about their referents” (O’Sullivan, 2001: 300). Stereotypes act as indicators about power structures and existing social conflicts, highlighting relations of domination and subordination, as those stereotyped are not defined by themselves, but by those who are able to enact greater social power. Repetition of stereotypes makes the type of knowledge about social groups prevalent and acts to reinforce these ideas until they become the ‘common sense’ belief, which can remain unquestioned (Taylor and Willis, 1999).


‘Otherness’ is at the centre of how societies establish identity categories. The social construction of the ‘Other’ shows how societies construct social categories in order to create binary opposites, which promotes a sense of belonging, identity and social status. Bauman (1990) argues that identities are set up as ‘dichotomies,’ and are crucial for the practice and vision of social order. As the differentiating power hides behind the members of the opposition. The second member is the ‘other’ of the first, the opposite side of the first and its creation. Therefore, abnormality is the ‘other’ of the norm, and the ‘other’ of ‘us’ (Bauman, 1990).

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Groups define themselves in how they relate to others, as identity does not mean much without the ‘other.’ Definitions of ‘self’ and ‘others’ are purposeful and consequential; tied to rewards and punishment, which can be materialistic or symbolic. Gain or loss occurs as a consequence of identity and is why identities are contested, and as groups do not have equal power to define both ‘self’ and the ‘other,’ the consequences reflect the differences in power between groups. Ideas of who is superior and inferior are embedded in identity (Okolie, 2003).

Discursive ideology however, is not exclusively a means of oppression by those who dominate but is also used as a way of resisting oppression by those who are dominated (Van Dijk, 2006). Discourses are also areas where grappling and negotiating for meanings and beliefs happen. Discourse is shaped ideologically by relations of power struggles (Fairclough, 2001).

Media influence

Media institutions are very influential in producing and transmitting discourse and symbolism, acting as teachers of ideologies, beliefs and values. For example, media messages are influential in ‘naturalising’ taken for granted and ‘common-sense’ assumptions (Gamson et al, 1992). According to Hall (1982), the media encode the meanings of the powerful, they are able to do this as they operate within a framework of consensus. This framework is constructed: it is an educated, learnt consent, to which the media are central. This however, is rarely a result of conscious or deliberate manipulation by the state or by powerful interests, rather it is unconscious and taken for granted. Ideology works through the ‘taken for granted’ discourse which is compatible with the dominant interests in society (Hall, 1982).  Hall’s approach fits with the direction known as the ‘linguistic turn’ – the examination of the ways in which patterns of communication in society shape views of reality.

Previous studies

As the majority of issues in regard to the EU are more or less removed from people’s everyday lives, the media are the main agents through which people find their information. Robinson (2000) showed that the less direct contact the public has with an issue, the more it depends on the media for its information or explanations. This highlights the importance in how the media represents the EU, as it has the power to shape the majority of the public’s perceptions and the ease in which they can label voters (Robinson, 2000).

Antonio V. Mendez Alarcon (2010) ‘Media Representation of the European Union: Comparing Newspaper Coverage in France, Spain, and the United Kingdom,’ analysed the role of newspapers in France, Spain and the UK and how they define the European Union (EU) and how this contributed to the production and reproduction of ‘social representations’ of the EU in the public. Alarcon used a content analysis of newspapers and interviews of journalists in order to analyse the role the media play in defining the EU and how they contribute to the way the EU is perceived in the public’s eyes. Alarcon concluded that most of the information that they provided on the EU was generally negative towards the institution. This included the far-reaching belief that a national government can solve societal problems better than the EU can (Alarcon, 2010).

Thommesson (2017) ‘Othering’ the ‘Left-Behind’? A Critical Discourse Analysis of the representation of Leave voters in British broadsheets’ coverage of the EU referendum,’ analysed the role played by the British media institutions in expressing the left-behind ‘leave’ voters as the ‘Other.’ The research evaluated the ‘representation’ of Leave voters by Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) and brought to the fore the ways that ideology and partisanship influence ‘media representations’ and have a direct effect on the ways in which mainstream media institutions relate to and represent voters, which is emphasised in their opinionated discourses (Thommesson, 2017).

Elfriede Fursich (2010) ‘Media and the representation of Others,’ criticises the role the mass media plays in constructing an idea of ‘Others,’ explaining how the media promote or hinder a positive outlook on cultural diversity in society. Media power in steering attention to, and away from social issues often determines the problems that will be either challenged or disregarded by society. Only the issues that become public knowledge can make people think about the social and political consequences that exist beyond their own experiences. In his study Fursich argues that culture should be interpreted as a dynamic process, rather than perceived as static and essential. According to Fursich, the media should be defined in terms of institutions that authorise cultural development and positioned as enablers, not preservers of cultural diversity (Fursich, 2010).


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