I spy… half the world away

In Metro, January 16, 2017

The striking juxtaposition of two items on two halves of the newspaper clearly exposes the values (or lack of such) of western society. The newspaper’s attitudes towards global issues such as immigration and migrants reinforce the us and them discourse and contributes to augmenting the distancing  between the west and the rest. (catchy rhyme though).

Bigger, more colourful… sadder. A visual semiotic analysis

This divide is physically demarcated in the newspaper itself: the two stories are both sharing semantic domains, i.e. children but from two different locations in the world. Additionally, their activities, their treatment and the way they feel is captured differently in the photos.

The story on the left (text 1) titled: Refugee children struggle to survive in sub-zero temperatures reports the desperate health conditions which parentless (in the article unaccompanied is used) refugee children are facing in freezing Belgrade. The short snippet (text 2) on the right features Victoria Beckham’s supposed fashion ‘faux pas’, and her daughter’s shopping spree in Belgravia. It is interesting to note how close the two names of the places are. Although they do not share any semantic or etymological origin, it is difficult not to acknowledge their relative phonemic similarity. The difference between being lucky and unlucky lies in those small 3 letters.


The two photos are of markedly different sizes: the photo of the refugee child is a third of the size of the Beckham’s photo. It could be said this reflects a higher importance placed on tabloid content in Metro, and that perhaps the editors anticipate that readers’ attention would be drawn to celebrity gossip rather than war-related tragedies.


Colours are ostensibly different between the two texts. Starting with the colour of the title itself: text 1 is in black, while text 2 is in red. The choice of red for text 2 echoes tabloid register, designed to be eye-catching. At the same time, however, the colour red also conjures urgency and in our society signifies higher importance. Additionally, the font chosen for text 2 title is bolder than that of text 1.

Moving on to the photos, text 2 is much more colourful than text 1, with Beckham’s orange-yellow pants and white top, and her daughter’s blond hair, peach top, beige jacket and blue pants. The colours are soft and warm is the clothes’ texture – Beckham is wearing a loose sweater and trousers. The background is of a softly illuminated shop, nicely decorated with big windows and white painted walls. Cleanliness and comfort.

Text 1 is governed by misery. The dominant colour is gray, cold and precarity are evident. Layers of old scabies blankets are mounted on top of each other in a blur of grayness but judging from the boy still wearing his (also gray) jacket, they provide little warmth. His surroundings are what looks like an old van, riddled with holes in the walls and a flimsy roof.

Body position

The boy in text 1 is sitting up, there is no comfort or opportunities to relax in this precarious situation where he must stay alert and protect himself, not only from the cold but from others.

Both the boy in text 1 and the girl’s bodies are partially covered. However, while the boy in text 1 is clearly cold and covering himself to keep warm, the girl in Text 2 is simply holding her jacket.

The participants in text 2 are photographed mid-walking. The girl is facing sideways from the reader, with her body aligned with the pavement. This movement could be interpreted as though she has somewhere to go, and she has a future, she can go anywhere she pleases. Contrary to this, the boy in text 1 is stationary, enclosed in a wretched makeshift car. He is pictured huddled in the center of a hopeless situation. Unlike Beckham’s girl, he is at the mercy of luck, the kindness of others and the authorities.

Gaze and expression

It is hard to see the eyes of all the participants and none make eye contact with the reader. Arguably, for different reasons. The boy’s eyes are partially covered by his wet or greasy hair, Beckham’s hide behind sunglasses and her daughter is photographed in profile.  The Beckhams are on ‘offer’ (Kress and van Leeuwen, 1996), they are objects for the reader to contemplate and perhaps judge, in terms of fashion and physical appearance. We are invited, along with the author, to appreciate them like models on a runway.

Text 1 is also an offer, but this time the reader is almost at the same level as the boy, while in text 2 the reader is positioned lower than the participants in the photo, again, like in a fashion show runway. In text 1, the reason the boy does not make eye contact with the reader is because, it could be postulated, he is positioned as ‘other’, he and his circumstances are not part of our world.

The facial expressions in the two images are extremely interesting: While Beckham’s face quite often remains expressionless and a smile is rarely discerned, in this photo her expression is even harder to decipher given her eye wear. However, it is safe to say she seems rather discontented. Her daughter, walking in front of her, seems equally disconcerted, if not unhappy.

Conversely, the boy could be said to have an almost serene appearance.

The discourse surrounding Victoria Beckham is that of the shallowness of western society, interested in superficial issues such as fashion. The ‘clever’ pun used in the title is particularly cringing juxtaposed to real problems as exposed in text 1: Has Posh Hit Bell-Bottom of Barrel? This pun plays on the metaphor hit bottom, meaning to reach the worst situation and be in the worst condition possible.

Surrounding context

It is interesting to examine the surrounding texts as well, as they provide schema activation, which could be argued to further entrench linking and connotation to certain domains.

Text 1

The first text closely links with domains such as Middle-East, Arab countries, terrorism, the war on terrorism:

  1. Under the main story is an advert for The Emirates commercial flights.
  2. On the right to the ad is a story titled: UK steps up the fight as 2m set free from Daesh, and an embellishment in the center:publication1
  3. Below this is another short article also about an Arab country and refugees: Up to 100 feared dead after migrant boat capsizes off Libya.

This could be argued to create negative links between refugees and terrorism that support anti-immigration discourse.

Text 2

The celebrity lexical domain continues throughout the page: Surrounding the Beckhams is a story about Kim Kardashian’s robbery, and a BBC adaptation of John le Carré’s The Spy who Came in from The Cold starring Tom Hiddleston. Each of these short articles features a photo of the celebrity, which could be placed this way to catch the reader’s attention.

Finally, this analysis raises a few questions: Was this layout put together on purpose? If so, to what end? Did the editors aim to attract readers to ‘real news’ with tabloids? Or Are the tabloids there to provide a ‘mental break’ from difficult news?

The author is willing to remove any content that may infringe on copyrights



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