Social Actor Representation in Media Discourse: How Neutral Linguistic Cues Get Endowed with Meaning that Signifies Ethnicity

[1] Department of Journalism and Media Studies, Aarhus University, Denmark, E-mail:


In media discourse, journalists often need to navigate two professional values when covering migration topics: providing accurate and relevant information to audiences while simultaneously being committed to social justice. To understand how discursive practices have developed in response to this dilemma, I compare migration news discourse from two national environments—Sweden and Denmark—that represent opposite sociopolitical responses to migration. By analyzing the representations of identities of social actors inspired by Van Leeuwen (1996, 2018), the paper shows how migrant’s ethnic identities are sometimes omitted and suppressed in news content, and it identifies a range of lexical devices journalists utilize to represent actors in ways that still signify ethnicity while remaining ostensibly neutral. For example, in Denmark, ethnic labels such as “migrant”, “migrant gang” and “ghetto” constitute a common pattern, whereas in Sweden, conversely, such terms are substituted by expressions such as “new Swede”, “youth gang” and “vulnerable neighborhood”. I term this phenomenon semantic ethnification and define it as a process where ethnic identities of social actors are expressed through strategies that rely on implicit and covert connotations that denote ethnicity rather than explicit ethnic cues.

Keywords:  migration, news discourse, “other” representation, social actors, ethnicity


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