Everyday we are bombarded with metaphors of war from the media reporting on COVID-19. Dr Sylvia Jaworska from the Department of English Language and Applied Linguistics, asks whether the differences in language used by different nations is an indicator of how countries are dealing with the spread of the virus.
As soon as it became obvious that the new coronavirus posed a serious threat to public health in Britain, newspapers across the country were competing with each other to frame the virus in terms of war and combat.
Our intentional research network on viral discourse and analysis of media coverage has seen a notable difference in the language used by different nations. UK and US journalists appear to rely heavily on war rhetoric when reporting on the current health crisis, but their German counterparts avoid this type of language and instead use more scientific vocabulary.
I collected articles about the Coronavirus and/or Covid-19 published between early January and late March 2020. On 11 March, The Daily Mail called on the public to summon up the “Blitz spirit” to face the coronavirus because “we are at war and need to deal with the outbreak in the same way our predecessors did”. The Sun followed suit by urging Brits to “invoke the spirit of the Blitz to beat the coronavirus” (17 March). The Guardian too, reported on “private hospitals joining the forces to fight the virus” (14 March) and scientists who ‘formed the new front in the battle against coronavirus” (13 March).
In the United States of America, on 20 March, The New York Times started using similar language, referring to “Our fight against coronavirus”. Using a linguistic big-data approach, it was clear that the UK and US media regularly use references to war and violence in their coverage of COVID-19, with words such as ‘battle’, ‘combat’, ‘defeat’ and ‘fight’ occurring very frequently. This type of rhetoric, mostly verbs to imply action, seems to be suggesting that the measures required to slow the pandemic are similar to those needed to win a war or fight.
Grounded in science
Analysis of news coverage from Germany shows a different trend. Verbs like ‘inform’, ‘investigate’, ‘test’ and ‘compare’ are heavily used in articles about COVID-19, suggesting an approach more grounded in science.
Germany began mass testing for COVID-19 well ahead of other European countries. The more scientific nature of the language used by the German media point to the significance of an approach grounded in science and also communication about the disease, focusing on testing and understanding COVID-19 as a disease rather than the traditional framing of an enemy.
The absence of war and violence metaphors also has historical reasons; war rhetoric and specifically words coined during the Nazi time are not typically used in German press discourse and are employed only in original historical references. Studying language used to describe illness is important for many reasons. Language not only reflects the world around us; it can also reinforce reasoning and influence the ways people act and behave.
Using war metaphors in health communication can be positive in mobilising public health efforts, but when it comes to patients, or those working on the ‘frontline’, it can have the opposite effect, causing increased distress and pressure, especially if they are not ‘winning the battle.’”
The reality is that the coronavirus doesn’t distinguish between ‘friends’ and ‘enemies’ and no matter our physical strength or character they will not be enough to slow the death rate on their own. Clear communication, along with effective testing and treatment options, will be what wins the fight against COVID-19.
Dr Jaworska and Professor Rodney Jones, also from the Department of English Language and Applied Linguistics at the University of Reading, have set up a network of international researchers from the UK, Hong Kong and China to explore the communications in traditional and social media about and during the current health crisis.
More information about their research can be found at: Viral Discourse.