Coronavirus Media Narratives

While Coronavirus is no doubt a real-life event, with real-life social and (for an extreme minority tragic) individual consequences, it is also very much a media event, especially since isolation is correlated with a significant increase our media consumption with news sites especially seeing a surge in visits (U.S. data)…

news consumption coronavirus

Social media usage (Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp) is seeing a similar 75% increase in user engagement. 

The News is a Social Construction

The spread of Coronavirus, and the societal reaction to it are media-events, they are socially constructed – that is to say we do not get to see every aspect of reality, only that which is selected by media professionals.

Because Coronavirus was so unexpected, and because the consequences are potentially so horrendous (millions could die from it globally, so we are told), it’s tempting to think that the reporting around this global event are ‘true’ or, at least as accurate as can be given the lack of any actual real data.

HOWEVER, it is precisely because this event is so ‘massive’ ( global, and with a range of different responses), and because there are so many unknowns (missing data on how many people actually have it), that this event in particular is possibly the most ‘media constructed’ in world history.

Add to this the fact ‘ordinary people’ have a reduced capacity to get out and see what’s going on for themselves (because of emergency social isolation legislation), then this is also the most hyperreal event in world history. One might even ask if it’s actually happening at all, as this person does here:

Give all of this, we really need to ask ourselves how the story of Coronavirus is being constructed, and to my mind I see several core narratives which haven’t so much emerged rather than just blasted all of a sudden onto the media scene:

The 11 media narratives of Coronavirus

  1. Panic and Risk based around uncritical use of statistics
  2. Enforcing the importance of social control
  3. ‘The War footing’
  4. New villains
  5. Celebrities ‘like us’ in isolation
  6. Sharing ‘isolation coping strategies’, while staying isolated
  7. Victims: Private tragedies made public
  8. New heroes (frontline workers and volunteers, especially NHS workers)
  9. The importance of trusting medical experts/ technical solutions to Covid-19
  10. The economic impact/ bailout of covid-19/ ‘pulling through this together’
  11. Blame other countries or poor migrants

This is very much a first-thoughts run through of this, and I might rejig it later. Below I provide a few examples for some of these themes.

NB – I am not saying that we shouldn’t take this virus seriously, and I do accept that this is a highly contagious bug and potentially deadly for some (like the flu, that’s also deadly!), and the challenge we face is the rapidity of the spread of it. But at the same time, I just think we also need to aware of uncritical reporting of the death rates and social responses…

NB for a ‘content analysis’ challenge, scroll down to the bottom of this post!

Media Narrative One: Panic and Risk based around uncritical use of statistics

At time of writing (April 1st 2020) you get this theme from doing a basic Google search for the term ‘Coronavirus’:

The panic is in the language in the ‘top stories’: ‘record surge of cases’, ‘fatality rate shoots up’, but also in the images – you’ve got The Army, the Prime-minister with a lab technician (themes 2 and 10 above there) and then just a sea of red in the next image.

This could all be contextualized instead – things get worse before they get better, in China the cases are coming down:

Theme Two: Reinforcing social control

In case you missed it, same picture as above, search return Number One: Stay At Home: Save Lives| Anyone Can Spread Coronavirus, and this is from the NHS.

If you think such a simple statement doesn’t require analysis, then you do not have a sociological imagination.

Coronavirus is the most searched for term atm (NB that is an assumption, but I think I’m pretty safe making it!), and Google is the most used search engine in the world: so these are the nine words which people in Britain are the most exposed to.

There’s a rather nasty psychological manipulation technique going on here – social control through the internalizing of potential guilt: if you go out, you could kill someone.

However, the fact that this advice comes from the trusted and loved NHS makes us think (maybe) that while dark, this must be ‘good advice.

Confused yet, terrified? I’m not surprised!

NB: Keep in mind that this advice is reinforcing government emergency lock-down legislation, legislation that is not based in hard statistics on the actual chance of people dying from Covid-19 – there’s every chance that the real mortality rate from the disease is the same as the flu, but here we are in lockdown for three weeks.

On the theme of social control, I found this from The Sun especially interesting…

Here we have the perfect way of reinforcing the stay at home method – a 19 year old female nurse (although I don’t know how she can be qualified at age 19?) crying because people are flouting the stay at home rules – the perfect hero and victim, all rolled into one!

If that doesn’t make you feel guilty for going out, nothing will, I mean look at that face, how could you hurt her?

Theme Three: The War Footing

President Trump has declared himself a war time president, and he’s far from the only one using the ‘War Footing’ narrative – besides using war related language (fight against, achieving victory, the national effort), a lot of commentary harks back to WW2 analogies – I heard one lab technician today saying how his small lab, testing for Covid-19, was like one of the boats from Dunkirk, for example.

Theme Four: Coronavirus Villains

You really don’t have to look far, and probably no newspaper does a better of job of singling these out for us than The Sun, which tells us that going out for a too long walk is now deviant (top right hand corner below)

Anyone who now goes out for anything but emergency health reasons or going to the supermarket for essential food shopping is now a deviant!

Theme Five – Celebrities like us in Isolation

I present you my man Gregg Wallace – getting buff while in isolation in his Kent Farm House… coping with isolation, just like us! (Except he’s probably in a very large farmhouse in a very exclusive part of of Kent with several acres surrounding him, and a couple of million quid in the bank to fall back on in tis of crisis, like every other celebrity.

Theme 6: Coping Strategies

Here’s a nice middle class example from The Guardian. I’m sure there are plenty of other social media sharing strategies going on out there!

Theme Seven: Victims: Private tragedies made public

This example from Sky News is interesting – it shows how the media is lining up to report on ‘the most extreme’ cases… even before Covid-19 is confirmed as a cause..

Theme 8: New Heroes

The NHS front line workers appear to have emerged as the new heroes, as well as other essential key workers, but it’s mainly NHS workers who are getting the praise – the weekly clap for the NHS has become a media event with extreme rapidity (clapidity?)

Theme nine: The importance of trusting medical experts/ technical solutions to Covid-19

This is an emerging theme, which I expect we’ll see a lot more of in coming weeks. Not much to say on this atm, but it is there – at the bottom of the BBC News links – I might be overanalysing this, but the fact that it’s at the bottom, or at the end, does suggest implicitly that such technologicla drug trials are the way out….

Theme 10: The economic impact/ bailout of covid-19/ ‘pulling through this together’

This is one of those ‘boring but important’ themes that is likely to become more prevalent as the Pandemic slows down…

Theme 11: Blame other countries or poor migrants

From a recent edition of The Sun….

Covid-19 content analysis research challenge

Why not keep your sociological skills engaged by doing a little content analysis (yay, fun!)

Use the content analysis sheet below to analyse one newspaper, one news website, or one news show, or maybe even chat shows like the One Show, and see how many of themes crop up.

There are several methods of doing the content analysis – as follows:

  • For Newspapers simply look at each discrete story (you might want to just focus on the biggest stories) and put a tick in the relative box every time you come across a theme.
  • For websites (e.g. News Websites), start with the home page and follow the main links, tick according to whatever the main theme is.
  • For TV shows, you can watch and note down how many minutes is devoted to each.

Enjoy, and stay…. critical!

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