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Disease metaphors in new epidemics: the UK media framing of the 2003 SARS epidemic

Patrick Wallis () and Brigitte Nerlich

Social Science & Medicine, 2005, vol. 60, issue 11, 2629-2639

Abstract: Since the emergence of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s, social scientists and sociologists of health and illness have been exploring the metaphorical framing of this infectious disease in its social context. Many have focused on the militaristic language used to report and explain this illness, a type of language that has permeated discourses of immunology, bacteriology and infection for at least a century. In this article, we examine how language and metaphor were used in the UK media's coverage of another previously unknown and severe infectious disease: Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). SARS offers an opportunity to explore the cultural framing of a less extraordinary epidemic disease. It therefore provides an analytical counter-weight to the very extensive body of interpretation that has developed around HIV/AIDS. By analysing the total reporting on SARS of five major national newspapers during the epidemic of spring 2003, we investigate how the reporting of SARS in the UK press was framed, and how this related to media, public and governmental responses to the disease. We found that, surprisingly, militaristic language was largely absent, as was the judgemental discourse of plague. Rather, the main conceptual metaphor used was SARS as a killer. SARS as a killer was a single unified entity, not an army or force. We provide some tentative explanations for this shift in linguistic framing by relating it to local political concerns, media cultures, and spatial factors.

Keywords: Epidemics; Metaphor; SARS; AIDS; UK (search for similar items in EconPapers)
Date: 2005
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