The rhetoric of reportage: The media construction of a pandemic
In disease outbreak situations, the media are considered (and relied upon) by authorities to “translate” information across disciplinary boundaries. A reporter covering the 2003 SARS outbreak observed that journalists “are often conscious of their role as participants in a human crisis” (World Health Organization). Consequently, a pandemic presents a unique rhetorical situation to journalists. As significant intermediaries in public health messaging, journalist-rhetors help frame the narrative of a disease outbreak for lay audiences and influence whether those audiences implement protective behavioral changes. While the literature implicitly acknowledges issues of motivation in the media industry as a whole, little work has yet appeared to examine strategies specific to individual acts of reportage. Through comparative analyses of media portrayals of the 2009 H1N1 influenza outbreak before the nature of the threat became clear, this project explores rhetorical characteristics of the coverage in order to uncover implicit assumptions guiding public understanding of a high-risk health threat. Kenneth Burke’s method of cluster analysis yields insight into the symbolic processes embedded in a rhetorical artefact, enabling an interpretation of the rhetor’s worldview. Resulting worldviews can then be examined through a dramatistic lens. Burke also described the strategic adoption of “role” as an element of symbolic action. This study found that journalists purveyed widely different, even contradictory, worldviews, each with different impacts on audiences in terms of the interpretation and appropriate response to the threat. I argue that such divergences occur due to alienation arising from individual ethos in conflict with formal constraints in the new pandemic “scene.” Responses to alienation manifested in identifiably distinct roles. Identification with a particular role in pandemic reportage was reflected in the terminology of journalists studied. Through clusters of association and dissociation, journalists classed the threat as “mild” and rejected the term “pandemic,” as a serious threat but one that could be managed, or as an apocalyptic threat against which there was no defence, with all stances occurring simultaneously in time. Ramifications for the lay public ranged from the location of protection with public health officials, invitations to engage in processes of Othering, or the amplification of the cataclysmic nature of the scene. As these stances differed in their portrayals of impacts on the lay public and thus ability to motivate behavioral change, an improved understanding of journalistic experience in the pandemic “scene” is crucial to improving communication aiming to protect the health of lay publics.
DegreeDoctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
CommitteeKhachatourians, George; Maule, Charles; Liu, Yin; Delbaere, Marjorie; Smith, Lisa; Wills, Jeanie
Copyright DateSeptember 2013