‘Face masks’ and ‘face coverings’ in the UK press during the Covid-19 pandemic: Scottish vs. national newspapers

Carmen Dayrell, Isobelle Clarke and Elena Semino (Lancaster University)

1 Introduction

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the use of face masks or face coverings as a means of reducing the transmission of the virus has been a major area of debate in many countries around the world. In the UK specifically, the first nine months of 2020 saw a rapid change from a view of face masks as a medical piece of PPE that would not be appropriate or acceptable for the general population, to the establishment of non-surgical face coverings as a recommended public health measure in indoor public spaces, such as buses and supermarkets. As with other aspects of the response to the pandemic, during that time there were differences in the approach to face masks/coverings between the Scottish devolved administration and the Westminster government.

Table 1 provides a timeline summary of policy decisions concerning face masks/coverings on public transport, shops and schools in Scotland and England. For the most part, in Scotland face coverings were recommended or made mandatory earlier than in England. They are also mandatory in corridors and communal areas in Scottish schools, whereas in England this is at the school’s discretion.

 Public transportShopsSchools
April(28th) Scotland (recommended)(28th) Scotland (recommended) 
May(11th) England (recommended)(11th) England (recommended) 
June(15th)England (mandatory) (22nd) Scotland (mandatory)  
July (10th) Scotland (mandatory) (24th) England (mandatory) 
August  (31st) Scotland (mandatory in corridors and communal areas)
September  (1st) England (school/college discretion in indoors communal areas)
Table 1 – Timeline of policy decisions about the wearing of face coverings by the general public in Scotland vs. England.

Scotland has also had a lower incidence of Covid-19 than England. According to official UK government data, as of 30th December 23 people per 1,000 had had at least one positive Covid-19 test in Scotland, in contrast with 39 people per 1,000 in England.

This blog post is concerned with references to face masks and face coverings in Scottish vs. national UK newspapers between December 2019 and August 2020, that is from the start of reports about a new type of pneumonia in Wuhan, China, up to the beginning of the 2020-21 school year in the UK.

2 Research questions

Overarching research question

How does press reporting on face masks and face coverings in Scotland compare with national UK reporting between December 2019 and August 2020?

Specific research questions

  1. How did the frequency of use of ‘face covering(s)’ vs. ‘face mask(s)’ change over time in Scottish vs. national press reporting?
  2. Were there any statistically significant differences in the relative frequencies of the use of ‘face mask(s)’ and ‘face covering(s)’, and of terms relating to places where face masks/coverings may be used, in Scottish vs. national press reporting?
  3. What are the differences and similarities in the collocations (co-occurrence of words) of ‘face mask(s)’ vs. ‘face covering(s)’ in Scottish and national press reporting?

3 Findings in brief

Finding 1 – Over time, ‘face covering(s)’ became more frequent than ‘face mask(s)’ in the Scottish press, but not in the national press.

Finding 2 – ‘Face covering(s)’ are mentioned much more often, relatively speaking, in the Scottish press than in the national press, alongside other terms for public indoor environments where they may be worn.

Finding 3 – Face ‘mask(s)’ and ‘covering(s)’ have partly different collocates, reflecting differences in status and associated narratives.

4 Data

The news aggregator service LexisNexis was used to collect articles that contained either the phrase ‘face mask(s)’ or ‘face covering(s)’ and that were published in a selection of national and Scottish newspapers in the period between 01.12.2019 and 31.08.2020.

Table 2 provides the numbers of texts and words included in each of the resulting two corpora: the Scottish Corpus and the National Corpus. For the National Corpus, we also provide figures for articles extracted from ‘broadsheet’ vs. ‘tabloid’ newspapers, constituting the Broadsheet and Tabloid subcorpora. (NB: For the national newspapers specifically, we selected the national editions only, thus excluding the Irish, Scottish and Northern Ireland editions.). Figures 1 to 4 below show the number of articles per newspaper title within each corpus.

CorpusNumber of textsNumber of Words
National corpus11,53619,401,316
 The Broadsheet subcorpus6,63116,657,194
 The Tabloid subcorpus2,4191,264,952
Scottish corpus1,084588,894
Table 2: Number of texts and total number of words comprising each corpus
Figure 1: Number of texts from each national title

Figure 2: Number of texts from each broadsheet title
Figure 3: Number of texts from each tabloid title

Figure 4: Number of texts from each Scottish newspaper title

The Broadsheet subcorpus is by far the largest of all datasets, both in terms of the number of texts and the number of words (Table 2). Within that subcorpus, The Guardian and The Observer account for the highest number of articles, corresponding to 36% of texts and 83% of the words in that subcorpus (13,744,333 out of 16,657,194). The number of texts is more evenly distributed in the Tabloid subcorpus (Figure 3). The Daily Mail accounts for the largest number of texts (20%) but it is closely followed by The Express, The Sun and Evening Standard (17% and 15% each respectively). Within the Scottish corpus, most texts come from The Daily Record and The National (32% each).

5 Method

To answer question 1.a, we plotted the frequencies of the search terms used to collect the texts that comprise the corpora, ‘face mask(s)’ and ‘face covering(s)’. These figures give us an indication of how the level of attention fluctuated in the National and Scottish press throughout time.

To answer question 1.b, we carried out a ‘keyword’ analysis of the Scottish Corpus as compared with the National Corpus as a whole. Keywords are words that are much more frequent in a corpus of interest (known as the ‘study’ corpus) than they are in another corpus (known as the ‘reference corpus’), where the difference is statistically significant. They can be interpreted as reflecting the most distinctive concepts and themes in a particular corpus. The analysis was carried out using WordSmith Tools, version 7.

For the calculation of keywords, we established that the candidate keyword should occur in at least 5% of texts in the study corpus. This thus determined the minimum frequency of each term, which varied from one corpus to another. The minimum frequency was 577 instances in the National Corpus and 54 in the Scottish Corpus. In terms of statistical tests, we combined the log-likelihood test (a statistical measure of confidence) with log-ratio as the effect size measure, using the following threshold: a critical value higher than 15.13 (p < 0.001) for the log-likelihood test and 1.5 as the minimum log-ratio score, discarding negative scores. Keywords were then grouped by theme through close reading of the concordance lines, that is, individual occurrences of each word with the preceding and following stretches of text.

To answer question 1.c, we carried out a ‘collocation’ analysis of the terms ‘face mask(s)’ and ‘face covering(s)’. Collocation analyses explore co-occurrence relationships between words, and therefore make it possible to study the narratives or discourses that a word is part of. A word collocates with another if it is more likely to be found in close proximity to the other word than elsewhere. Collocations were generated by means of the software package LancsBox, on the basis of the criteria below:

  • Span of 5:5 – a window of five words to the left and five words to the right of the search word.
  • Mutual Information (MI) score ≥ 6. MI is a statistical procedure widely employed in corpus studies to indicate how strong the association between two words is. It is calculated by considering their frequency of co-occurrence in relation to their frequencies when occurring independently in each corpus.
  • Minimum frequency of collocation: 10 occurrences per 1,000 instances of term in question. For example, ‘face mask(s)’ occurs 1,672 times in the Welsh corpus; the minimum frequency of collocation was therefore 17 instances.

Similar to the analysis of keywords, collocations were analysed by close reading of their concordance lines.

6 Findings

Finding 1 – Over time, ‘face covering(s)’ became more frequent than ‘face mask(s)’ in the Scottish press, but not in national press.

Figures 5-6 show the frequency distribution of the terms ‘face mask(s)’ and ‘face covering(s)’ in the two corpora across time, considering the relative frequencies of terms (per 100,000 words). Note that the scale varies from one chart to another; that is due to differences in the amount of data from each corpus.


Figure 5: Relative frequencies of ‘face covering(s)’ and ‘face mask(s)’ in the National Corpus

Figure 6: Relative frequencies of ‘face covering(s)’ and ‘face mask(s)’ in the Scottish Corpus

As can be seen, both corpora show a clear preference for the term ‘face mask(s)’ in the early months, from December 2019 to March 2020, with hardly any mention of the term ‘face covering(s)’. Scottish newspapers seem to have embraced the term first, with mentions of ‘face covering(s)’ increasing swiftly in April 2020, corresponding to nearly half of the number of mentions of ‘face mask(s)’ in that month (83 as compared with 181 instances). National newspapers showed a modest increase in the mentions of ‘face covering(s)’ in April; the term ‘face mask(s)’ was nearly six times more frequent than ‘face covering(s)’ in the national newspapers (2,241 in relation to 386 instances). Mentions of ‘face covering(s)’ continued to rise across both corpora in the following months. In May, they represented about half of the number of mentions of ‘face mask(s)’ in the Scottish corpus and about a third in the National Corpus. By June, mentions of ‘face covering(s)’ surpassed those of ‘face mask(s)’ in Scottish newspapers. In national newspapers, ‘face mask(s)’ remained more frequent than ‘face covering(s)’ across the entire period.

Finding 2 – ‘Face covering(s)’ are mentioned much more often, relatively speaking, in the Scottish press than in the national press, alongside other terms for public indoor environments where they may be worn.

The words ‘covering’ and ‘coverings’, which tend to occur in the phrase ‘face covering(s)’, were found to be ‘key’ or ‘overused’ in the Scottish as compared with the National Corpus. In other words, ‘covering’ and ‘coverings’ are used much more often, in terms of relative frequencies, in the Scottish Corpus than in the National Corpus, based on our thresholds for effect size (log-ratio) and statistical significance (log-likelihood). However, based on the same thresholds, the word ‘mask(s)’ is not overused in the National corpus as compared with the Scottish Corpus. This means that ‘covering(s)’ in the Scottish Corpus is not in complementary distribution to ‘mask(s)’ in the National Corpus.

Overall, the keyword calculation retrieved 41 overused items in the Scottish Corpus, using the National corpus as reference in both. Table 3 includes the complete lists of keywords in the Scottish Corpus, grouped thematically and then ordered by their frequency of occurrence in the corpus.

Table 3 shows that the keywords in the Scottish Corpus include three other terms that are related to face coverings (‘mandatory’, ‘worn’ and ‘mouth’) as well as groups of words that relate to the different environments where face coverings may or may not be recommended or mandatory: Space (e.g. ‘indoor’, ‘outdoor’, ‘household’), Retail/hospitality (e.g. ‘shop’, ‘hospitality’) and Education (e.g. ‘pupils’, ‘teachers’).

Table 3: ‘Keywords’ in the Scottish Corpus, grouped by theme

The overuse of the word ‘kids’ reflects discussions about the age at which face masks/coverings should be made compulsory, as expressed by a reader’s comment published by The Glasgow Evening Times (Extract 1):

(1) “I AM so confused myself. Our kids are going with no distancing and in shops and malls and cinemas and public transport and airports. There is this hype of distancing. Which one is right? Are the poor kids so strong that they will not catch it at all and will not bring anything back home to their elderly grans etc? So illogical!” (The Glasgow Evening Times, 21.08.2020)

  • The keywords also include a group that is to do with Other Measures to reduce contagion, particularly in public spaces such as shops, restaurants and pubs (e.g. ‘screens’, ‘two-metre’). This is because face coverings are often presented as necessary when those other measures are not practicable:

(2) The government guidance says: “If you can, wear a face covering in an enclosed space where social distancing isn’t possible and where you will come into contact with people you do not normally meet. (The National, 25.06.2020).

Finding 3 – Face ‘mask(s)’ and ‘covering(s)’ have partly different collocates, reflecting differences in status and associated narratives.

We now examine the collocates of ‘face mask(s)’ and ‘face covering(s)’ in the two corpora. These are listed in Tables 4 and 5, in decreasing order of frequency of co-occurrence with each term.


Table 4: Collocations of ‘face mask(s)’ and ‘face covering(s)’ in the Scottish Corpus

Table 5: Collocations of ‘face mask(s)’ and ‘face covering(s)’ in the National Corpus

Five words appeared as collocates of both ‘face mask(s)’ and ‘face covering(s)’ in both corpora. These are: three different forms of the verb ‘wear’ (‘wear’, ‘wearing’, ‘worn’), ‘compulsory’ and ‘mandatory’. These suggest that ‘mask(s)’ and ‘covering(s)’ are both used in the context of debates and decisions about the need or obligation to wear them in certain settings.

Figure 7: Instances of ‘face mask(s)’ in the Scottish Corpus

However, the collocates that only apply to ‘face mask(s)’ show that they tend to be talked about as a type of PPE in clinical or care settings (e.g. ‘protective’, ‘surgical’, ‘gloves’, ‘aprons’).

(3) Carers, many of whom are paid low wages by private sector firms, have complained they have not been provided with essential items such as hand sanitiser, gloves, aprons, and face masks. (The Independent, 24.03.2020)

In contrast, the collocates that only apply to ‘covering(s)’ show that they tend to be talked about as a non-medical item of clothing that is:

  • made of cloth and a potential fashion accessory or political statement (‘cloth’, ‘branded’);

(4) Currently no other party is selling branded face coverings, although many independent online shops stock masks with Union flag or political designs. (The National, 25.07.2020)

(5) Face coverings include scarves, a piece of cloth or a mask and certain travellers – such as people with disabilities or breathing difficulties – will be exempt. (The Daily Express, 06.06.2020)

  • recommended to be worn (e.g. ‘recommended’, ‘advised’);

(6) Earlier this week, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon recommended the limited use of face coverings – not necessarily masks – when social distancing is hard to maintain. (Glasgow Evening Times, 04.05.2020)

(7) Other precautions advised include wearing face coverings in public as much as possible, keeping two metres apart, avoiding physical contact with those outside one’s household and to be tested and isolate if told to do so. (The Telegraph 18.07.2020)

  • in specific indoor public settings (‘crowded’, ‘enclosed’; ‘shops’, ‘transport’);

(8) “However, we are recommending you do wear a cloth face covering if you are in an enclosed space with others where social distancing is difficult – for example, on public transport, or in a shop.” (The National, 28.04.2020)

(9) It is compulsory to wear face coverings on public transport, in shops and when collecting takeaway food. (The Sun, 14.08.2020)

  • by large sections of the population (‘secondary’, ‘pupils’, ‘passengers’).

(10) A SECONDARY school is asking pupils to wear face coverings as part of efforts to combat the spread of coronavirus. (The Herald, 23.08.2020)

(11) Passengers have been told to wear face coverings on public transport to prevent a further outbreak of coronavirus as Britain slowly emerges from the lockdown. (The Times, 12.05.2020)

What does not, however, emerge from the collocates of ‘face covering(s)’ in either corpus is a consistent message about their role in protecting others from droplets produced by the wearer, thus reducing transmission overall. This may partly explain ongoing opposition to or scepticism about the usefulness of face coverings during the pandemic.

7 Conclusions

Overall, in the period December 2019 – August 2020, reports on face mask(s)/covering(s) in the Scottish press contrasted with the national press in terms of: a preference for ‘face covering(s)’ over ‘face mask(s)’ from April 2020 onwards; and a greater concern for their use to mitigate the transmission of the virus in schools, shops and other public indoor environments. This can only be partly explained by the fact that the Westminster government made decisions about the recommended/mandatory use of face coverings in public indoor spaces slightly later than the Scottish devolved administration. The contrasting collocates of ‘face covering(s)’ vs. ‘face mask(s)’ confirm that they are associated with different settings and narratives: PPE in clinical/care settings vs. item of clothing/accessory to be worn in public indoor environments by the general population as a public health measure. In the period under consideration, the latter narrative was therefore increasingly prevalent in Scottish but not in national newspapers.

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