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Pandemic Stories: Rhetorical Motifs in Journalists’ Coverage of Biomedical Risk

Authors
  • Laidlaw, Tess1
  • 1 Mount Saint Vincent University, Halifax, NS, B3M 2J6, Canada , Halifax (Canada)
Type
Published Article
Journal
Minerva
Publisher
Springer Netherlands
Publication Date
Jul 24, 2019
Volume
57
Issue
4
Pages
433–451
Identifiers
DOI: 10.1007/s11024-019-09383-4
Source
Springer Nature
Keywords
License
Yellow

Abstract

This paper argues that journalists’ discursive actions in an outbreak context manifest in identifiable rhetorical motifs, which in turn influence the delivery of biomedical information by the media in such a context. Via a critical approach grounded in rhetorical theory, I identified three distinct rhetorical motifs influencing the reportage of health information in the early days of the H1N1 outbreak. A public-health motif was exhibited in texts featuring a particular health official and offering the statements of such an official as a mechanism of reassurance. A concealment-of-information motif was exhibited in texts emphasizing the importance of the transparency of health officials, and in texts demonstrating ambivalence about information provided by socially-sanctioned sources. Finally, in texts mythologizing the outbreak to the exclusion of other functions of the text (e.g., conveying who is at risk, protective behaviours, symptoms), I identified a pandemic motif. Each motif differs in the conclusions it offers to audiences seeking to gauge relative levels of risk, and to receive information about protective behaviours. I suggest that one means of interpreting the manifestation of distinct rhetorical motifs in the context of a high-risk health threat is the certainty that this context alters moral responsibilities, consequently influencing the manifestation of narrative role.

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