PhD conference prize for James Balfour

I am honoured to have received the award for “student research with the most potential for impact” at the 2020 Corpora and Discourse International conference this year. The award, which included a prize of £150, was sponsored by Palgrave and decided through nominations from conference attendees. The talk can be accessed online here: https://corporadiscourse.com/healthcare-representations-videos/

The findings are part of a larger project examining how people with schizophrenia are portrayed in British newspapers. While symptoms of schizophrenia, which include auditory and visual hallucinations (e.g. ‘hearing voices’), affect roughly 1 in 100 people, most of the general public obtain all their understanding of the disorder from the media. This is because most people are unlikely to have first-hand experiences of people with the disorder. After all, people with mental illnesses are not visually identifiable (in the way people with some physical disabilities are) and, as a consequence, no one could identify someone with schizophrenia from just the way they look. Moreover, another symptom people with schizophrenia often experience is social withdrawal, which means that some people diagnosed with the disorder may avoid contact with others. It is therefore crucial that the media provides accurate and tolerant portrayals of people with schizophrenia so that the general public can understand the disorder and are encouraged to treat people with the disorder with respect and compassion.

My talk focussed on differences between the language used to represent people with schizophrenia in the British tabloids and broadsheets. To compare differences, I identified words which were significantly more frequent in either dataset relative to the other. This identified words which were distinctive to either the tabloids or broadsheets reportage on schizophrenia. What I found was that these words converged around a distinctive topic for each dataset. In the tabloids, this distinctive topic was “crime”. These words referred to the sentencing and imprisonment of criminals with a diagnosis of schizophrenia, or the risks posed deinstitutionalising patients from hospital. Hence, a distinctive feature of the reporting in the tabloids was the tendency to represent people with schizophrenia as dangerous. For instance, the following example from The Star reports a story where a patient with schizophrenia has been deinstitutionalised.

BLUNDERS FREED KILLER FROM MENTAL HOSPITAL. A SERIES of errors left a crazed killer at large to stab to death a hero detective. (The Star, 20 May 2005).

Notice how the individual is referred to twice as a killer, which reduces the identity of the individual to their crime. Other aspects of the patient’s identity and their circumstances – noticeably the patient’s own mental distress – are left unmentioned. Instead, he is referred to as crazed, which is a simplistic and dismissive representation of his mental health issues. The fact that he is represented as a killer even before reference is made to his crime even seems to mislead us into thinking that he had committed murder before being deinstitutionalised, which was not the case.

Instead, a distinctive topic in the broadsheets was “art and culture”. These words occur in stories in where a link is posited between psychosis and creativity. For instance, in the following excerpt from The Telegraph, the Victorian painter Richard Dadd is praised for offering in his work a representation of what the journalist paradoxically calls a genuine manic fantasy, which is contrasted with the lets-pretend of contemporary artists who do not experience psychosis. This suggests that Dadd’s paintings are more valuable than those of other artists because they provide insights into an unusual sensory experience.

Oberon and Titania (1854/58) by the schizophrenic Richard Dadd offers genuine manic fantasy, as opposed to the tiresome let’s-pretend of so much of the art of his contemporaries. (The Telegraph, 21 September 2003).

Linking schizophrenia with creativity is part of a much broader stereotype whereby people with health issues are viewed as gifted in a particular enterprise. A more obvious example of this is the stereotypical association between autism and mathematical prowess. These representations, while being more positive, may lead people to have expectations of people with schizophrenia than they are likely unable to or do not want to meet.

A distinctive feature of both tabloids and broadsheets, therefore, is to represent people with schizophrenia as different – as undesirably different and desirably different, respectively. However, most people with schizophrenia are neither dangerous criminals nor talented artists but normal people trying to live their lives. While it is understandable that the press likes to report on unusual people, this inevitably leads to a distorted picture of people with schizophrenia which exacerbates misunderstandings and prejudiced beliefs. Life can be difficult for people diagnosed with schizophrenia already without them having to face the additional problem of being burdened with inaccurate expectations reproduced by the media. Using findings like these, the project looks to working closely with journalists and charities to make the language we use around schizophrenia more accurate and tolerant.

For more details about this project see: http://cass.lancs.ac.uk/author/james-balfour/ If you have any questions or observations, please contact me via j.balfour@lancaster.ac.uk

‘A fire raging’: Why fire metaphors work well for Covid-19

Covid-19 and metaphors

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, metaphors have been widely used, reflected upon and critiqued as a tool for communicating about the virus and its consequences. There are good reasons for this.

Metaphors involve talking and thinking about one thing in terms of another, on the basis of perceived similarities or correspondences between them. As such, we use them to make sense of and communicate about new, complex, abstract and sensitive experiences in terms of more familiar, simpler and intersubjectively accessible ones. For example, the virus has been described as an enemy to be defeated, a mugger to be wrestled to the ground, a tsunami on health services, a marathon to be endured, and even glitter in soft furnishings after a party.

Metaphors can become controversial because they have framing effects: each metaphor highlights some aspects of the topic and backgrounds others, and therefore influences people’s reasoning, evaluations and emotions in particular ways, as many experimental studies have shown. For example, war metaphors, which were widely used at the start of the pandemic, have been criticised for inappropriately personifying the virus as a malevolent opponent, creating unnecessary anxiety, dangerously legitimising authoritarian governmental measures, and implying that those to die did not fight hard enough. Research has shown that war metaphors can actually be useful in some contexts (for example, to convey the need for urgent collective effort), but they can also discourage self-limiting behaviours, such as refraining from our usual activities and just staying home.

As the weeks and months have gone by, and more and more metaphors have been adopted for different aspects of the pandemic, an international group of researchers (of which I am part) has been collecting alternatives to military metaphors from around the world, as part of the #ReframeCovid initiative. We know, from research in areas as diverse as education and healthcare, that a range of different metaphors is usually needed for complex topics, and the #ReframeCovid collective has taken the kind of non-prescriptive approach that is part of the professional ethos of researchers on language use: it aims to collect a wide variety of ‘naturally occurring’ metaphors as data for research and as potential resources for communication and thinking, but without endorsing one or more as better than the others.

Nonetheless, those of us who study metaphors for a living are regularly asked for an expert opinion about what metaphor or metaphors are most appropriate for the pandemic, and it is in fact possible to provide some answers on the basis of previous research on what makes a ‘good’ metaphor and of systematic analyses of communication about the unfolding pandemic. In this blog post, I explain how and why I got to the conclusion that fire metaphors, and specifically metaphors involving forest fires, are particularly appropriate and useful for communication about the pandemic.

Finding fire metaphors

My initial observations were based on the #ReframeCovid collection of metaphors, which, as of 30th June 2020, included five fire metaphors from five different languages (Dutch, English, Greek, Italian and Spanish) as well as visual images involving metaphorical flames or fires. In addition, I identified 37 different examples of fire metaphors for Covid-19 in the Coronavirus Corpus, which, at the time, consisted of about 400 million words of news articles in English from around the world, dating from January to June 2020.

[A little more detail for linguists: I searched for ‘coronavirus’ or ‘covid-19’ in a span five words to the left and five words to the right of ‘fire’ in the Coronavirus Corpus. That generated 696 concordance lines. I used the MIP procedure by the Pragglejaz Group to identify metaphorical uses of fire-related vocabulary. I included fire-related similes and other ‘direct’ metaphors. I excluded fire-related metaphors for topics other than Covid-19. In what follows, all English examples are from the Coronavirus Corpus, while examples in other languages are from the #ReframeCovid collection.]

What fire metaphors can do

Even out of context, forest fires are a suitable area of experience for metaphorical exploitation. They are vivid, or image-rich; they are familiar, even when not experienced directly; they have multiple elements (trees, fire-fighters, arsonists, victims, etc.); and they have strong evaluative and emotional associations.

In the specific data I have collected, fire metaphors are used flexibly and creatively for multiple purposes, particularly to:

  • convey danger and urgency;
  • distinguish between different phases of the pandemic;
  • explain how contagion happens and the role of individuals within that;
  • justify measures for reducing contagion;
  • portray the role of health workers;
  • connect the pandemic with health inequalities and other problems; and
  • outline post-pandemic futures.

Danger and urgency

Forest fires spread quickly, are hard to control and can therefore grow very large, causing irreparable damage. These characteristics can be exploited to convey the dangers posed by the coronavirus, and the need for urgent action. For example, in June 2020 a Pakistani minister described the coronavirus as ‘spreading like a fire in the jungle’ in the rural areas of the country, while the director of the Center for Infectious Disease at the University of Minnesota  talked about a ‘forest fire that may not slow down’. In a Spanish example from the #ReframeCovid collection, the coronavirus is described by an anthropologist as needing to be approached as ‘un gran fuego’ (‘a large fire’).

Different phases

The life cycle of forest fires can be exploited metaphorically to distinguish between different phases in the seriousness of the pandemic, in terms of numbers of new infections and success or failure in reducing those numbers. In April 2020, when new daily infections were increasing fast on Rhode Island, a New York Times article described it as a ‘a state where the coronavirus is a fire raging’. In contrast, in May 2020, the Irish Prime Minister combined fire and war metaphors when he stated that, in Ireland, the coronavirus was a ‘fire in retreat’ but ‘not defeated’, adding: ‘We must extinguish every spark, quench every ember.’

References to metaphorical embers are particularly useful to suggest that danger still persists even when the number of infections has substantially decreased.

How contagion happens

Explaining how contagion happens is a particular challenge in public health communication about the coronavirus: the process is not just invisible, but it also involves asymptomatic people and takes place during the most ordinary daily activities. There is also a fine balance to strike between persuading people to reduce the chance of being in danger, or being a danger to others, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, avoiding excessive blame on individuals. Here fire metaphors can be particularly useful.

In a semi-technical explanation in Medscape from late March 2020, people are trees that provide fuel to a forest fire driven by wind:

  1. Think of COVID-19 as a fire burning in a forest. All of us are trees. The R0 is the wind speed. The higher it is, the faster the fire tears through the forest. But just like a forest fire, COVID-19 needs fuel to keep going. We’re the fuel.

In other forest fire metaphorical scenarios, people are ‘kindling’, ‘sparks being thrown off’ (when infecting others) and ‘fuel’ (when becoming infected). In these cases, fire metaphors convey the dangers posed by people being in close proximity to one another, but without directly attributing blame: people are described as inanimate entities (trees, kindling, fuel) that are consumed by the fire they contribute to spread.

A variant of this metaphor, from March 2020, involves an urban fire:

  1. Think of the coronavirus pandemic as a fire ravaging our cities and towns that is spread by infected people breathing out invisible embers every time they speak, cough, or sneeze. Sneezing is the most dangerous—it spreads embers farthest—coughing second, and speaking least, though it still can spread the embers. These invisible sparks cause others to catch fire and in turn breathe out embers until we truly catch fire—and get sick.

Here the reference to ’invisible embers’ is a particularly vivid way to portray the danger posed by something as seemingly innocuous as breath.

How containment measures can help

The use of fire metaphors to explain how contagion happens often sets the scene for explaining how new infections can be stopped. The extract from Medscape above (extract 1), for example, where people are ‘trees’ and ‘fuel’, goes on to exploit the forest fire scenario to convey the effectiveness of quarantines and social distancing:

  1. A few fire lines—quarantines and social distancing measures—keep the fire from hitting all the trees.

Similarly, the metaphor where people breathe out ‘invisible embers’ (extract 2) is used to justify face masks as an effective measure against the spread of the virus:

  1. If we could just keep our embers from being sent out every time we spoke or coughed, many fewer people would catch fire. Masks help us do that. And because we don’t know for sure who’s sick, the only solution is for everyone to wear masks. This eventually benefits the wearer because fewer fires mean we’re all less likely to be burned. My mask protects you; your masks protect me.

Protecting healthcare workers

Within fire metaphors, healthcare workers are inevitably positioned as firefighters who ‘run into raging blazes’ for the sake of everyone else. This emphasizes the risks that healthcare workers run, and can therefore be used to stress the need to respect social distancing rules and/or wear face masks. For example, the description of the importance of face masks in extract 4 is followed by: ‘Plus, our firefighters would no longer be overwhelmed’.

Making health inequalities and other problems worse

Fire metaphors can be used to emphasize the additional vulnerability of people who live in cramped conditions. For examples, in June 2020 a South African commentator pointed out that the virus could spread particularly fast in informal settlements: ‘Look at how shack fires happen: you light one fire, and the whole place burns down.’

In a few cases, fire metaphors are used to suggest that the coronavirus is making existing problems or crises worse. In these cases, the metaphorical fire was already burning, and the coronavirus ‘add[s] fuel to the fire’ or ‘throws gasoline on the fire’, for example in the context of pre-existing tensions in US prisons.

The future

Fire metaphors can also be adapted to paint different pictures of a post-Covid-19 future. Italian commentator Paolo Costa includes a reference to the future in a lengthy forest fire metaphor:

  1. Non solo ci sono continuamente focolai da spegnere e, quando la sorte si accanisce, giganteschi fronti di fuoco da arginare, ma è dovere di tutti collaborare quotidianamente alla bonifica del terreno affinché scintille, inneschi, distrazioni più o meno colpevoli non provochino adesso o in futuro disastri irreparabili.

Not only are there constant outbreaks to extinguish and, when our luck gets worse, gigantic fronts of fire to control, but it is everyone’s duty to collaborate daily in the reclamation of the soil, so that sparks, triggers, and more or less guilty distractions do not cause irreparable disasters now or in the future.

Here the idea of collective responsibility for soil reclamation to prevent new fires suggests that lifestyles will have to change long-term in order to avoid future pandemics.

Ultimately though, no silver bullet

Fire metaphors are vivid, flexible and very well suited to capture different aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic. They also seem to occur across linguistic and cultural boundaries, as the #ReframeCovid collection suggests. Of course, no metaphor can cater for all aspects of something as complex and long term as a global pandemic, nor for all contingencies and audiences. We will therefore still need marathons, tsunamis, battles (in moderation) and even glitter in our metaphorical tool-kit. But fire metaphors are undoubtedly one of the most useful metaphorical tools at our disposal.

Elena Semino, 30th June 2020

 

PhD conference prize for Mark Wilkinson

At the 2020 Corpora and Discourse International Conference, I was very honoured to receive an award for the conference paper “showing the greatest methodological innovation or reflexivity by a student researcher”. The award was sponsored by the Applied Corpus Linguistics journal and included a prize of £250. This year’s online conference, hosted by the University of Sussex, featured a wide variety of brilliant research from students around the world. That I was nominated for the award makes me truly humble and I am especially grateful to my supervisor, Professor Paul Baker, for all his support and guidance during my doctoral research. I would like to take this opportunity to share with you a summary of my talk which is titled: “Black or gay or Jewish or whatever”: A diachronic corpus-based discourse analysis of how the UK’s LGBTQI population came to be represented as secular, cisgender, gay, white and male (available to watch here: https://corporadiscourse.com/language-gender-sexuality-videos/).

This talk emerged from my PhD research in which I aim to map how The Times has used language to discursively construct LGBTQI identities in the UK over the past 60 years. I’m particularly interested in the histories of identity and this is why I’ve chosen to take a diachronic approach, collecting many decades of language data from one of the UK’s most influential broadsheets. This focus on history is based on the assumption adapted from post-structuralist discourse theory (Laclau & Mouffe 1985) that all identities are partially the result of consistent choices in representation made over a sustained period of time.

In order to garner a sense of which discourses have been consistent, I decided to look at both consistent keywords and consistent collocates. This revealed several currents running through the corpus. First, in spite of the fact that the search terms used to build the corpus reflected the inherent diversity within the LGBTQI population, the majority of key terms pertained to gay men. This indicates that the history of queer representation in The Times is primarily their history while the histories of lesbian, bisexual, trans and gender non-conforming people have been largely erased or obfuscated. Second, an analysis of consistent collocates for the word gay showed that additional identifications such as Black and Jewish were statistically significant from the 1980s onward. A closer analysis of the newspaper articles that featured this usage showed that such terms were used in one of two ways. First, Black and Jewish were often used as marked terms which implied that such intersecting identities were exceptional. I would therefore argue that this markedness implies the presumed whiteness and non-Jewishness of the archetypal gay man as presumed by The Times. Secondly, the terms Black and gay as well as Jewish and gay were often presented as mutually exclusive categories. In other words, individuals were represented as being either black or gay, but never both. Cumulatively, it was argued that the history of LGBTQI representation in The Times suggests that through consistent choices in representation over a sustained period of time, the queer population of the UK came to be represented as secular, cisgender, gay, white and male. But, as there was never any use of the term white, how could I make this claim?

Drawing on the intellectual tradition of critical race theory (Baldwin 1963; Crenshaw 1990; Morrison 1992; Hall 1997), I argued that ‘race’ – while certainly a lived experience with material consequences – is not simply a neutral taxonomy of phenotypical differences between people, but is rather an ideological construct that functions as a structuring force in society such that certain bodies are given more value than others. Within this racialised matrix, whiteness is not only privileged, but is passed off as neutral and universal – an unmarked category that functions largely by ‘erasing its own tracks’ (Trechter and Bucholtz 2001:10). From a linguistic perspective then, whiteness functions ‘much like a linguistic sign, taking its meaning from those surrounding categories to which it is structurally opposed’ (Trechter and Bucholtz 2001:5). Therefore, in the data from The Times, the racialisation of gay men as Black, necessarily implies that the whiteness of all other gay men is indeed the implied universal.

In conclusion, it was argued that these cumulative processes are not benign, but rather indicate how the power of language can erase entire groups of people from popular discourse. Furthermore, the combination of corpus data with theories from both within and beyond linguistics is essential in mapping the discursive construction and representation of identities.

References:

Baldwin, J. (1963). The Fire Next Time. New York: Dial Press.

Crenshaw, K., (1990). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford Law Review43, p.1241.

Hall, S. (1997). ‘The spectacle of ‘the other’’. In Hall, S. (ed) (1997) Representation: cultural representations and signifying practices. London: Sage.

Laclau, E. and Mouffe, C. (1985). Hegemony and socialist strategy: Towards a radical democratic politics. London: Verso.

Morrison, T. (1992). Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the literary imagination. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Trechter, S. and Bucholtz, M. (2001). ‘Introduction: White noise: Bringing language into whiteness studies’. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 11(1), pp.3-21.

 

 

 

From careful to careless reporting: The effect of COVID-19 on the representation of Islam and Muslims – Isobelle Clarke

In my current position, funded by the Aziz Foundation, in the Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Sciences at Lancaster University, I am investigating the representation of Muslims and Islam in the UK press. Previous research has revealed the major press representations of Islam and Muslims between 1998 to 2009 and between 2010 to 2014 in order to assess how much has changed. One of my aims in this project is to develop and extend that research in order to assess if the major press representations of Muslims and Islam from January 2015 to December 2019 have changed or stayed the same since those time periods investigated. That research is very much under way and I am looking forward to writing up the results and sharing them with you. But (and I am sure it is the same for anyone else looking at the representations of different social phenomena or groups in the media), it already feels like so much has happened since December 2019 and I felt it was important to address this.

When I started the project I was quickly introduced to the Muslim Council of Britain’s (MCB) Centre for Media Monitoring (CfMM) team. At our first meeting we sat around a table at their offices in White Chapel and spoke about our aims for the project. We immediately found similarities of approach and a shared purpose – to identify negative trends and promote positive practice in the media’s representation of Islam and Muslims. They asked me how I had become interested in this research and I remember mentioning how infuriated I was with Boris Johnson’s opinion piece in the Telegraph on Denmark’s banning of the burqa. In that piece he positioned Muslim women who choose to wear the burqa as being in a ‘catch 22’, whereby they can never be ‘free’ for as long as they wear a burqa because even if they choose to wear it, according to Boris, it is still a ‘dehumanising garment’. I drew parallels with rape victims who are interrogated and accused of ‘asking for it’ by the cross-examiner for wearing a dress that falls above the knee and/or high heels. We each shared our own frustrations and I suddenly realised that whilst I was aware of many problems in the reporting of Islam and Muslims, I was about to fall down the biggest rabbit hole, where I would never be able to look at a report on Muslims or Islam without seeing some form of bias or misrepresentation.

During this COVID-19 global pandemic, I have found myself reading and/or listening to the media far more than I have before. With an increased sensitivity to the media and being 6 months deep into this rabbit hole, I have noticed that reporting on Islam and Muslims has shifted.

In previous research investigating the representation of Islam and Muslims, it was found that much had stayed the same since 1998-2009 when reporting on Islam and Muslims between 2010-2014; however there were cases where things had changed and reporting had become more careful in trying to represent what had happened accurately and fairly. For instance, there was a growing acknowledgement that Islam has several different denominations. Between 1998 to 2009, these different denominations were rarely referred to or distinguished in the press. However, press reports concerning Islam and Muslims during 2010 to 2014 were referring to the different denominations more often than before. This was a positive improvement as it promoted religious literacy and better represented which groups of Muslims were involved in an event, rather than ascribing the event to all Muslims.

Despite these attempts at trying to include as much detail as possible to avoid misrepresentation, during the pandemic careful reporting appears to have been de-emphasised. A report’s accuracy now comes second to the spectacle of sensationalist reporting that fits a familiar narrative. In other words, the press have gone backwards.

Whilst I have noticed many instances of problematic reporting during the COVID-19 pandemic, there is one consistent narrative that ties many of them together. This narrative is affiliated to the “Us versus Them” dichotomy, especially the positive presentation of ‘Us’ and the negative presentation of ‘Them’. However, the reports extend this to present ‘Us’ as rule-followers and ‘Them’ as rule-breakers, where ‘Them’ are Muslims who have been scapegoated as a threat to ‘Us’ – the rest of society (i.e. Non-Muslims). In the rest of this blog, I will contextualise and describe a very specific example of this discourse and attempt to articulate the effects of such careless and reckless reporting.

The Islamic holy month of Ramadan happened during the COVID-19 pandemic from 23 April 2020 to 23 May 2020. During Ramadan, many Muslims fast between dawn and sunset as a way to show their devotion to their faith and come closer to God. There is also a special festival at the end of Ramadan called Eid al-Fitr, which means the festival of the breaking of the fast. Ramadan is a time for spiritual reflection, prayer, doing good deeds and spending time with family and friends. It is a time where Muslims make a special effort to connect with their communities and help those in need. Of course, during the pandemic with worldwide lockdown restrictions, Ramadan, and many other events, happened a little differently.

The PM of the UK Boris Johnson announced on 23rd March 2020 that people in the UK must stay at home and that they can only leave to:

  • shop for basic necessities,
  • exercise once per day
  • provide care to a vulnerable person
  • attend to a medical need or
  • travel to work but only where necessary and if it can’t be done from home.

In addition, Boris Johnson ordered places of worship, restaurants, cafes, pubs, clubs, and a number of retail stores to close. Large gatherings were banned and many other rules and restrictions were put in place to try and curb the spread of the virus. Such restrictions and lockdown measures meant that normal and traditional Ramadan festivities could not take place. Muslims couldn’t go to the mosque to pray, they couldn’t break their fast or celebrate Eid with their communities, family members or friends living in different households.

Before these restrictions even came into place and before Ramadan began, the Muslim Council of Britain had urged all mosques to close and they set out specific guidance for Ramadan during this unique time. This guidance provided details of how to adhere to the government’s lockdown restrictions and take part in this holy month of Ramadan. It also reassured Muslims that it was not necessary to go to the mosque to pray. Despite this very clear, explicit guidance that adhered to the government’s restrictions, the media were nevertheless focused on presenting Muslims as a threat to the rest of society because they either were going to break the rules during Ramadan, or may do so. For example, on the 12th April 2020 the Sunday Times had the headline:

“Experts fear spike in cases when families gather for Ramadan”

This headline is problematic for several reasons. First, it is factually incorrect. There was one ‘expert’, not more than one, as denoted by the plural Experts. In the context of this story, one might imagine that an expert would be someone who is an epidemiologist (one who studies the spread of infection) or mathematician (one who models and predicts the spread of infectious diseases). Yet the expert referred to in the Sunday Times is a consultant transplant nephrologist (someone who deals with kidney transplants). Given that the spread of COVID-19 cannot be cured or prevented by a kidney transplant, it can be argued that the expert selected was not appropriate as they were not an expert in this context.

Second, the headline makes assumptions, which misrepresent the truth. The clause “when families gather for Ramadan” presupposes that families will gather for Ramadan in ways that do not abide by the lockdown regulations (i.e. gathering with your family members from different households). This headline consequently problematised Muslims before Ramadan had even begun. It suggested that Muslims may be intending to break the rules wilfully for Ramadan. Muslims were therefore positioned as a threat to the rest of society as they were scapegoated for a potential spike in cases of COVID-19.

Following critique from the Centre for Media Monitoring, The Sunday Times corrected their headline:

“Expert fears a spike in UK coronavirus cases if communities gather for Ramadan”.

Although the expertise of the expert was not addressed, the change from the WH-clause to the conditional clause “if communities gather for Ramadan” makes this headline far less accusatory and presuppositional. Instead, it positions a spike in UK coronavirus cases as a potential consequence if people are to gather for Ramadan. Whilst the assumption that communities could gather for Ramadan is still present, in the new version it is not assumed that all Muslims will ignore the rules and gather for Ramadan.

Even though the Sunday Times made these corrections, it is important to note that the major problem with this report is that the scapegoating of Muslims in the UK press is unfair and disproportionate. Good Friday and Easter Sunday also fell during the tight lockdown restrictions. However, an article that implied that all Christian families and communities would break the rules in order to gather and celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ, or to take their families on Easter Egg hunts, did not appear in the Times or the Sunday Times. Christians make up more of the UK’s population than Muslims and so on numerical grounds alone they pose a greater risk of spreading the infection and causing a spike if they were to break the rules. Therefore, the focus on and scapegoating of Muslims is unfair.

Overall, the underlying narrative ‘Muslims as rule breakers’ is an articulation of the “Us versus Them” dichotomy, where Muslims are “Them” positioned in opposition to “Non-Muslims”. In the context of COVID-19, ‘Them’ are rule breakers, who are threats to the health of society, and so once again we find the UK press demonising Muslims and marking them as threats to society.

So many people and organisations are helped by Muslims in their charity work throughout the year and especially during Ramadan, when Muslims make a special effort to help those in need. This charity work has not stopped during the pandemic, but it has just taken different forms. For example, mosques in Liverpool have launched a helpline for the whole community to provide support during the pandemic. Additionally, volunteers from Newcastle Central mosque have launched a COVID-19 support group by delivering essential supplies, such as food and medicine to those in need and who are self-isolating. These emergency parcels are delivered for free and funded by the One Ummah charity. There are so many more examples of positive work being led by Muslims than there are negative, but these positive stories tend to be reported in the local as opposed to national press.

During these unprecedented times, it can be very easy to look for people or groups to blame, and when the press consistently demonise particular groups, those groups are even easier to accuse. This small blog is a call to go back to striving towards careful and accurate reporting. Let us change the narrative. #PositivelyMuslim

 

Slavery in the News – Slaves and Slavery in the Liverpool Mercury in the Nineteenth Century – Helen Baker

Last month, Tony McEnery and I completed a study which looked at changes in the representation of slavery in a prominent provincial newspaper, the Liverpool Mercury, throughout the nineteenth century. This will appear in the book Time in Languages, Languages in Time (Čermáková et al, forthcoming) which brings together a collection of articles reflecting on language and time: how language changes over time and how time is perceived across various languages. In this blog post we give a sense of the main findings of our work.

Using Usage Fluctuation Analysis (UFA, McEnery, Baker and Brezina, 2019) we searched almost two billion words of newspaper articles from the Liverpool Mercury to see how words linked to slavery changed their usage in the nineteenth century. While the chapter we wrote covers much in the way of method, in this brief blog post we want to focus on one aspect of our work by showing, through the lens of the Mercury, how nineteenth-century Liverpudlians felt about the traffic of enslaved Africans, their city’s association with the slave trade and how these feelings changed over time, if at all.

Our study has proven to be topical. A few days ago, it was reported in the press that the University of Liverpool had made the decision to rename a halls of residence known as Gladstone Hall. The former British Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone, had strong family links to the transatlantic slave trade and early in his career made a speech against its abolition. His father, John, owned a number of sugar and coffee plantations in Demerara (now part of Guyana) and Jamaica. Like other men who profited from the slave trade, John Gladstone matched his economic success with political clout – he served as a Tory member of parliament for three different constituencies and he partly owned the newspaper Liverpool Courier.

The city of Liverpool, where the Gladstone family lived, was one of Britain’s principal trading ports, sitting at the corner of the so-called ‘golden triangle’ which drove the transatlantic slave trade. Vessels from Liverpool are estimated to have carried 40 per cent of the entire Atlantic slave trade and controlled up to 60 per cent of the British trade (Sherwood and Sherwood, 2007: 26) and the historian Brian Howman (2007: 277) has explained that, by the end of the eighteenth century, the livings of most Liverpudlians were bound up with the slave trade. Importantly, through the trade in cotton and manufactured goods with the United States, Liverpool retained strong economic links to a slave-owning economy for most of the nineteenth century. So, while emancipation of slaves occurred in the early part of the century throughout the British Empire, Liverpool retained a strong economic interest in slavery.

UFA helped us to make sense of a large volume of data by showing the changing usage of words like slave, slaves and slavery over the course of the century. Based on that, we were then able to downsample and explore the corpus, using techniques such as collocation analysis and close reading, to see how the discussion of slavery varied over time. What the UFA, and our follow up analysis, shows in the Mercury are three broad phases of discussion – the early part of the century is dominated by debates relating to abolition in the British Empire, which we will not discuss here. Instead, in this short blog post we will focus on the second phase of the debate, when it widened as a desire to end the slave trade beyond Britain increased. We will also note the third and final phase of the discussion, in which slavery slipped into historic memory. Let us begin with an exploration of phase two, which we call ‘a widening debate’.

A widening debate – doing more to oppose slavery

In the second phase of discussion the Liverpool Mercury did not shy away from discussing the slave trade. Within its pages, Liverpool’s past involvement in the traffic of enslaved black Africans was acknowledged and journalists conveyed a determination that any further participation must not be tolerated. The newspaper gave the impression that the vast majority of the inhabitants of the city were united against slavery. Indeed, when William Gladstone received the freedom of the city in December 1892, the Mercury reported an older, more liberal, Gladstone as saying that “we all look back with shame and sorrow” on the traffic of Africans.

However, there were also suggestions that Liverpool should be active, or more active, in opposing the slave trade. On 3 November, 1868, the newspaper carried a speech by the Bishop of Oxford who declared that Liverpool’s strong connection with the slave trade meant that the city must “be connected with the act of undoing it”. Occasional reports berated Liverpool for not speaking out to a greater extent. For instance, a letter published on 12 October, 1875 condemned the city for not protesting against the Slave Circulars – contentious instructions to ships captains that fugitive slaves should be returned to their former masters:

While other towns are protesting against the atrocities and illegal actions of the Tory       Government, how is it that Liverpool is silent?

The newspaper also acknowledged that Liverpool was struggling to throw off its associations with the slave trade entirely. An article of 4 June 1862, for instance, condemned American slave traders who had established themselves in Liverpool. The slave ship, Nightingale, was reported to have been fitted out in the city. The reporter asserted that the people of Liverpool “are interested in discovering and bringing to justice ruffians who attempt to turn a British port into a slave-trading station”.

A widening debate – the geographic dimension

As the debate shifted from abolition in the British Empire, reports in the Liverpool Mercury revealed how Britain struggled to persuade other countries, particularly other empires, to agree to abolition. Articles detailed an array of diplomatic overtures – draft treaties, international assemblies, and outright bribes – designed to achieve this which were often unsuccessful. In the earlier part of the second phase of discussion, reluctance by France, Portugal and Spain to agree to abolition tended to be highlighted. Later the focus shifted to Cuba and Brazil, colonies of Spain and Portugal respectively. For instance, on 23 September, 1853 an article stated:

The commercial advices from Cuba state that the question of the slave trade continues to give constant trouble to the official representatives of the British government in that island. Open violations of treaty are almost of weekly occurrence, and, under the active connivance of the Spanish authorities, the traffic is obviously increasing.

In later part of the widening debate phase, countries such as Egypt and Turkey were cast into the spotlight with drafts of treaties with both countries being reported, while a number of articles referred to an alliance with the Sultan of Zanzibar, Barghash bin Said, aimed at curtailing the slave trade .

A widening debate – anti-slavery opinion

Many articles about the slave trade in the Liverpool Mercury throughout the second phase we identified were pessimistic in tone. The newspaper frequently reported that slavery was actually growing in strength in the nineteenth century.

Just as we care about the origins of our food, people in the nineteenth century expressed alarm over the origins of one of the most important products produced by slaves – sugar. Some abolitionists pushed Britons to abstain from the consumption of slave-grown sugar and the Liverpool Mercury carried a number of articles about the consequences of removing high protective tariffs on imported sugar and molasses. In stark contrast to the present day, sugar was presented as both “wholesome and nutritious” (article of 7 April, 1843) and an item which poorer people should be able to afford.

Britain had prohibited the slave trade in the British Empire in 1807 but the Slavery Abolition Act, which abolished slavery itself in the British Empire, was not put in place until 1833. Articles in the Mercury suggest that the British public felt impatient with the process of emancipation. In May 1823, the newspaper wrote about public petitions by the inhabitants of Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle for the abolition of slavery. Indeed, the abolition campaign has been called the first popular movement and was characterised by mass meetings and petition campaigns (Thomas, 1998: 12 and Drescher, 1994). A letter of 28 March, 1823 to the editor of the Liverpool Mercury lamented the material condition of enslaved Africans in stark, emotive language:

We do not hear the groans of the slaves: we do not behold the uplifted arm of the insulting and brutalized driver: the smack of his whip does not resound in our ears… Our best feelings are not shocked by the sight of his lacerated body; nor are we horrified by exhibition of instances which have been attested to exist in the West Indies, of persons, in whose neglected wounds even maggots have bred. We do not witness the rupture of all ties of domestic relationship: we do not see the violation of all the tender charities of life; the child torn from its parents; and the wife carried away from her husband, to be subjected to the brutal lust of a tyrant.

Journalists also employed emotionally charged language in writing about the slave trade – words such as miseries, atrocities, inhumanity, injustice, abomination and victims were all very common. In the first decades of the century, newspaper articles described shocking incidents where slaves had been deliberately thrown from slave ships by crew members who wanted to avoid being detained with slaves on board. However, as the century progressed, expressions such as horror/s of the slave trade and evil/s of the slave trade had become stock phrases, employed by reporters in order to demonstrate, very quickly and conveniently, their repulsion at the notion of the enslavement of humans. These reporters did not go on to elucidate why the trade was horrible; there was simply no need – by that time, the British public overwhelmingly despised the slave trade and was well aware of the horrors it entailed.

The final phase – the slave trade passes into history

Towards the end of the century, the discourse in the Mercury enters a third phase made distinct by an increase in mentions of works of art and literature which referenced the slave trade. Articles mentioned busts of early abolitionists, Graville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson, books about the slave trade and implements of the slave trade, such as timber yokes and iron shackles, being put on display. The slave trade was passing into memory during this period – its early opponents were being honoured, it was being represented in art and literature, and objects used to enslave black Africans had been removed from ships and plantations and placed in museums.

Conclusion

News articles in the pages of the nineteenth-century Liverpool Mercury reveal a sense of shame and regret at the city’s involvement in the slave trade. Perhaps journalists working for the newspaper hoped their frequent condemnation of slavery might partially atone for their city’s former enthusiastic participation in it. Although there were some suggestions that a very small number of Liverpudlians had continued their associations with the slave trade, the newspaper gives us the impression that the vast majority of the city’s residents had turned away from it entirely and, moreover, regarded the traffic and ownership of human beings with utter revulsion. By the end of the century, the discussion of slavery is rooted firmly in the past.

References

Čermáková, A. , Egan, T., Hasselgård, H. & Rørvik, S. (Eds, forthcoming) Time in Languages, Language in Time. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Drescher, S. (1994), ‘Whose abolition? Popular pressure and the ending of the British slave trade’, Past and Present, 143, pp.136-166.

Howman, B. (2007), ‘Abolitionism in Liverpool’, in Richardson, D., Schwarz, S. and Tibbles, A. (eds.), Liverpool and Transatlantic Slavery. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, pp.277-296.

McEnery, T., Brezina, V. and Baker, H. (2019) ‘Usage fluctuation analysis: a new way of analysing shifts in historical discourse’, International Journal of Corpus Linguistics, 24 (4), pp 413-444.

Sherwood, M. and Sherwood, K. (2007), Britain, the Slave Trade and Slavery, from 1562 to the 1880s. Kent: Savannah Press.

Thomas, H. (1998), The Slave Trade: The History of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1440-1870. London: Papermac.

Isobelle Clarke Receives Leverhulme Trust’s Early Career Fellowship

I am so unbelievably pleased to announce that the Research Awards Advisory Committee at the Leverhulme Trust have granted me, Dr. Isobelle Clarke, the Leverhulme Trust’s Early Career Fellowship to conduct my research entitled “Understanding the linguistic repertoires across anti-science narratives” at Lancaster University in the Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Sciences.

Science improves our everyday lives, especially science that is aimed at safeguarding and protecting public health and safety, such as by improving the air we breathe and the water we drink (Carter et al., 2019). Because of science, food is safe and plentiful, and diseases can be treated, cured, isolated and prevented from spreading (Siegel, 2017). Science also anticipates threats to the environment and natural disasters, like hurricanes and storms (Carter et al., 2019). Although scientific advancements can be misused accidentally or for ill, science nevertheless has led to the development of new technologies, which have enhanced many individuals’ quality of life to a level that could never have been expected previously (Siegel, 2017).

Despite these advances, in this modern world we live in, value judgements and personal experience can (and often do) take precedence over scientifically-accepted facts. Throughout Brexit and Donald Trump’s presidency, we have witnessed an acceleration in the demonization of experts and knowledge. Throughout this COVID-19 pandemic we have heard the phrase “following the science”, but really it should be “following the science when it suits us” as our leaders ignore findings or utilise parts and not the whole to suit them (which, as many will already anticipate, will eventually lead to them pointing the finger at scientists demanding an explanation for where it all went wrong in order to demonise scientists and experts further). Making matters worse is a context of competing, manipulative and persuasive anti-science narratives, each claiming to be truth. These undermine the public’s chances of distinguishing fact from fiction. For example, after a conspiracy theory suggested the outbreak of COVID-19 was a result of 5G, many of us witnessed or read reports of the 5G masts in the West Midlands being vandalised and even burned down by members of the public. Stories such as these demonstrate that the advances in humanity’s safety and prosperity created by science are being significantly undermined and threatened by anti-science discourse and actions (Carter et al., 2019).

Anti-science views are not new. For example, the Leicester anti-vaccination movement began in the 19th century. But with limited public access to scientific sources and increasing access to non-scientific sources, especially via the internet, anti-science positions are becoming more pervasive, and include claims that i) the earth is flat; ii) a female biological mechanism exists to prevent pregnancy post-rape; iii) alternative medicines like homeopathy are effective; iv) climate change science is false v) genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are dangerous to human health; vi) stem-cell research has various pseudo-benefits; vii) autism can be cured with diet and viii) evolution theory is untrue (for further examples see Achenbach, 2015). Scientists have been asked to communicate their findings clearly and counter anti-scientism (Oreskes and Conway, 2010). But before we can begin to counter it, we first need to identify and understand its discourse. Anti-science discourse has been investigated through the optic of particular governments (Carter et al., 2019) or specific topics, such as anti-vaccination (Davis, 2019), anti-GMO (Cook et al., 2004), stem-cell research (Marcon, Murdoch and Caulfield, 2017), and climate denial discourse (Park, 2015). This research often details the development and the content of the anti-science position and discourses. However, little is known about the linguistic repertoires of contemporary anti-science discourses more generally and how they compare across topics. What are the linguistic mechanisms underpinning the persuasiveness of anti- science? Are there anti-science discourses that are shared across the topics, or does the discourse vary with the topic? How much linguistic variation do the anti-science topics display? To what degree are the anti-science communicative strategies more or less typical of particular topics? This fellowship will directly address these questions.

In this fellowship I will be developing and introducing a new methodological technique which combines corpus-assisted discourse studies (CADS) (Baker, 2006) – a methodological technique developed and used by researchers at Lancaster University to investigate the representations and discourses of social phenomena and groups – with the approach to corpus data I specialise in, Multi-Dimensional Analysis (MDA) (Biber, 1988).

I am honoured to receive this prestigious fellowship and I am truly grateful to Lancaster University in their support of me, especially my fellow colleagues in CASS.

As we all try to seek out help, advice and guidance in these unprecedented times, it has never been more important to understand how anti-science works across topics. So, wish me luck on this journey and I’ll see you at the end with my tin foil hat on.

I hope everyone is keeping safe and healthy.

My best wishes to you and your family.

References

Achenbach, A. (2015) Why do many reasonable people doubt science? National Geographic. Retrieved on 21/01/2020 from: https://ldld.samizdat.cc/2017/static/natgeo-Reasonable-People-Doubt-Science.pdf

Baker, P. (2006) Using Corpora in Discourse Analysis. London: Continuum. Biber, D. (1988) Variation across speech and writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Carter, J., Berman, E., Desikan, A., Johnson, C. and Goldman, G. (2019) The State of Science in the Trump Era: Damage Done, Lessons Learned, and a Path to Progress. Center for Science and Democracy at the UCS.

Cook, G., Pieri, E. and Robbins, P. T. (2004) ‘The scientists think and the public feels’: Expert perceptions of the discourse of GM food. Discourse and Society 15(4): 433—449.

Davis, M. (2019) ‘Globalist war against humanity shifts into high gear’: Online anti-vaccination websites and ‘anti-public’ discourse. Public Understanding of Science 28(3): 357—371.

Marcon, A. R., Murdoch, B. and Caulfield, T. (2017) Fake news portrayals of stem cells and stem cell research. Regenerative Medicine 12(7): 765—775.

Oreskes, N. and Conway, E. M. (2010) Defeating the merchants of doubt. Nature 465(10): 686—687. Park, J. T. (2015) Climate change and capitalism. Consilience 14: 189—206.

Siegal, E. (2017) Humanity needs science to survive and thrive. Retrieved on 21/01/2020 from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/startswithabang/2017/07/25/humanity-needs-science-to-survive-and-%20thrive/#74f409a628ce

Introductory Blog – Saira Fitzgerald

My name is Saira Fitzgerald and I am a new visiting researcher at CASS. Thanks to Tony McEnery’s incredible help and support, I succeeded in obtaining a 2-year postdoctoral fellowship from Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). Luckily for me, SSHRC allowed the fellowship to be held outside Canada and CASS agreed to host my research under Tony’s supervision, which was a dream come true! Until COVID-19 hit and forced everything to close and go virtual. So like everyone else, I’ve had to work from home, participating in group meetings through various online platforms, which have been great but no substitute for in-person chats in sunny beautiful Lancaster and Bailrigg House.

My current research project builds on my doctoral research, which focussed on the International Baccalaureate (IB), a key player in the global education industry, and its impact on Canada’s public education policy. By using corpus linguistics, I was able to uncover discourses of discrimination and disadvantage that had become much more widespread and systemic than previously thought. This was an important finding in the context of Canada where education is a provincial responsibility and everyone appears to be doing their own thing. The absence of a unified national education system becomes more pronounced by the small-scale nature of IB research in Canada which is dominated by studies on individual provinces or schools. To get at the BIG picture, I needed a big data solution and corpus linguistics provided the way!

The impact of the IB on education policy can be seen on multiple levels (elementary, secondary, post-secondary, teacher training) but this tends to go unnoticed amidst other discussions about education. My aim now is to expand the scope of my enquiry to look at IB discourses on a global scale, conducting comparative and time-series studies to see what further insights we might discover about the IB’s influence over its 50-year history.

It’s easy to see why CASS is the perfect place to do this research!

 

New partnership between the ESRC Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Science and the Sydney Corpus Lab

We’re excited to announce that the University of Sydney, Australia and the University of Lancaster, UK have signed an MOU agreement to work on collaborative research in corpus linguistics. This new partnership builds on existing connections between the newly established Sydney Corpus Lab and the Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Science (CASS), which was founded in 2013. Last year, a CASS contingent attended the launch of the Sydney Corpus Lab in March 2019, and, in June 2019, A/Prof Monika Bednarek from Sydney was a Visiting Researcher at CASS. During her visit, we made plans for a new collaboration on representations of obesity in the Australian Press. This MOU now allows us to formalise this collaboration and to strengthen our existing research links.

Caption: CASS director Elena Semino (left) and Sydney Corpus Lab director Monika Bednarek (right) at the launch event in Sydney in March 2019

In the immediate future, CASS will build a corpus of Australian news items about obesity, and will advise on the analysis, based on a current project on representations of obesity in the UK Press. The Sydney Corpus Lab will analyse the Australian corpus, with the help of a new postgraduate research scholarship funded by the Charles Perkins Centre and the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Sydney.

The project will explore:

  • Existing media guidelines around the reporting of obesity
  • The use of the words obesity and obese in the Australian news media
  • The impact of the Obesity Collective’s campaign to shift the narrative away from stigma and blame
  • How obesity is represented more generally in the Australian news media, over time and across newspapers

Researchers from the Sydney Corpus Lab and CASS will collaborate on the dissemination of findings, including engagement with research users. We will work with the Obesity Collective and health journalism expert and educator Dr Catriona Bonfiglioli (University of Technology, Sydney) to help steer our analytical focus and for successful impact outside academia.

The MOU also includes mutual visits, and CASS Senior Research Associate Gavin Brookes is already planning to visit Sydney in July 2020, for research meetings and to present a talk at the Corpus Linguistics Down Under symposium.

Watch this space for updates on these activities and announcement of future collaborative initiatives between Lancaster and Sydney!

 

Representing trans people in the UK press – a follow-up study

I do not identify as trans, nor did I carry out this research for profit or because I am an activist. I approached the subject from the position of allowing the data to speak for itself, and the corpus methods I use rely on computational techniques that are unbiased – computer software identifies the most frequent words, phrases and combinations of words, which then have to be accounted for by the analyst.

Introduction

A few years ago I published the “corpus linguistics” chapter in an edited collection relating to different methods of carrying out critical discourse studies. As a case study for the chapter, I decided to look at the representation of trans people in the British press. At the time there had been a disapproving article about a trans person who was also a school-teacher in The Daily Mail who had committed suicide three months later, while another article published in the Observer, one of the more respectable Sunday broadsheet newspapers, had used pejorative phrases about trans people like ‘a bunch of bed-wetters in bad wigs’ and ‘screaming mimis’. I wanted to use corpus approaches to see whether these articles were typical of the general press discussion around trans people or whether they stood out as unusually harsh. I built a (small by corpus linguistics standards) corpus of around 900 articles, just from 2012 and used traditional corpus methods (keywords, collocates, concordancing) to examine a range of words like transgender, transsexual and trannie. My analysis found that the two articles mentioned above were at the extreme end of a continuum, although:

“the analysis did find a great deal of evidence to support the view that trans people are regularly represented in reasonably large sections of the press as receiving special treatment lest they be offended, as victims or villains, as involved in transient relationships or sex scandals, as the object of jokes about their appearance or sexual organs and as attention-seeking freakish objects. There were a scattering of more positive representations but they were not as easy to locate and tended to appear as isolated cases, rather than occurring repeatedly as trends.” (Baker 2014)

I was recently approached by the charity Mermaids UK who asked me if I would carry out an updated analysis of more recent press representation. This time I collected data from the previous 2 years (21 October 2017 to 21 October 2019), resulting in a larger corpus of around 6,400 articles, indicating that there were around 3 and a half times as many articles written about trans people in this later period. In terms of news values, trans people are seen as rather more newsworthy these days. So has the discourse around them changed?

Changing Labels

In terms of how the press refer to trans people, in 2012, the most common term by far was transgender. In 2018-19, transgender and trans were about of equally frequency, this being mostly an effect of the Guardian and Observer showing a strong preference for trans. Terms I had expected that would have died out, like sex-change and transsexual, had decreased somewhat but were still being used about once every other day, with the Mail, Telegraph and Times making the bulk of such cases. Another decreasing term, tranny occurred about once a fortnight. In 2012 it was used to imply bad taste, outlandishness, sex romps or the subject of jokes. The term was a particular favourite term of journalist AA Gill (who used it in bizarre ways like tranny panto and tranny centaur night out). However, in 2018-19 it was now mainly acknowledged as a bullying term (AA Gill died in 2016). The rather jarring use of transgender(s) as a noun (“How about One Guy, A Girl, A Transgender and Two Nonbinary Persons” (The Sun)), occurred 37 times in 2018-19 (there was only 1 such usage in 2012).

Collocates of trans(gender)

Examining the contexts that trans and transgender people were written in showed one of the most notable changes though. I’d noted in 2012 that transgender people were implied to be quick to take offence – in that year there were 8 cases of trans(gender) co-occurring with words like angry, clash, complaint, fury, offended, outrage, row, spat, upset and wrath. There were enormous increases of this representation in 2018-19 though – 586 cases. While a small number of these cases don’t attribute trans people as being the ones who are cast as angry or complaining, the vast majority do – and the wider point is that trans people are being discussed as being at the centre of controversy. A similar set of words which relate to conflict including aggressive, demand, harassed, bullied, confronted, lunge, militant, outspoken, pressure and threat saw a similar pattern – 5 cases of these kinds of words appearing near trans(gender) in 2012, but 334 cases in 2018-19. The result is that trans people are constructed as newsworthy because they are difficult, angry, easily offended (and often unreasonably so).

Scout leaders have been told to avoid referring to children as boys and girls to ensure transgender members are not offended. (Mail on Sunday)

A transgender woman is demanding an apology and £2,500 compensation after claiming she was called “sir” by rail company staff. (Times, March 16, 2019)

It’s not a new representation. I saw the same thing when I looked at news stories about gay people in the early 2000s, Muslims in the 2000s and feminists in the 1990s and 2000s. Another representation (also used on gay people) was to link trans people with crime, connecting them to words like killer, prisoner, lag, criminal, murderer, rapist, jail and kill. These words occurred with trans(gender) 3 times in 2012, but 608 times in 2018-19.

It’s crazy to give trans prisoners everything they say they want,’ said chair Janice Williams. Why wouldn’t they lie in the circumstances? (Daily Mail)

Women’s jail holds trans lag born lad (The Sun, September 13, 2019)

Some of the trans brigade advocate the murder of Terfs as the best course. (Telegraph, 12 January 2019)

Transphobia, trans children and the trans lobby

What about more general contexts? What topics are trans people talked about in relation to more, or less these days? Here we see potentially a change for the better. Topics that now take up less space in the overall debate involve references to transvestites and ladyboys as well as discussion of implants, the clothing worn by trans people and their ability to “pass” as a particular gender. There’s less of the inappropriate prurience in trans people that’s associated with sitcom characters like Alan Partridge. In its place, the biggest area of growth is in stories relating to transphobia and discrimination, although there were also increases in references to transitioning, inclusivity and gender-neutral pronouns.

Lest we think that references to transphobia indicate that the press are overall more concerned about trans people being abused, a closer look indicates this is not always the case. Although such references are 112 times more frequent in 2018-9 compared to 2012, 15% of the 2018-19 mentions put the word transphobia in quotes, implying authorial distance or even rejection of the term.

A transgender teenager who demanded the removal of a female Labour member from her post as women’s officer over her allegedly “transphobic” views has been elected to the post in her local Labour party. (The Times, November 20, 2017)

I took 100 random cases of transphobia and related words like transphobe and looked at them in more detail. Approximately half (47) used the term to raise questions about its validity – either using the distancing quotes, referring to “supposed” or “alleged” transphobia, mentioned the way that the accusers behave: e.g. “howled down as transphobia” or simply baldly stating that something is not transphobia.

An analysis of the term trans(gender) children found a slightly better picture. That term doesn’t occur in the distancing scare quotes – so the concept of trans(gender) children appears to be more accepted in the press than the concept of transphobia. An analysis of 100 random cases found 56 that accepted the existence of trans children and/or advocated that they should receive support. Thirty seven cases were more disapproving, either suggesting that children who identify as trans should not be supported in transitioning or that efforts to support them (e.g. through pronoun stickers or gender-neutral toilets) are unnecessary, even unhelpful. A further seven cases appear more neutral, noting that this is an issue which divides people but not clearly coming down on either side. It’s very rare to find voices of trans(gender) children in these press articles.

A final change relates to the increase in the phrase trans(gender) lobby. There were no mentions of this phrase in 2012. In contrast, 2018-19 saw 151 mentions of it, with over 90% of such cases writing about it in a negative way (e.g. as silencing debate, peddling politically-correct fallacies, being deranged or aggressively militant). The transgender lobby is described in somewhat contradictory terms across the press. At times, journalists go out of their way to stress that it is unimportant, referring to it as miniscule and doomed, yet at other times it is described as powerful, hegemonic and influential (with the implication that it should not be these things).

Conclusion

The UK press wrote over 6,000 articles about trans people in 2018-19. On the surface there appear to have been improvements – the more sexualising and joking uses of language around trans people have reduced since 2012 and there are many more stories around transphobia and inclusivity. However, there are large swathes of the press which write about these topics in order to be critical of trans people and many articles which consequently paint trans people as unreasonable and aggressive. The picture suggests that the conservative press and most of the tabloids have shifted from an openly hostile and ridiculing stance on trans people towards a carefully worded but still very negative stance.

Reference

Baker, P. (2014) ‘”Bad wigs and screaming mimis”: Using corpus-Assisted techniques to carry out critical discourse analysis of the representation of trans people in the British press.’ In C. Hart and P. Cap (eds) Contemporary Critical Discourse Studies. London, Bloomsbury: 211-236.

Time to Celebrate: Trinity Lancaster Corpus

On Wednesday 30 October, The ESRC Centre for Corpus Approaches (CASS) organised a small get-together in its new location, Bailrigg House, to celebrate the research that is being carried out at the centre. Specifically, on this occasion, we wanted to highlight the Trinity Lancaster Corpus, a corpus of spoken learner English built in collaboration between Lancaster University and Trinity College London.

Cutting the cake with the Trinity Lancaster Corpus logo

We are really proud of the corpus, which is the largest learner corpus of its kind. It took us over five years to complete this part of the project. Here are a few numbers that describe the Trinity Lancaster Corpus:

  • Over 2,000 transcripts
  • Over 4.2 million words
  • Over 3,500 hours of transcription time
  • Over 10 L1 and cultural backgrounds
  • Up to four speaking tasks

A balanced sample of the corpus is now available for online searching via TLC Hub (password: Lancaster1964). To read more about the corpus and its development, check out this article in the International Journal of Learner Corpus Research:

Gablasova, D., Brezina, V., & McEnery, T. (2019). The Trinity Lancaster Corpus: Development, Description and ApplicationInternational Journal of Learner Corpus Research5(2), 126-158. [open access]

A new special issue of the journal featuring articles on various aspects of learner language, which use the Trinity Lancaster Corpus as their primary data source, is available from this link.

Table of contents of the special issue of the International Journal of Learner Corpus Research

A cake to celebrate the Trinity Lancaster Corpus

Celebrations at CASS

Celebrations at CASS (posters featuring research on TLC in the background)