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A media brew of implied, hidden and unknown risk claims: cognitive discourse analysis of public health communication

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationApplying Linguistics in Illness and Healthcare Contexts
EditorsZsófia Demjén
Place of PublicationLondon
PublisherBloomsbury Academic
ISBN (Print)9781350057661
Publication statusPublished - 16 Apr 2020

King's Authors


Public health messages rely heavily on media exposure in order to reach the intended audience (which could be the general public as a whole, or a sub-group such as people with underlying health conditions). Importantly, media also play a pivotal role in communication around health science, though they are commonly criticised as being sensationalist (Shuchman and Wilkes 1997). In this chapter, we will look at media reports on the presence of minute amounts of emerging contaminants in the drinking water supply. Although the majority of scientific studies offer no evidence that these residuals present a health threat, a degree of uncertainty exists and has been exploited by many news outlets (e.g. Donn et al. 2008a, 2008b; Mendoza 2008a, 2008b).

Cognitive discourse analysis (CogDA) is a relatively new analytical tool, developed specifically for medical discourses (Rundblad 2007, Knapton and Rundblad 2014, Rundblad et al. 2013). Employing a functional approach as its foundation, CogDA fuses a clause level micro-analysis with cognitive linguistic approaches, notably frame semantics (Fillmore 1982) and localist semantics (Anderson 1971), which allows us to identify the conceptualisations that underlie the media stories.
Our data is a representative sample of media reports appearing nationally and locally in the UK and US press from 2006 to 2011, taken from a larger corpus (Tang and Rundblad 2015), and which reflects the time before and after the iconic Associated Press story in March 2008 on emerging contaminants as a threat to public health. To provide a comparison to media accounts, we also examined documents appearing on water industry and government websites during the same period that address the threat posed by contaminants.

The analysis revealed media portrayals to be typically simplistic and inflammatory: Contaminants are vividly portrayed as a disease that purposefully fights its way into the water supply, while the general public - both the true culprit and the victim of the contamination – is almost absent from the discourse. At the same time, the agency of the water industry and key government agencies in counteracting the threat is concealed by devices, such as the passive voice. The effect on the reader is profound confusion and the potential for unnecessary worry and unwarranted behaviour changes is high.

We will discuss strategies that allow the writer to produce a more balanced and informative account of the causes and consequences of water contaminants.

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