New CASS project: Feedback on NHS Cancer services

 In recent months, CASS members Paul Baker  and Gavin Brookes  have embarked on a project working with the National Health Service (NHS), using corpus linguistics methods to investigate patient concerns in a large corpus (approx. 14 million words) of patient feedback on NHS cancer care. Below we discuss what the project will entail.

If this project sounds familiar, it is because we carried out a similar project four years ago, also using corpus techniques to examine NHS patient feedback more generally (you can read about this work in this book and this journal article in BMJ Open).

This latest project was made possible with ESRC funding (£84,006 FEC) and involves collaboration between CASS and NHS England who provided us with electronic versions of approximately 200,000 patient questionnaires given annually to all patients who receive treatment for cancer in England. We have been given access to four years of data (2015-2018) which has been mounted on Lancaster University’s online corpus analysis system CQPWeb.

We will be using and refining some of the techniques we developed in that earlier work to explore, for example, what kinds of concerns drive patients’ evaluations, how patients’ priorities change throughout the duration of their care, and what types of concerns patients regard as being most urgent. This set of comments differs from that which we analysed previously in an important respect; specifically, we have access to metadata regarding patients’ age, ethnicity, sex and sexuality, as well the type of cancer they received treatment for and the hospital they attended. Therefore, our analysis will also explore what impacts these variables are likely to have on patients’ expectations and how that impacts on the language they use when talking about and evaluating NHS services.

Another important difference between this project and the last one is that we will be able to draw on the expertise of Professor Sheila Payne – an expert in palliative and end of life care who has also been involved in other CASS projects in the past (e.g. Metaphor in End of Life Care (MELC).  Sheila’s insight will help to guide the aims of the project and to ensure that these are relevant and of value to the NHS, while her expertise will be key to interpreting the significance of our findings.

Representations of Obesity in the News: Project update and book announcement!

Gavin Brookes and Paul Baker

We are delighted to announce the forthcoming publication of a book based on research carried out as part of the CASS project, ‘Representations of Obesity in the News’. The book, titled Obesity in the News: Language and Representation in the Press, will be published by Cambridge University Press in 2021. You can see a sneak preview of the cover here!

The book reports analysis of a 36 million-word corpus of all UK national newspaper articles mentioning obese or obesity published over a ten-year period (2008-2017). This analysis combines methods from Corpus Linguistics with Critical Discourse Studies to explore the discourses that characterise press coverage of obesity during this period. The book explores a wide range of themes in this large dataset, with chapters that answer the following questions:

• What discourses characterise representations of obesity in the press as a whole?

• How do obesity discourses differ according to newspapers’ formats and political leanings?

• How have obesity discourses changed over time, and how do they interact with the annual news cycle?

• How does the press use language to shame and stigmatise people with obesity, and how are attempts to ‘reclaim’ the notion of obesity depicted?

• What discourses surround the core concepts of the ‘healthy body’, ‘diet’ and ‘exercise’ in press coverage of obesity?

• How do obesity discourses interact with gender, and how does this influence the ways in which men and women with obesity are represented?

• How does the press talk about social class in relation to obesity, and how do such discourses contribute to differing depictions of obesity in people from different social class groups?

• Finally, how do audiences respond to press depictions of obesity in below-the-line comments on online articles?

The book will be the latest output from this project. You can read more about our work on changing representations of obesity over time in this recent Open Access article published in Social Science & Medicine. We are also working on articles which expand our analysis of obesity and social class, depictions of obesity risk, and obesity discourses in press coverage of the coronavirus pandemic, so keep your eyes peeled for further announcements!

Islam in the Media – A new CASS project working with The Aziz Foundation

We are very pleased to announce that in our next CASS project we will be working with The Aziz Foundation  to examine representations of Islam in the British press. The project will be led by Tony McEnery (Principal Investigator) with Gavin Brookes as Co-Investigator. We are also delighted to announce that Isobelle Clarke will be joining us later this year as Research Fellow on this project – welcome Isobelle! (introductory blog post to follow…).

The aim of this research will be to expand on previous work on this topic carried out by members of the Centre. The project will be methodologically innovative, devising new techniques and adapting existing methods to afford new insights into representations of Islam in the UK and how these vary across different parts of the Country and over time. Specifically, this project will be structured according the following three strands:

  1. Examining press representations of Islam over time. This will involve expanding the University’s existing database of press articles about Islam – which currently represents national news articles up to 2015 – allowing for a comparison of representations of Islam over time, from 1998 to the present day.
  2. Comparing national and regional press representations of Islam. As well as providing insight into what is, in the regional press, an under-researched area of media representations of Islam, this strand will also be able to address hypotheses which suggest that Muslims positively appraise local over national media coverage of Islam and Muslims (Open Society Institute, 2010: 215). In addition to expanding the existing dataset to include articles published up to the present day, as per (1), this strand will entail the expansion of this dataset to include regional (as well as national) newspaper articles about Islam published from 1998 to the present day. By studying temporal changes in both the national and regional press, this project will be able to assess the extent to which any shifts are uniform across both tiers (local/national) or, on the other hand, whether divergences between the two actually become starker over time.
  3. Exploring the social effect of press representations. This strand will analyse how readers respond to both positive and negative framings of Islam in ‘below-the-line’ comments which accompanying the articles in the data. This strand will therefore take a wider view of societal discussions of Islam, comparing readers’ perspectives against press representations in order to ascertain the extent to which such representations might influence but also be challenged by the public. By exploring comments both on articles which contain positive as well as negative representations – as these are identified in (1) and (2) – this strand will provide useful evidence for demonstrating to the media the social effects of constructive journalism over poor journalistic practice.

We will actively engage members of the British Muslim community in our research by sharing our findings with them, listening to their thoughts and feedback, and helping them to read media texts more critically in order to challenge negative representations in the future, for example by formulating complaints that are informed by (corpus) linguistic insight. We are excited to begin this exciting project and are looking forward to working with The Aziz Foundation and, of course, to welcoming Isobelle to Lancaster!

CASS Down Under!

Earlier this month, a few members of the CASS team travelled to Australia to give talks and deliver workshops at two of the Country’s most prestigious universities – Australian National University (Canberra) and The University of Sydney.

Our journey begins in Sydney, where on the 18th March, Paul BakerGavin BrookesTony McEnery and Elena Semino spoke at the Corpus Showcase and launch of the Sydney Corpus Lab. Elena was first to speak, as she presented findings from her research with Alice Deignan (University of Leeds) on metaphors for climate change in the classroom. Tony then spoke about his work studying shifts in the historical discourse surrounding Venereal Disease, before Paul concluded the morning session with a talk which brought together a series of corpus studies of sexual identities in personal ads. Following lunch, Gavin presented early findings from the Representations of Obesity in the News project, using keywords to compare tabloid and broadsheet data. So, a wide range of topics reflecting the diversity of the projects within CASS, which both our hosts and members of the audience commented on and seemed to enjoy. More information and photos from this event can be found here.

CASS Director, Elena Semino with Corpus Lab Director, Monika Bednarek

Monika Bednarek with Paul Baker, Tony McEnery, Laurence Anthony and Gavin Brookes (L-R)

Following the event in Sydney, our next stop was Canberra, where the team was joined by Dima Antansova and Luke Collins for a series of corpus lingustics workshops at the Institute for Communication in Health Care (ICH), Australian National University (ANU).

Day 1 in Canberra: Paul Baker, Dima Atanasova, Shannon Clark (ANU), Luke Collins, Tony McEnery, Elena Semino, Diana Slade (Director of ICH, ANU), Gavin Brookes, Susy MacQueen (ANU) (L-R)

On the first day of our stint in Canberra, the CASS team exchanged details about our work on health communication with members of the ICH, with the view to future collaboration in this area. On days 2 and 3, we delivered a corpus linguistics workshop to approximately 50 delegates from an impressive range of disciplines, including health care, theoretical linguistics, creative writing and anhropology, to name just a few! On the first day of workshops, Tony introduced corpus linguistics, Paul spoke about his research using corpora in discourse analysis and Luke led practical sessions on corpus construction and collocation. On the second day,Tony gave a lecture on stats and Paul led a practical session on using corpus techniques in discourse analysis. Also, on the final day, Elena and Gavin both gave lectures on the application of corpus methods to the analysis of health language data. Elena’s talk focused on metaphor in cancer and end-of-life care, before Gavin wrapped up the sessions with a talk about his work with Paul on NHS feedback in England. Our hosts were welcoming and hsopitable and the attendees were lively, engaged and seemed to gain in confidence as the workshops went on. In summary, this was a thoroughly productive and enjoyable expereince that was more than worth the long journey. Now we just have to find an excuse to go back and find out how everyone is getting on!



Introductory Blog – Gavin Brookes

This is the second time I have been a part of CASS, which means that this is the second time I’ve written one of these introductory blog pieces. I first worked in CASS in 2016, on an eight-month project with Paul Baker where we looked at  the feedback that patients gave about the NHS in England. This was a really fun project to work on – I enjoyed being a part of CASS and working with Paul and made some great friends in the Centre with whom I’m still in contact to this day. Since leaving CASS in October 2016, I completed my PhD in Applied Linguistics in the School of English at the University of Nottingham, which examined the ways that people with diabetes and eating disorders construct their illnesses and identities in online support groups. Following my PhD, I stayed in the School of English at Nottingham, working as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the School’s Professional Communication research and consultancy unit.

As you might have guessed from the topic of my doctoral project and my previous activity with CASS, my main research interests are in the areas of corpus linguistics and health communication. I am therefore very excited to return to the Centre now, with its new focus on the application of corpora to the study of health communication. I’m currently working on a new project within the Centre, Representations of Obesity in the News, which explores the ways that obesity and people affected by obesity are represented in the media, focussing in particular on news articles and readers’ responses. I’m very excited to be working on this important project. Obesity is a growing and seemingly ever-topical public health concern, not just in the UK but globally. However, the media’s treatment of the issue can often be stigmatising, making it quite deserving of scrutiny! Yet, our aim in this project isn’t just to take the media to task, but to eventually work with media outlets to advise them on how to cover obesity in a way that is more balanced and informative and, crucially, less stigmatising for people who are affected by it. In this project, we’re also working with obesity charities and campaign groups, which provides a great opportunity to make sure that the focus of our research is not just fit for academic journals but is relevant to people affected by this issue and so can be applied in the ‘real world’, as it were.

So, to finish on more of a personal note, the things I said about myself the last time I wrote one of these blog posts  are still true ; I still like walking, I still travel lots, I still read fantasy and science fiction, I still do pub quizzes, my football team are still rubbish and I don’t think I’ve changed that much since the photo used in that piece was taken… Most of all, though, it still excites me to be a part of CASS and I am absolutely delighted to be back.


CASS goes to the Wellcome Trust!

Earlier this month I represented CASS in a workshop, hosted by the Wellcome Trust, which was designed to explore the language surrounding patient data. The remit of this workshop was to report back to the Trust on what might be the best ways to communicate to patients about their data, their rights respecting their data, and issues surrounding privacy and anonymity. The workshop comprised nine participants who all communicated with the public as part of their jobs, including journalists, bloggers, a speech writer, a poet, and a linguist (no prizes for guessing who the latter was…). On a personal note, I had prepared for this event from the perspective of a researcher of health communication. However, the backgrounds of the other participants meant that I realised very quickly that my role in this event would not be so specific, so niche, but was instead much broader, as “the linguist” or even “the academic”.

Our remit was to come up with a vocabulary for communication about patient data that would be easier for patients to understand. As it turned out, this wasn’t too difficult, since most of the language surrounding patient data is waffly at its best, and overly-technical and incomprehensible at its worst. One of the most notable recommendations we made concerned the phrase ‘patient data’ itself, which we thought might carry connotations of science and research, and perhaps disengage the public, and so recommended that the phrase ‘patient health information’ might sound less technical and more 14876085_10154608287875070_1645281813_otransparent. We undertook a series of tasks which ranged from sticking post-it notes on whiteboards and windows, to role play exercises and editing official documents and newspaper articles. What struck me, and what the diversity of these tasks demonstrated particularly well, was how the suitability of our suggested terms could only really be assessed once we took the words off the post-it notes and inserted them into real-life communicative situations, such as medical consultations, patient information leaflets, newspaper articles, and even talk shows.

The most powerful message I took away from the workshop was that close consideration of linguistic choices in the rhetoric surrounding health is vital for health care providers to improve the ways that they communicate with the public. To this end, as a collection of methods that facilitate the analysis of large amounts of authentic language data in and across a variety of texts and contexts, corpus linguistics has an important role to play in providing such knowledge in the future. Corpus linguistic studies of health-related communication are currently small in number, but continue to grow apace. Although the health-related research that is being undertaken within CASS, such as Beyond the Checkbox and Metaphor in End of Life Care, go some way to showcasing the rich fruits that corpus-based studies of health communication can bear, there is still a long way to go. In particular, future projects in this area should strive to engage consumers of health research not only in terms of our findings, but also the (corpus) methods that we have used to get there.